Between A Rock And A Hard Place
Austerity cuts to vital support services and resources, a shortage of available social housing and sites for building council houses are just some of the challenges being faced by HBC as it tries to tackle
a growing homelessness and housing crisis. By Emma Harwood
PICTURE: Colin Gibson
On the seafront, near the old bathing pool in West St Leonards, a group of people living in caravans and the bus shelter have been issued with an eviction notice by Hastings Borough Council.
At least one of the group, a pensioner living in the shelter, has been there since 2017, while others living in caravans parked in the spaces behind Grosvenor Gardens, have only recently moved in. However, the council, which has come under pressure both from residents who see it as as a growing ghetto, and from those who express concerns about their welfare, says it now has the legal power to remove the caravans.
Offers of support and temporary accommodation over the last two years have been taken up by some but others –who have complex needs -have declined help leaving the council in a tricky position.
Three empty caravans were removed from the site during the Hastings half-marathon, however by the Monday a further four had shown up, making a total of seven caravans now parked in the area. Whilst technically, East Sussex County Council has the authority to issue tickets for illegally parked vehicles it has refused to do so, forcing the HBC to spend over a year obtaining the eviction notice. However, for the newly parked caravans, HBC must start the process again.
“We don’t want to just shift them somewhere else.” said Councillor Andy Batsford, portfolio holder for Housing and Leisure. “So when these caravans become vacant, or the outreach team notice there’s nobody living there because they’ve moved on, then we remove the caravan.
“Some are happy to live here. You might say, why not? On the seafront in a caravan, it’s not the worst place to be. But some caravans are in such a poor state, there’s no sanitation, no direct plumbing, electricity or running water.
Also, we’re all responsible for keeping the town looking as good as it can do, and welcoming visitors and tourists.”
The issue highlights the challenges faced by HBC in tackling rising homelessness in the borough with limited available social housing and resources.
The Office for National Statistics in 2017 reported an increase of over 1,000 percent in the number of rough sleepers in Hastings. Ten years ago just three people were sleeping rough on Hastings streets, now that figure is around 43.
But this, as Cllr Batsford points out, is only the tip of the iceberg. There are 1,666 people on a waiting list for housing, many sleeping in unsuitable accommodation such as squats or friends’ sofas. All have been assessed as having a need, with 360 of them being classed as priority. However, due to limited availability of housing, most will wait an average of two years before a place becomes free.
HBC insists that anyone willing to engage with them who is either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless will receive help finding temporary accommodation. Assistance also includes paying rent or deposits, and providing a guarantor whilst liaising with landlords.
Hastings and Eastbourne have received £824,843 from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to tackle rough sleeping for 2019/20. Housing First – which started in September 2018 – helps the long term homeless who have complex needs by placing them in temporary accommodation, while providing support from mental health and other professionals. So far two people have been housed in permanent homes while 17 are in temporary accommodation under this scheme.
A further £310,000 will be spent on a preventative rapid rehousing pathway project which seeks to identify people at risk of becoming homeless or who have just become homeless.
And £20,000 funded by Hastings and Rother Clinical Commissioning Group, will be spent on work with rough sleepers.
However, these schemes, described by Cllr Batsford as “a sticking plaster”, are vulnerable since it is not known how long the funding will be available.
“We’re recruiting staff, putting in procedures, trying to build up relationships with people and gain their trust in the system, but we don’t even know if the funding’s going to be there next year.” he said.
Meanwhile the cost of providing temporary accommodation –around £750 a week for a family of three –is also a challenge. Last year HBC borrowed £2.5 million to buy houses for temporary accommodation in order to save on the enormous costs of housing people in bed and breakfasts. With nearly 16 houses purchased, the saving this year will be half a million pounds.
In addition, Hastings has a limited number of sites which could be developed in order to provide social housing. Sites in Bexhill Road and Harrow Lane are set to be developed shortly and will provide around 300 council homes. However, adding to the difficulty is the Government’s Right to Buy scheme, which means that once the council has built new housing, after three years tenants can buy their home, removing it from the council’s stock.
“At the moment councils across the country are reluctant to build council houses because they’re spending lots of time, money, resources, and then it just all gets sold from underneath you.”
Cllr Batsford said that while councils are looking for ways around the system to protect council homes from being sold off, such as the use of community land trusts and co-operatives, having a reduced council officer staff to pursue these ideas is also a challenge.
And while the council needs to build a large number of houses, homelessness is increasing because the safety net of support which was once available for people has diminished due to austerity cuts and the draconian rules of the Universal Credit System, which reduces or stops payments if an appointment is missed.
“If you hit the skids there’s no barriers any more.We’re picking people up now off the bottom, whereas before we were picking them up half way up.”
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