Let’s make this the last Christmas where hostels are homes

Rob Simkins urges a national plan to tackle homelessness and the housing emergency in Wales.

As you wind down for Christmas, spare more than just a thought for the people pushed into homelessness this year. Take some action.

For many people in Wales, this Christmas is something to look forward to. Last year, the vast majority of us weren’t able to visit friends and family over the festive period, as the pandemic spiralled out of control. While the pandemic looks to be everything but over, for many of us, this year paints a much more positive picture.

But unfortunately, that isn’t the case for around 7,000 people who are living in temporary accommodation across Wales, as a result of being pushed into homelessness. We know only too well that, for thousands of people in Wales this year, Christmas is a time of dread. Especially for the parents and families of the more than 1,500 children who will be spending this Christmas in temporary accommodation (TA), without somewhere they can call home.

The decision by the Welsh Government to suspend priority need and get “everyone in” as the pandemic began to bite, was undoubtedly the right decision. It meant that thousands of people who would otherwise have been denied TA were able to get a roof over their head and begin to access the support they may have needed. But a hostel is not a home. Many of the people we’ve supported throughout the pandemic have painted a bleak picture of the conditions they’re living in. Having to share sparse cooking and cleaning facilities with large numbers of other people – including people with complex support needs – isn’t a good home. We’ve recently publicised Natalie’s* story, who has been living in TA with her four year old daughter since February. Their accommodation has low windows, exposed wires and is fundamentally unsafe for children. 

Natalie said “She hates it here. She cries every time we return and the noise from outside at night frightens her. I just don’t want this life for her.”

We know that without a good home, it is impossible to lead healthy, happy and productive lives. Home is everything and intersects with and impacts upon everything that we do, from our physical and mental health, to our working lives and education. This is why we’re so determined to support the ‘move-on’ process of people into long term homes where they can put down roots and live the healthy, happy and productive lives that everyone deserves to experience.

Shelter Cymru has spent much of the last few years banging the drum to build more social homes, so we were delighted to see this reflected across parties’ manifestos during the recent Senedd elections. Delivery of the 20,000 new social homes will go a long way towards helping people like Natalie and her daughter to have a good home of their own.  But what about the short-term issues? Unfortunately for the 7,000 people living in TA and 67,000 people we estimate to be on social housing waiting lists, you can’t chuck up 20,000 good quality social homes overnight.

The recent co-operation agreement between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru and the subsequently updated programme for government offers some cautious optimism.

The scale of the task at hand here demonstrates why it’s so important that the Welsh Government and local councils across the nation are using every available tool they have, to get people out of TA limbo and into long term homes. We know there are around 30,000 empty properties in Wales, many of which could be turned into good homes for individuals and families in need. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a coherent national plan as to how we’re going to make the vitally needed progress in this area. The private rented sector (PRS) has a vital role to play in this emergency, yet as rents spiral out of control the gap between what is affordable and the going rate grows ever wider. These costs are then further exacerbated by rising utility bills, cuts to universal credit and the incoming social care levy, hitting more people in their pockets. The Bevan Foundation’s recent research painted a picture of the scale of the issues that many people face on a personal level and that as a society, we face together here in Wales.

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Crucially though, there is hope. That for Natalie and the thousands of other people in TA this Christmas, that it need not be this way. The recent co-operation agreement between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru and the subsequently updated programme for government offers some cautious optimism. We welcome the exploration and discussion to be had on intervention within the PRS to stabilise a buoyant market which is pulling the rug out from under people’s feet every day. We’re pleased to see commitments to reforming homelessness systems, ending priority need once and for all and creating a more person-centred approach which is more agile and better at getting support to where it is needed most. And we’ll be working closely with colleagues and partners to drive the conversation around the right to adequate housing in Wales.

Our housing emergency will only be resolved though, if we all work together. Government, local authorities, the third sector and the wider public. Success relies on us supporting each other, to tackle the root causes of the housing emergency, as well as the symptoms that we so often see, affecting different people in different ways across differing parts of Wales. People like Natalie and her daughter – the over 1,700 children spending Christmas in TA and the thousands of parents wishing for better – need our voices and deserve our support. 

So readers, as you might be winding down for Christmas, clearing the inbox, putting on your out-of-office and taking some time to recharge – consider how your actions can help us to help people like Natalie and her daughter, to be supported into the home they need. And make your new year’s resolution something tangible. Let’s work together to make sure that this time next year, we’ve done right by the thousands of people in Wales pushed into homelessness.

Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i chi gyd.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Rob Simkins is Campaigns Manager at Shelter Cymru.

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