No Direction Home
There are, on most nights, between 40 and 50 people sleeping rough within the town of Hastings. That’s according to current data collected by St Leonards mental health and wellbeing charity Seaview. They send a team out at 4 am three mornings a week to check, with the aim of connecting those they find with local services and available support. In the year to March 2018 a total of 317 individuals were thus identified as rough sleepers. Of these, about a third may have done it only once or twice, the rest on multiple occasions and in some cases permanently. The previous year 2016/17, the overall figure was 221; in 2015/16 it was 147; in 2014/15 93. In just the first three months of the current year to the end of June there have been 130. The figures are visibly going up, as they have done nationally for the past seven years.
The overwhelming majority of rough sleepers here are, by ethnicity, white British. About 75% are men. Age is wide ranging, but mainly between 30 and 60, though the proportion of under 30s is increasing, according to Seaview. Around 50% have local connections over several years. Almost all are identified as suffering from some kind of disability, most commonly mental illness.
Last week, James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, announced a national financial package which he said amounted to £100 million of investment over the next two years aimed at ‘halving’ rough sleeping in England within this period and ‘ending’ it by 2027. Critics questioned him immediately as to whether this was ‘new’ money sanctioned by the Treasury or already part of the Ministry’s budget now subject to re-allocation. It seemed on analysis to be a bit of both.
If that sum were divided between local authority districts in proportion to current numbers of such sleepers, the sum for Hastings and St Leonards should amount to around £1 million. But however much finds its way to Seaview (see column on page 3) and other providers on the front line, doesn’t that amount to an extra fund for purchasing buckets to catch the flow rather than turning off the tap?
One professional I have spoken to who used to work on homelessness in Hastings but is now employed similarly elsewhere puts a lot of blame on the indiscriminate roll-out of Universal Credit (UC). The attempt to lump all welfare benefits into a single system was intended to be ‘fairer and simpler’ according to its ministerial promoter Iain Duncan Smith, and it may look more administratively efficient from on high.
It was certainly designed to cut the welfare bill. But in practice claimants who have ‘chaotic’ lives, some illiterate and more computer illiterate, don’t cope, while the local support systems that used to assist them have had funds squeezed at the same time. UC payments are made on a monthly basis, with a waiting period of at least six weeks before an initial payment. It’s not difficult to see how that system in itself would operate as a bar to private sector tenancies.
Another professional with current experience of dealing with housing issues in Hastings, who also did not wish to be identified, confirms that it is very difficult to persuade the private sector to take on tenants whose finances are precarious – i.e. pretty much anyone who is either on Universal Credit or working on zero-hours contracts. From the point of view of tenants, the existing Housing Act regime, which allows any residential tenancy to be determined on two months’ notice after an initial six month period, leaves them permanently insecure; but, on the other hand, few private landlords want to risk getting saddled with tenants even for this period (not to mention the time and bother of getting and enforcing legal eviction notices through the increasingly tardy court system) if collection of rent on time looks at risk. Insurance policies available to landlords to guarantee rent payments are predicated on avoidance of benefit claimants as tenants. Private letting ads bear this out.
Our source goes on to reveal that Hastings Borough Council’s method of dealing with homelessness is to pay private landlords hugely inflated rents for ‘temporary’ housing of those in priority need. It’s a captive market: the Council has a statutory duty to house the vulnerable. And, of course, it’s also much better from the landlords’ point of view: not only can they charge rents much higher than on the open market but the payments are guaranteed.
‘Personalised Housing Plan’
All rough sleepers are arguably vulnerable, and the Homelessness Reduction Act of 2017 theoretically requires local authorities to ‘help prevent’ homelessness by intervening as soon as accommodation is at risk. This contrasts with the former regime in which councils would routinely dismiss any claims for alternative housing provision until the eviction bailiffs were actually at the door. However, it seems that in Hastings the change has been more cosmetic than real. The Council will now provide each applicant with a ‘personalised housing plan’. But if you don’t have family dependants and cannot show, by reference for instance to past mental health records or other institutional evidence, that you come within some official class of vulnerability, then you are unlikely to get much advice beyond being told to look at Friday Ad online.
There are, to be fair, three ‘supported accommodation’ properties in the town, each managed by Sanctuary Housing Association and containing self-contained units with some shared facilities: Bal Edmund in Upper Church Road, which caters for those with mental illness or disorder; Merrick House off Bohemia Road, which focusses on those with drug and alcohol afflictions; and Priory Avenue in Braybrooke. All are over-subscribed, and, while intended to be for relatively short stays to cater for acute need, they tend to provide an end point as there is nowhere to move on to.
An end to rough sleeping?
National charities such as Shelter were willing last week to give Mr Brokenshire some credit for targeting funding towards mental health support and treatment of drug misuse in order to reduce rough sleeping and homelessness. Polly Neate, its chief executive, was reported by the BBC to welcome the strategy as ‘an important step forward’. However, she went on to say: ‘We still need to tackle the chronic lack of genuinely affordable homes, deep instability of renting and problems with housing benefit that are leaving so many without a home’, and she called for a plan ‘to build many more social homes’.
Hastings property is still cheap in comparison with other towns in the south-east, so that any ‘new’ money made available from central government to deal with homelessness could have been directed at the purchase and provision of more supported housing of the sort managed by Sanctuary. Without this, the consensus among professionals here seems to be that the government’s stated aim of ending rough sleeping within nine years has little chance of success.
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