Joshua Hitchens is a barrister with a practice which incorporates homelessness and social welfare law.
The Government has pledged to end rough sleeping by 2024. This is not the first Government to make such pledges, the Labour Government promised to eliminate rough sleeping by 2012. However, on the back of Covid-19, this Government is uniquely well placed to achieve its target.
The much heralded “Everyone In” initiative placed tens of thousands of rough sleepers into emergency accommodation during the pandemic, most of whom have moved on to permanent accommodation. The scheme is a remarkable success story. Housing officers, civil servants and ministers have worked tirelessly to deliver a scheme which a study in the Lancet suggests prevented tens of thousands of infections. It provides a foundation, which if built upon, could spell the end of rough sleeping on Britain’s streets.
But thousands remain on the streets and, if the Government is to deliver on its target, here is what I think Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary needs to do.
1. Make the economic case
During my time as an undergraduate at the LSE, the lecture I remember most vividly was by the economist, Professor Lord Stern. His 2006 review calculated that one per cent of global GDP was required to avert the worst effects of climate change. By contrast, failure to take any action would cost many times this figure. A coherent, clear economic case for meaningful change had a profound effect on policy makers.
A similar economic case must be made for ending rough sleeping. Once increased hospitalisation, early deaths, policing, social care, litigation and other costs of homelessness are factored in, it may be the cost of abolishing street homelessness is entirely offset by the consequential savings to the public purse. Once it is considered that having a home is the foundation of economic activity, allowing you to work, buy goods and become a contributor to the economy, it may well be that the abolition of rough sleeping delivers net returns to the public purse.
A detailed economic study of the abolition of rough sleeping would help Jenrick’s department make a compelling case to the Treasury for much needed cash. Further, it would have a considerable bearing on the funding decisions of hard-pressed local authorities who are primarily responsible for homelessness prevention.
2. Abolish priority need
A local authority only has an obligation to house you if they have reason to believe you are homeless, eligible for assistance and in priority need. You are in priority need if you are pregnant, have children that might live with you, are vulnerable or are homeless because of an emergency or disaster.
People I have represented who have been assessed as not vulnerable include rape victims, torture victims, disabled people and people with mental health conditions. The approach to vulnerability adopted by both the courts and local authorities is too often founded on contorted logic utterly divorced from the realities of those who are rendered homeless.
A local authority determining someone is not in priority need often leads to litigation, which comes at considerable expense to the public purse. Huge sums are spent by local authorities on private contractors such as Now Medical who are asses whether homeless people are vulnerable by reason of their conditions.
The system is costly, inefficient and leads to vulnerable people rough sleeping, this is incompatible with the Government’s aim of abolishing rough sleeping by 2024. The answer is to abolish the requirement of being in priority need. If you are unintentionally homeless and eligible for housing assistance then the State should accommodate you and help you get back on your feet. This may well ultimately save money, but in any event it is the only way the Government’s ambition is going to be realised.
3. Reform the No Recourse to Public Funds rule
No recourse to public funds means precisely that. It applies to most people from overseas who have not obtained indefinite leave to remain, which in most cases takes ten years of continuous lawful residence in the UK. Being NRPF means that you are not entitled to any housing assistance. In short, when the pandemic is over, it means if you find yourself homeless, tough luck. Some may take the view that it is only right that scarce public resources are focused on those who are British or have some other entitlement to benefits and state support. The problem is that the “NRPF” category covers a plethora of people. Some are overstayers or those who have come to the United Kingdom unlawfully. Others are people who have lawfully lived in this country for years, contributed to the exchequer and find themselves on the streets, though no fault of their own, with no avenue of obtaining help.
Those with spousal visas are generally subject to an NRPF condition. If, as happened in a case I was instructed in, your husband abused you to the point where you fear for your life, you would have a difficult choice. If you were rendered homeless by leaving your abusive partner, your local authority would not be able to lawfully provide you with accommodation and there is a risk you would end up on the streets. Too many women in the UK are dependent on charities in these circumstances.
Having a blanket prohibition on helping homeless people with NRPF is wrong. The same draconian rule applies to people in wildly different circumstances this leads to unjust outcomes and makes it impossible to abolish street homelessness.
4. Don’t end Everyone In
Everyone In’s radicalness is in its simplicity. The Government deserves credit for it. If someone is at risk of having to sleep rough, they should be accommodated. We don’t know precisely how many lives this scheme saved throughout Covid-19 as it stopped people catching and spreading the virus. But it also gave the Government the best hope possible of achieving an end to rough sleeping.
Whatever the protestations of the Housing and Communities Department press officers may be, the Government has started to bring the policy to an end. This is a mistake. The policy of accommodating everyone in short term accommodation and then working with local authorities to deliver long term, sustainable and hopefully self-supporting accommodation is the most direct, cost efficient means of ending rough sleeping. The Government shouldn’t squander the head start it has obtained by pulling the plug on the scheme and its funding now.
5. Reform Housing Authorities
In London, there are 32 authorities responsible for homelessness. The status quo leads to unseemly disputes between councils as to who is responsible for a rough sleeper. I was instructed in a case where a council responsible for a child suggested he wasn’t their problem because he was sleeping outside of a MacDonald’s in another Borough.
Responsibility for homelessness in London must be transferred to the Greater London Authority. Homeless people transit through different Boroughs making it unclear who precisely is responsible for them. When one Borough accommodates homeless people in another Borough, complaints regarding funding for public services often crop up. Most importantly, homelessness in London is a deep, strategic challenge which is impossible to address on a piece meal Borough by Borough basis.
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This Government has set itself a bold, historic challenge. It aims, twelve years after the last Government promised to do so, to abolish street homelessness. It has a unique opportunity to achieve this remarkable, laudable aim. The opportunity will be wasted unless the Treasury is generous, and the MHCLG bold in making radical and significant changes to the law and structure of local government.