Tackling homelessness is the big issue

By on 22/06/2010 in Blog

CLLR JOHN LINESCabinet Member for Housing, Councillor John Lines says the prevention of homelessness is better than cure.
The issue of homelessness is a major concern to us all and, as cabinet member for housing in the largest local authority in the UK, particularly so for me.

We are working against a backdrop of growing unemployment, home repossessions, family fragmentation and a troubling economic climate. Also, we've seen a reduction in the amount of affordable housing being built which is available to local authorities across the country.

Housing waiting lists are growing daily, as homeownership continues to be unaffordable for young people and those on low incomes. I continue to be taxed by the fact that the legal duties to alleviate homelessness rest solely with local authorities and wonder whether social landlords share that responsibility equitably, as partners should. Recent news about Westminster Council's decision to close applications for choice-based lettings until April 2011 is an indication of the huge demand from homeless families being faced by some authorities striving to meet another government target.

The legal route

We see in Inside Housing on a regular basis the outcome of homelessness case law, and appeals and decisions handed down from the Supreme Court. Surely the sheer number of cases suggests that relying just on the local authority to house the homeless isn't working.

However, I can't help but think that the lawyers who represent the individuals involved fail to understand that, whether they win or lose, they are not working to fix the system. Do they really believe that I and my officers don't want to help those most in need? These cases sometimes mean the rules are changed for the better but most of the time they mean we spend our homeless budget on legal fees rather than accommodation and support, and our homeless officers spend time dealing with legal cases rather than those who need help.

In Birmingham we deal with a significant number of homeless applications every year. In 2009, 93,600 households presented as homeless in England, of those 5,010 were in Birmingham – equating to 5.35 per cent of the national figure.

Until we resolve the tensions between actively committing to preventative measures, housing professionals and their partners will struggle to make any headway in meeting the needs of homeless households.

Young and vulnerable

We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of single vulnerable people presenting as homeless, struggling to find affordable accommodation and more than 25,000 households are registered on our waiting list for affordable housing.

So, you may well ask, are local authorities like Birmingham a soft touch? We believe losing your home can be an enormous and irrevocable occurrence and we try hard to balance our legal responsibilities with duties owed to families waiting patiently on the waiting list. The reality is, however, that there are not enough homes to go round – we all know this, whatever your political starting point.

So what is the answer?

The answer can only be a real and mutually beneficial partnership approach. Birmingham is lucky: we have two award-winning associations, in Midland Heart and St Basils, committed to alleviating homelessness at the tough end of the spectrum, youth homelessness and the longer term (usually) male 'career' hostel dwellers.

Incidentally, I applaud the recent stance of Maff Potts, in his new role as director of homelessness at the Salvation Army, trying to change the perception of the organisation's offer. We have to create true opportunities for the long-term homeless to change their lives for the better.

Through the delivery of the Places of Change programme nationally we are making a difference to the lives of the long-term homeless. In Birmingham, the recent £11.2 million Snow Hill development, in partnership with Midland Heart is transforming a 157-bed, direct access hostel into a mixed community facility for homeless people. The finished project will be a flagship scheme for the city and will provide 88 self-contained apartments for men and women. Residents and others will be supported through a programme of mentoring, skills development, work placement and training, with the aim of these individuals achieving employment and a better quality of life.

Prevention is definitely better than cure and that is what Birmingham and many other authorities are striving towards. But, when does prevention become gatekeeping?

I believe it is about intent; if you seek to prevent the spiral of personal and economic decline that homelessness can bring, that is prevention and that is when we really need our specialist providers for services such as family mediation and help with issues of domestic violence. It is not about reducing numbers and saving money. Supporting People funding is a great help in funding alternative pathways and housing choices. Becoming homeless is not the best route for anyone, certainly not children.

Going private

The private rented sector has a critical role to play in the provision of good quality accommodation, enabling an authority to make the best use of all existing stock across tenure types. What a disappointment that the last government failed to deliver the ambitions expressed in the office of the deputy prime minister's five-year plan, which could have allowed local housing authorities to discharge their duties into the private rented sector.

Finally, I am hopeful the new government will remember that local authorities are working in an environment of growing demand and lessening resources.

We all know that we need more housing if we are to tackle these ingrained problems. In the meantime, maybe we need some wider thinking and better protection against legal firms out to make a fast buck at the taxpayers' expense.

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