Charities challenge government figures as homeless numbers fall

Tighter council criteria have been blamed for the drop in
homelessness. But some argue that there has been real progress in
getting people off the streets, writes Chloë

A drop in the number of homeless people should be a cause for
celebration. But when government figures published last week (news,
page 11, 16 June) showed a 20 per cent drop in the number of
households considered homeless by councils, several of the largest
homelessness agencies were sceptical.

The statistics showed that the number of households accepted as
homeless between January and March was 26,920, down by nearly 7,000
on the same period in 2004.

The government attributes the fall to improved prevention of
homelessness. But some charities, including Shelter and
Centrepoint, say homeless people are being turned away from housing
departments and therefore do not appear in the government’s

Shelter’s director, Adam Sampson, says some council staff are
“effectively bending the law in order to avoid accepting
people as homeless”. He cites a survey in the charity’s
magazine, Roof, that found that 63 per cent of staff
interviewed in 60 councils felt under pressure to reduce the number
of homeless people.

Centrepoint chief executive Anthony Lawton also doubts that the
reduction in homelessness is real. He says: “Our research on
16 and 17 year olds shows that many are turned away from housing
departments, even though they are homeless.”

The charities say many homeless people are either turned away
before any decision is made on them or they are considered
intentionally homeless. In neither case do they appear in the
homeless acceptances figures, even if they are in a priority group
for rehousing, such as 16 and 17 year olds or people leaving

Separate figures for intentionally homeless people in priority need
show a big increase from 4,960 in 1997 to 13,640 in 2004. And the
government does not even publish figures for this group.

Jeremy Swain, chief executive of charity Thames Reach Bondway, says
there are cases of rough sleepers who have lived in a flat at some
point in the past being turned away from homeless persons units
because they were deemed intentionally homeless. He adds that some
people in hostels have never registered as homeless because they
would not be in a priority group for rehousing and would just be
referred to a bed and breakfast.

“There are so many people in hostels, which suggests that the
figures underestimate the number of people who are actually
homeless,” he says.

The government does not believe that councils are turning away
homeless people. A spokesperson for the Office of the Deputy Prime
Minister disputes Shelter’s findings and says the drop in
acceptances is due to prevention work, such as rent deposit schemes
that help people to obtain a deposit for a rented home in the
private sector.

Also, some homelessness agencies agree with the government. Jenny
Edwards, chief executive of Homeless Link, which represents
agencies working with rough sleepers, says: “It does reflect
a real trend that fewer people are presenting themselves as
homeless. Some of that is a reflection of successful preventive
approaches that are being taken.”

Council homelessness chiefs also say that the figures show
prevention is working. Zulfiqar Mulak, head of housing needs at
Hackney Council, says that the £200m the government has
ploughed into prevention is paying dividends three years on.
“In the past local authorities wanted to do this [prevention
work] but there weren’t the resources,” he says. The
biggest drop in acceptances was among families and Mulak attributes
that to rent deposit schemes.

But homelessness agencies worry that a new government target
– to halve the 100,000 households now in temporary
accommodation by 2010 – will put councils under even more
pressure to turn away homeless people in future.

For Shelter, new homes are the answer to the problem.
Shelter’s deputy director of campaigns, Patrick South, says:
“What is essential is that there is an increase in housing
supply so that the target can be met by housing people in decent
secure homes. Without that there is a risk [of councils turning
homeless people away to meet the target].”

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