The headlines in the Chancellor’s Budget today were about a growing economy, more jobs, rising living standards and plans to achieve economic prosperity and full employment.
Although, if homelessness was considered as one of the ways of measuring a country’s economic prosperity then things are currently going in the wrong direction. According to official statistics there has been a 55% rise in rough sleeping in England since 2010 and a 36% rise in the number of homeless households.
Also just out today are the results from our annual Client Needs Survey, which takes account of the 1,940 clients we were supporting in our hostels and accommodation projects on 1 May 2015. Only 8% of our clients are in work. This may be because of other related factors, such as:
- No home – 52% of our clients have spent time sleeping rough
- Poor health – 44% have a significant physical health condition, and 72% experience problems with their mental health
- Substance use – 56% use drugs and/or alcohol problematically
- No support network – only 34% report having positive or supportive relationships with their parents and 25% with friends
- Skills gaps – 43% need support with budgeting their money
What does the Budget offer for people struggling with homelessness and related problems?
Having somewhere safe and affordable to live is crucial when it comes to finding a job and becoming financially independent.
Disappointingly, the Chancellor confirmed the government’s plan to remove automatic entitlement to housing benefit for 18 to 21 year olds. However, there was a commitment that exemptions would be made for vulnerable young people and ‘other hard cases’. We will be pressing the government on these exemptions and seeking a guarantee that 18 to 21 year olds will continue to be entitled to housing benefit if they need it to pay for somewhere safe to live, so they won’t be forced to resort to unsafe housing situations including rough sleeping.
We heard about plans to reduce social housing rents by 1% a year for four years and to freeze Local Housing Allowance – the amount of housing benefit private rented sector tenants can claim – over the same period, even though private sector rents will almost certainly rise. This will make it even harder for people who are already vulnerably housed to hang onto a home, and harder for people to move on from homelessness. Both measures are intended to bring down the housing benefit bill, but will limit the ability of landlords to provide the affordable, quality housing that is so desperately needed.
The Chancellor clearly linked building more homes with raising economic productivity and we hope the government takes the forthcoming spending review as an opportunity to focus on investment in more genuinely affordable housing.
Employment and Support Allowance
We disagree with the decision to bring down the Work Related Activity Group rate of Employment and Support Allowance for new claimants. We believe this will leave vulnerable people almost £30 a week worse off despite the very real problems that limit their ability to work, just like those described above.
Our survey shows that the majority (56%) of our clients are involved in working, volunteering, training or other activities that help to build skills and social networks. Taking away benefit payments for those with an illness or a disability makes it harder for people to keep up with the activities and appointments that are important to their recovery. We know from our clients that when their benefits are stopped because of a sanction this can cause anxiety, debt and reliance on food banks.
Instead, the government has a real opportunity to enable more people who have experienced homelessness to find and keep work by improving employment support programmes. This means getting better at identifying jobseekers who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and recognising that safe, stable housing is a crucial factor when it comes to successfully finding and keeping work. More should also be done to provide intensive, personalised support and to bring services together for individuals with multiple needs. For example, people shouldn’t be excluded from the mental health treatment they need because they are also battling drug or alcohol problems, but they often are.
We’re urging national and local government to do more to improve homeless health with our Homeless Health Charter and petition. We agree with Chancellor’s ambition for more jobs and better living standards and we will keep working to ensure more people who have experienced homelessness can find and keep a job.
Beatrice Orchard MCIPR
Public Affairs Coordinator St Mungo’s Broadway