Homelessness: from crisis to opportunity

Published 20/05/2021   |   Last Updated 20/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes


This article is part of our 'What's next? Key issues for the Sixth Senedd' collection.

Has the pandemic given Wales a chance to end homelessness?

Homelessness and rough sleeping were already high on the political agenda in the Fifth Senedd. There was new legislation with more focus on prevention, a Senedd committee inquiry into rough sleeping, a new homelessness strategy from the Welsh Government and Crisis published its plan to end homelessness.

By 2019, an expert Homelessness Action Group was advising the government and a review was commissioned of the ‘priority need’ test that determines how much help a person who is homeless gets. A campaign for a legal right to adequate housing was up and running. The direction of travel was clear. But it’s the public health emergency that has speeded up the journey.

Doing things differently

£10 million of Welsh Government funding in March 2020 kickstarted the emergency response to homelessness during the pandemic. New statutory guidance to local authorities said people should get temporary accommodation if they needed it, and the additional funding ensured this happened. The new guidance was clear that local authorities should do all they could “to ensure no one is sleeping rough”. In effect, the guidance was removing legal barriers that had previously restricted who had the right to get help. The then Minister, Julie James, was clear that no one should be without suitable accommodation and support.

Somewhere to ‘stay safe’

By June 2020, over 2,000 people had been moved into emergency temporary accommodation. In addition to people who would have been considered a priority before the pandemic, like families with children, other groups were given shelter. So people sleeping rough or living in unsuitable, unsafe, insecure accommodation were offered a temporary home and support. Gone was the offer of a floor to sleep on in a night shelter or a shared room in a hostel. Having to ‘sofa surf’ was no longer the best people could hope for.

Local authorities worked with housing associations, third sector organisations and private landlords to help people into accommodation and to provide the support services they needed. Working with new partners, local authorities secured self-contained accommodation in hotels, holiday lets and student accommodation – accommodation that would otherwise be closed commercially because of the COVID-19 restrictions.

The initial effort to save lives appears to have paid off. Up to 26 June 2020, the Office for National Statistics found there were no deaths registered in Wales from COVID-19 of people who were identified as homeless. But re-housing so many people has created huge pressures on temporary accommodation.

At the end of February 2021, just over 6,000 homeless people (including nearly 1,300 dependent children under 16) were living in temporary accommodation.

Homelessness: Individuals in temporary accommodation at the end of each month, individuals moved into suitable long-term accommodation during the month and people placed into temporary accommodation during the month

The total number of homeless individuals living in temporary accommodation shows an upward trend. A total of 3,577 in August 2020 increasing to 5,952 in January 2021. The total number of homeless individuals placed into temporary accommodation each month has also increased. From 976 in August 2020 to 1,296 in January 2021. The number of individuals moved into suitable long term accommodation has varied between 427 in August 2020, 666 in October 2020 and 469 in January 2021.

Source: Welsh Government, Homelessness accommodation provision and rough sleeping. The data has not undergone the same level of quality assurance as official statistics and may be revised in future.

A long-term solution

Homelessness isn’t just about housing. But increasing the supply of affordable housing is vital to easing pressures on temporary accommodation and to preventing homelessness in the first place. Additional affordable homes are needed of the right size and in the right place, including more social rented homes. Smaller homes are needed for the many single people experiencing homeless, along with larger homes for extended families. And more homes are needed that better meet the needs of disabled people.

Increasing the supply of affordable housing will take a range of national, regional and local solutions that address the specific needs of communities. Solutions are needed that can help rural communities where few new homes are built and where there may be local pressures from the numbers of second homes. And community led solutions, like co-operative models, that can work in both rural and urban contexts need to be expanded.

The pandemic may have presented an opportunity to end homelessness and to put housing at the centre of the recovery This recovery could deliver modern, energy efficient low-carbon affordable homes, improve existing homes in the public and private sector and bring empty homes back into use. And all this has the potential to provide not just homes, but jobs and training opportunities.

What does ending homelessness look like?

The previous Welsh Government established an expert group in 2019 to answer this question. The Homelessness Action Group engaged with the sector, support providers, academics and people with lived experience of homelessness.

The Action Group’s second and main report set a framework of policies, approaches and plans with the aim of ending homelessness. It’s clear the group’s work has shaped the response to the pandemic.

By July 2020 an extra £50 million had been made available by the Welsh Government to support phase 2 of the homelessness response and the transformation of services. The aim was to move away from a reliance on unsuitable temporary accommodation and towards a rapid rehousing approach as called for by the Action Group.

What is rapid rehousing? Moving people into settled, secure and suitable homes as quickly as possibly as the default solution when homelessness cannot be prevented

Highlighting the links between homelessness and wider social issues, the Action Group’s recommendations call for universal prevention. This is based on the idea that homelessness isn’t a stand-alone issue and that factors like poverty and a wide range of adverse childhood experiences need to be addressed to “lay the foundations for ending homelessness”.

It calls for prevention to be targeted at certain groups proven to be at greater risk, such as vulnerable young people and people leaving care or prison. It also wants the legal duty to prevent homelessness to be extended across the wider public sector, not just placed at the door of housing services.  

In the third and final report, the Action Group sets out practical recommendations aimed at putting ‘rapid rehousing’ at the heart of the system for tackling homelessness, building on the pandemic response. It also focuses on partnerships needed across public services to end homelessness in a strategic, planned way and the impact of UK policy, like welfare reform.

New challenges

The Homelessness Action Group has set out the steps it sees as necessary to end homelessness. Will the new Welsh Government seek to implement those recommendations through an action plan, or will it put forward alternative proposals? Can the new government build on the achievements of the last year?

The next few months will present some major new challenges in this policy area:

  • Will there be a surge in demand placed on homelessness services when the current suspension of evictions is lifted?
  • Will the full economic impact of the pandemic result in more job losses and homelessness?
  • How will local authorities manage the growing pressure on temporary accommodation?
  • Will there need to be a return to the pre-pandemic approach of rationing access to temporary accommodation?

It’s widely recognised that homelessness and inadequate housing directly impacts on inequalities, health, education and the life chances of current and future generations. The challenge for the next Welsh Government is to provide the leadership that the Homelessness Action Group says is essential to deliver the homes, homelessness prevention and support services that are needed.

The previous Welsh Government said homelessness should be “rare, brief and un-repeated”. This pandemic appears to have provided the best opportunity to make that aspiration a reality. The big question is whether it can actually be achieved during the Sixth Senedd.

Article by Megan Jones and Jonathan Baxter, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament