More affordable homes for the future is crucial, but social housing services such as money advice teams still play a pivotal role in reducing homelessness, writes Paul Bevan.
What an opportunity, privilege and responsibility housing associations have in owning and managing thousands of homes when there are so many people who are homeless.
And what a privilege it is to have the ability to help prevent tenants from becoming homeless.
When people apply for a housing association home, their chances of getting a property is guided by the ‘allocations policy.’ These policies guide incredibly difficult decisions, as evidenced in our recent research in Swansea.
Should a family home be offered to parents with young children who have been staying with grandparents for two years, or to a homeless family who have been living in one bedroom in temporary housing for six months?
Should a property be offered to a person with a long term physical disability needing a ground floor flat, or a person who has lost his job and his private flat and has ended up sleeping rough?
And how much consideration is given to the degree of housing need (and how do you define that?), and how much to the make-up of a community?
“There has undoubtedly been cultural change… a growing awareness of the pivotal role social landlords play in fighting homelessness.”
Decisions on prioritising who is offered a housing association home are crucial in addressing homelessness. Up to half of housing associations’ vacancies are typically available for households who are referred by local councils’ housing or homelessness departments.
In some areas, homeless people move to housing association homes after stays in temporary supported housing (such as hostels and shared housing with staff support).
And soon we should see this happening much more quickly through ‘Rapid Rehousing’ to reduce the length of time that people live in temporary housing.
But do such arrangements go far enough when homelessness is still widespread across Wales, and may increase as the impact of the pandemic on people’s housing situation becomes more evident?
In a time of insufficient supply of affordable homes, should at least three quarters of vacant housing association homes – or even all – be available to local authorities to help them fulfil their statutory duties to homeless households?
As well as addressing homelessness by giving people homes, housing associations also have a vital role to play in preventing their existing tenants from becoming homeless.
“Where Wales is jumping ahead of other UK nations is in the recent push to end evictions from social housing into homelessness.”
There are numerous examples of how they help tenants – organisational cultures of kindness that lead to more support for tenants: building good relationships between staff and tenants that make it easier for tenancy issues to be addressed quickly; referrals to money advice teams; helping tenants to access specialist advice, tenancy support and mediation.
Where Wales is jumping ahead of other UK nations is in the recent push to end evictions from social housing into homelessness – a radical concept originally developed by Shelter Cymru.
This means that if tenancies do have to end, people always have somewhere suitable to live next. Prior to the pandemic this agenda was already making an impact with a nearly 40% reduction in possession actions by Welsh social landlords over the space of a year.
There has undoubtedly been cultural change in Welsh social housing in recent years, and a growing awareness of the pivotal role social landlords play in fighting homelessness.
Shelter Cymru is gathering and celebrating examples of good practice: from the maintenance worker who gently encourages a reluctant tenant to speak to their housing officer, to complex multi-agency partnerships set up to ensure a more co-ordinated approach to help people keep their homes.
Numerous other initiatives can help to prevent homelessness: furnished tenancies can ease initial financial burdens; freezing the collection of rent arrears until tenants’ finances are back on track; a flexible approach to rent levels as tenants’ incomes rise and fall; and arrangements for moving to more affordable properties if required.
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At Shelter Cymru we also play a vital role in preventing homelessness.
We advise, support and campaign to help people across Wales to obtain and keep a decent home. Some of our advice workers are based in local authorities’ homelessness teams, working alongside council staff to help people resolve homelessness and housing issues.
We work with tenants in rent arrears alongside housing associations and other landlords to come to repayment arrangements to keep their homes.
We advocate for tenants and people in housing difficulty which can mean challenging the decisions of some housing associations, but we will also continue to work with housing associations to prevent homelessness.
“There is a renewed opportunity for housing associations to… increase the availability of their vacant homes for people who are homeless.”
Improving the prevention of homelessness continues to be a challenge.
A big part of the solution is the availability of more affordable homes; but other solutions lie in addressing systemic factors such as poverty, unemployment and the benefits system, and helping people with individual factors such as trauma, relationships, and poor mental or physical health.
Housing associations are extremely well placed to respond to homelessness.
As we move out of the Covid restrictions, there is a renewed opportunity for housing associations to consider what more can be done to increase the availability of their vacant homes for people who are homeless and developing their wider work to prevent homelessness.
We are supporting calls for the next Welsh Government to take forward the recommendations of the Homelessness Action Group to end homelessness in Wales.
These recommendations include: ensuring that enough affordable housing is available so that adequate housing becomes something everyone should expect; targeted prevention which involves taking specific action to prevent homelessness among groups of people most at risk; and a joined up approach across public services to support people to avoid homelessness.
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