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Frontline stories: tackling homelessness in the cost of living crisis

In the autumn of 2022, Xenia Levantis talked with Charlie Berry, a policy officer at Shelter, leading on homelessness prevention and welfare policy.

XL: Since the pandemic and in the current cost of living crisis, there has been increased use of food, hygiene and warm banks alongside spiralling household costs. Is Shelter facing increased demand?


Yes. At Shelter, we think that housing is a neglected aspect of the cost of living crisis. There’s lots of talk about rising fuel bills, but some people were only just about managing to afford their homes before. Our emergency helpline receives over 1,000 calls a day. We’re hearing from people who have nothing to cut back on who are worried about keeping a roof over their heads.

The latest homelessness statistics show that over 74,000 households in England approached their local council because they are homeless or threatened with homelessness in the first three months of this year.

The scale of this is very worrying. We were already in a housing emergency and the cost of living crisis has compounded this. Almost half of private renters have no savings at all. These people are at risk of losing their homes because they don't have any flexibility in their budgets when other costs rise.

XL: Shelter is a charity with its own increasing overhead costs coupled with expanding demands for its services. Are you able to raise sufficient funds to meet people’s needs, particularly in winter months?


Like other charities, the pandemic was challenging because our shops had to close, which had an impact on our fundraising. But we've been overwhelmed by the generosity particularly of individual people and corporate partners who have stepped in over the last few years. The road is still quite uncertain – there are worries for the charity if there is to be a recession. But we will be there for people through all seasons.

XL: Sometimes there are misconceptions about what constitutes homelessness. What are some of the definitions?


There are many ways of defining this. The statutory definition of being homeless is not limited to a person who has lost a place to live. It includes living somewhere that is not a suitable home, potentially because it is overcrowded or in disrepair. Anyone that meets this definition, or is under threat of becoming homeless within eight weeks, can request help from their council. Councils have a responsibility to prevent homelessness through a relief duty.

What lots of people think of as homelessness is actually rough sleeping or street homelessness. The data on rough sleeping do not account for the full scale of the problem. We know that some groups, such as women, do not feel safe sleeping out in the open on the streets. They tend to find somewhere hidden – on public transport, in abandoned buildings or under railway bridges – to sleep. This means that women are underrepresented in the official counts and public impressions of rough sleeping.

There are also homeless people living in temporary accommodation. Figures show that over 119,000 children are sleeping in such circumstances. This could be in one room occupied by an entire family in a hostel, sharing facilities with other households. Thankfully there is a system in this country, which means that children very rarely end up on the streets. They are protected from sleeping rough, but nonetheless are homeless in temporary accommodation.

Beyond legal definitions, there is a much wider pool of people who are in precarious housing situations. For example, sofa-surfing is a form of homelessness, but it's very difficult to record. During the pandemic, there was a sudden increase in the number of people declaring themselves homeless because they could no longer be accommodated by family and friends.

Homelessness is a product of a housing emergency that affects 17.5 million people living in unfit homes in this country.

XL: How could data on homelessness be more accurately recorded?


It is very difficult but there are things that could be done to collate more data. This could include recording the number of people who are not officially registered as homeless but are approaching their councils and other services for help. Capturing how many people are contacting housing support services because they are living in a precarious situation would also be useful.

XL: Are certain groups more vulnerable, and are there seasonal trends in homelessness?


There are some groups who are much more affected by homelessness, particularly people who are black, LGBT+, disabled, single parents or anyone who is at an economic disadvantage. Single parents, generally women, face real problems because it's hard to afford somewhere to live on one income. The benefits system caps the level of support a person can access if they are not working a certain number of hours a week. This is particularly significant for single parents who incur childcare costs while at work.

Black people are 70% more likely to be affected by the housing emergency than their white peers. Black and Bangladeshi people have taken the brunt of the 12 years of cuts to welfare provision and are disproportionately represented among those who receive housing benefit.

Disabled people who need a property to be adapted, or have higher costs because of medical equipment, face real disadvantages and affordability problems in the housing system.

The homelessness figures show the highest number of people in full-time work becoming homeless since the new system for recording homelessness was introduced in 2018. It’s really concerning that even people who are in full-time work need to access council assistance.

XL: What services are Shelter able to offer people at risk of becoming homeless?


The Shelter emergency helpline is staffed by expert housing advisers and runs 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. It’s there for people who need urgent help. Shelter also has a range of local hubs that provide advice and support to people across the country. All the information about Shelter’s services can be found on our website. Anyone in need can discuss their housing rights or a particular problem over the phone and access resources on the website.

XL: Do you think the ‘fairer private rented sector’ white paper proposals, published in June 2022 will make a positive difference?


The white paper is very promising and would help so many people. Shelter is urging the government to bring it forward.

One of the most important aspects of those proposals is ending no-fault evictions – sometimes called section 21 evictions – promised in the Conservative Party manifesto at the last election. Currently, private landlords can evict tenants and reclaim the property without having to give a reason. There have been big increases in people presenting as homeless due to these no-fault evictions coming out of the pandemic. Ending section 21 would give renters more stability and require landlords to have good grounds to reclaim a property.

The homelessness safety net policy also needs to be restored urgently. Housing benefit has been frozen since March 2020 and rents have gone up across the country since then. Across England, rent is up by around 5% and in some areas, it is by more. The reality is that housing benefit is not enough for many people to afford a local home. Reinstating the homelessness safety net is an intervention that could prevent lots of people becoming homeless.

XL: Is there any policy that Shelter would advocate that currently isn’t on the agenda to protect individuals who are currently homeless or at risk of becoming so?


We need investment in social housing. It's the only truly affordable tenure of housing because rents are pegged to local incomes, which makes housing affordable and insulates people from income shocks like those we're seeing now. If rent is affordable, the household buffer when other costs rise has a little more flex.

As a nation, we need 100,000 social homes to be built a year to meet the current demand. Over a million people are on the social housing waiting list. But there’s been a net loss of social homes every year for the last three decades. There are simply not enough social homes being built and the government really needs to get a handle on it. There's broad agreement about this across the sector.

Tackling the housing emergency needs to be a priority for government. Homelessness is a neglected aspect of the cost of living crisis, and we need to get that message out.

The Shelter helpline is free and open 24 hours a day: 0808 800 4444

Find out where to get advice:

Editor’s note: New data on homelessness have been released since this interview was conducted. This can be found on the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities website.
Photo by jax10289 for iStock.
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