The Welsh government has recently introduced a Housing Act with a new focus on early action to prevent homelessness. This post explores further how such a model can help people to lead thriving lives, while contributing more and costing less.
At Bow County Court in Newham, not far from Community Links, a young couple were recently handed down an eviction notice. The Shelter Housing Advisor at hand advised them that the bailiffs would not come for a few weeks and they should stay in their property until that time. As the article they were featured in described; “such is the madness and complexity of the UK’s housing rules that if you leave your property a moment before the bailiffs come to evict you, you’re “voluntarily” homeless and ineligible for support.”
This is just one example of the flaws in the social security system that Community Links’ Early Action Force is trying to transform. The idea is to build “fences at the top of the cliff, rather than waiting for the ambulance at the bottom”.
It is a welcome announcement then, that the English government has begun to consider the possibility of introducing an additional ‘prevention duty’ for local authorities working on homelessness. This additional duty was inspired by the new approach that the Welsh government has taken towards homelessness, as outlined in the Housing (Wales) Act 2014.
The new Act revolutionises the Welsh government’s approach to homelessness, focusing on preventing the problem, rather than waiting for it to occur and then dealing with the consequences. It is a new, inclusive system designed to help everyone at risk rather than just those in priority groups. The significant early action elements are new preventative duties to help anyone threatened with homelessness within the following 56 days by preventing situations from escalating and to enable any homeless person to secure a home.
Of course, this approach is extremely new so it is difficult to fully evaluate the success of the model. However, reviews so far describe the “overall picture [of the Welsh approach as] an encouraging start with homelessness being successfully prevented for the majority of households.”
Enabling people to lead thriving lives
A major strength of the Welsh approach to homelessness is the focus on earlier action; assisting anyone at risk of homelessness before they lose their home. This means the very real impact of ensuring that people do not have to go through the traumatic experience of eviction and homelessness. Although some of this prevention work was being carried out previously by local authorities, the new legislation now gives people a legal duty to assistance and ensures this is measured. Between July and December 2015 3,605 households were assisted under the new prevention duty with a success rate of 64.8 per cent.
The new legislation also requires local authorities to take a person-centred approach through the use of Personal Housing Plans which are jointly developed with the client. These plans don’t just evaluate immediate housing problems but also consider underlying issues, with the intention that resolving these issues should help reduce any future possibility of facing the risk of homelessness again.
Evidence from Shelter Cymru highlights that despite an increase in people facing homelessness, their caseworkers are achieving better prevention rates than ever before. They credit the new Act for assisting them in achieving a prevention rate of 93% – a new record for the charity.
Data from the Welsh Government also indicates that single people are benefitting more from the new legislation. Between July and December 2015 the success rate for single households was 57.6 per cent, only slightly lower than the figure for all households. This is a significant achievement for Welsh local authorities given the shortage of single accommodation in Wales; demonstrating that they are embracing the duty to help households prevent homelessness on an equal basis, despite single households previously having few rights to homelessness assistance.
Source: Shelter (April 2016)
It is clear that the transition to a preventative approach towards homeless would need additional funding at the outset. In Wales, the Welsh Government has provided an extra £5.6 million in funding to local authorities, with the money to be spent at the authorities’ discretion, provided it prevents or relieves homelessness.
It may initially appear that the early action approach comes at a higher price; however, the significant direct and indirect costs of homelessness must be considered. The staffing and legal costs required to carry out evictions are huge. There are also the indirect costs caused by homelessness on the NHS, the police and justice system, and social services. A government evidence review on the cost of homelessness in 2012 put the figure at around £1bn (gross) annually and this is only likely to have increased given the rise in homelessness over the past four years.
There has not yet been any research conducted on the financial impact of the Welsh homelessness model but as with other preventative action and given the high costs of homelessness, it is likely to prove more cost effective than acute spending in the longer term.
A preventative model that works(?)
The Housing (Wales) Act 2014 is certainly a trailblazer in homelessness prevention, and the early feedback seems positive.
There has been some criticism of elements of the Act such as the removal of priority need for prison leavers, and the introduction of the ability to discharge duty once tenants have been in private sector accommodation for more than 6 months or if they ‘fail to cooperate’ with their Personal Housing Plans. There is also evidence that local authorities are not adopting the legislation in a consistent manner. It remains to be seen if these issues will prevent the Act from providing a sustainable solution to homelessness in Wales.
However, the paradigm shift in thinking by the Welsh government should be welcomed and it is very encouraging to see this early action approach adopted at a systemic level. We hope that the new Act will further influence the English government to consider a homelessness prevention duty, to ensure that our housing system allows people to lead thriving lives, contributes more, and costs less.