Recently published official figures on homelessness in Wales and Scotland paint a worrying picture of councils struggling to cope with ever increasing demand and tougher government targets.
Both sets of statistics show councils are putting more people in temporary accommodation, still placing families with children in bed and breakfasts while the number of homelessness applications continues to grow at an alarming rate (see boxes).
Social issues, such as high personal bankruptcy rates, relationship breakdowns and the cost of housing are all factors, say experts, but the single biggest problem is the lack of sufficient affordable social housing because of the right to buy policy.
Mick Bates, Welsh assembly member for Montgomeryshire, says right to buy has “disempowered” local authorities.
“They have lost the ability to provide decent rented accommodation themselves as a result of the policy – they don’t have the pool of homes to provide and control the quality.
“Some of the temporary accommodation is appalling and doesn’t cater properly for peoples’ needs: I had a pregnant woman constituent who couldn’t get into the bath of her temporary flat,” he adds.
The assembly passed a motion this week that would allow councils to suspend right to buy in areas with a particular lack of social housing. Some see it as a response to a more than doubling of the use of temporary accommodation in Wales in the past two years.
“Homelessness will continue to be a problem while councils don’t have control over the housing stock,” adds Bates.
The picture is similar in Scotland, where the use of temporary accommodation rose by 15 per cent last year.
• 9,900 households assessed as homeless in 2004/05
• 3,300 households in temporary accommodation (1,500 in March ‘03)
• 761 people living in B&Bs, down from 879 in Sept ‘04
• 389 families with children living in hostel, refuges and B&Bs
An Edinburgh housing department spokesperson said it had increased its use of hostels, and B&Bs because of the “dreadful shortage” of affordable social housing, but added that it was looking more at developing its own short term housing facilities and reducing its reliance on the private rented sector.
Others believe the rise can be attributed to the expansion in recent years of the groups of people councils must prioritise when assessing homelessness applications.
In Wales, this has seen the introduction of a broader definition of people in need to cover care leavers and vulnerable adults. Scotland went a step further earlier this year when it limited the length of time families could be housed in B&Bs to 14 days.
The figures show the vast majority of Scottish councils have risen to this challenge – just six now have families with children in B&Bs – but some experts believe this could have contributed to the greater use of temporary accommodation for other groups.
Gavin Corbett, head of policy at Shelter Scotland, says different factors will influence homelessness in different areas.
“The Scottish executive would say the rise in temporary accommodation is down to an expansion of homelessness rights, while others say it is due to a lack of affordable housing. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle: people who in previous years were refused temporary accommodation are now eligible, but in other areas people are spending longer in it because there is not enough long term housing,” he explains.
Box 2 – Scotland statistics
• 38,605 households assessed as homeless in 2004/05
• 22,097 (72 per cent) assessed as having priority need were offered permanent accommodation (60 per cent in 03/04)
• 15 per cent rise since 04/05 in numbers placed in temporary accommodation
• 166 families with children living in B&Bs
However, Kathleen Marshall, the Scottish children’s commissioner, says it is “concerning” that children are still being placed in B&Bs and warned it may be an issue she investigates.
In Wales, around half of the 9,900 households in temporary accommodation have children with 389 living in hostels, refuges and B&Bs. John Puzey, director of Shelter Cymru, says this can have damaging effects on families.
“Homelessness is bad enough for anyone at any age, but for children it can cause serious life long problems, disrupting education and damaging health. Councils still need to increase resources…to find alternatives to B&Bs,” Puzey adds.
However, some experts believe there is cause to be optimistic for the future.
Carl Chapple, development officer at Homeless Link Cymru, says the new national homelessness strategy will place increased emphasis on councils offering help with rent arrears, rent bonds and mediation services for young people to prevent homelessness in the first place.
“In the past, councils have put a lot of energy into helping people that present as homeless rather than before they reach crisis point,” he says.
Shelter Scotland’s Corbett points out that 75 per cent of people that present as homeless are already being assessed as having priority need and being assisted, which bodes well for 2012 when all presentations will have to be prioritised.