SHOCKING new figures show housing charity Shelter received a call for help every 22 seconds in the run up to Christmas last year, and is warning that the situation this winter is set to get worse.
New research from Shelter and M&S (Marks and Spencer) shows that in 2016 the charity’s helpline received over a hundred thousand calls in the two months leading into Christmas – while more than 500 calls were made on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone.
A crippling combination of rising homelessness, sky-high rents, problems with Universal Credit and a dearth of affordable homes means the charity is preparing for huge numbers of people struggling with homelessness and housing problems to come to them for support.
And with calls to the free Shelter helpline increasing by 25% over the past year, their expert advisers are overwhelmed with pleas for housing help. The Shelter helpline is funded by M&S customers throughout the festive season, with 5% of every purchase made from the ‘Festive Collection for Shelter’ going directly to the charity. This means the helpline can offer housing advice and support every single day of the year for people battling bad housing and homelessness.
Mark Cook, a helpline adviser for Shelter, said: ‘Every Christmas I speak to parents in despair as they face the trauma of homelessness, when they should be filling stockings and looking forward to Christmas dinner. Even though I’ll be working at Christmas, I think myself so lucky to be able to go home at the end of the day when there are so many families having to go without such a basic need. No family should face the agony of losing the roof over their heads.’
Case study: Andrea was evicted from her home after her private landlord put up the rent and she was unable to keep up with her payments. Andrea spent Christmas homeless and eventually rang the Shelter helpline, desperate for help.
‘When I was made homeless the council told me they couldn’t rehouse my whole family because my son was grown up – even though he had never lived away from us. But after calling the Shelter helpline, their legal advisers turned things around and stopped us from being split apart.
‘Mentally I’m a strong person, I’ve been through quite a lot – but this pushed me to my limit. I felt as though nobody had time for me, nobody was really interested in me. I was just another statistic. The Shelter helpline was my saviour and the best thing I’ve ever done. If I hadn’t called that day, I would be in a very, very bad place and without my son.’
Due to the help from Shelter, Andrea is now housed by the council with her whole family and has been able to get back into full time work. The number of rough sleepers in the UK has soared by 134 per cent since 2011, while there has been a 60 per cent rise in households in temporary accommodation in the same period, according to a recent report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
Rents went up at the same time as household incomes from benefits were cut, with rent costs across England increasing by three times as much as wages, except in the North and the East Midlands, the research showed.
Alarmingly, over the same period, spending on other services, such as prevention, support and administration, fell by nine per cent – from £334m to £303m. Many homeless families who have been housed in temporary accommodation will be spending Christmas in hostels and bed and breakfasts located miles from their original homes and families, while other people will be spending the day on the streets.
Shelter CEO Polly Neate said a ‘crippling combination’ of reasons is behind the rise in homelessness. ”The factors at the moment are firstly just the dire lack of affordable housing, and by affordable I mean affordable to rent for people on low incomes. The second thing is the cuts to housing benefit, and that is meaning there”s no help now for people who simply can’t afford to pay their rent.’
The charity also blames problems with Universal Credit for creating delays which lead to people getting into rent arrears. Figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government show 4,134 people slept rough in England in 2016, a 16% increase on the previous year and a sixth consecutive yearly rise.
But the charity Crisis says the number is actually more than double at 9,100 – and warns of the so-called ‘hidden homeless’ including more than 68,000 sofa-surfing and thousands living in insecure or inadequate accommodation.
Shelter has commented on annual housebulding figures showing there were 217,350 additional dwellings between 2016/2017, and an increase of 15% on last year. However, according to government statistics, the total number of affordable homes built in England last year was 41,530, well below the average over the past ten years.
This means that only 19% of new properties are classed as affordable. The biggest changes in supply were seen via conversions (splitting homes to make more units) and change of use (conversions from offices to flats for example), at 19% and 22% respectively.
Worryingly, these dwellings have no quality assurance or affordable housing obligation.
Shelter says the UK must build at least 250,000 new homes a year – 125,000 of which should be genuinely affordable.
Affordable homes should take up no more than one-third of local people’s incomes. Polly Neate said: ‘The numbers are still well short of the government’s own targets and we should be crystal clear that not even a fifth of these are affordable.
‘With hundreds of thousands of people homeless this Christmas and those in need of affordable homes going up all the time, owing to a crippling combination of soaring rents and welfare cuts, these numbers fall woefully short.
‘If the government is serious about tackling our housing crisis and helping the millions of families on lower incomes in the upcoming budget then sticking plasters will not be enough – it must urgently prioritise building homes which are genuinely affordable for ordinary people to rent or buy.’
• The detention and deportation of homeless people from European Economic Area countries faced a three-day legal challenge in the High Court which ended last Thursday.
The judicial review, brought by the Public Interest Law Unit (PILU) in Lambeth Law Centre, challenged the government’s policy since 2016 of designating EEA rough sleeping as a misuse of EU free movement rights.
Paul Heron of the PILU represented three EEA nationals who had experienced rough sleeping and were challenging the legality of the Home Office policy on grounds of discrimination. While some homelessness charities, such as Crisis, have condemned the government’s policies, other charities have been implicated in the criminalisation of non-UK rough sleepers.
Freedom of Information requests showed that joint visits by charity workers and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officers led to 133 rough sleepers being detained in eight months, and in Westminster alone 127 people were deported.
Heron said he sees criminalisation of non-UK rough sleepers as intimately connected to the government’s deliberate creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for irregular migrants in the UK.
As Home Secretary in 2012, Theresa May was quoted as saying: ‘The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration. What we don’t want is a situation where people think that they can come here and overstay because they’re able to access everything they need.’
Heron said: ‘The government’s hostile environment is part of wider government policies which disproportionately impact on working class people. The hostile environment does not just affect Latvians, Romanians, Polish people or Italians who come to the UK, it actually ultimately affects people who are indigenous to the UK as well.’ A verdict on the judicial review is expected early next year.