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There may be as many as 380,000 people spending time sleeping rough, in hostels or  on friends’ floors, their lives on hold. But, because they are  single, they are considered low priority, writes Simeon Brody

Official figures would suggest the government has had remarkable success in tackling homelessness. Rough sleeping in England has fallen by 75 per cent since 1998, from 1,850 to 459 in June 2005, and the number of homeless households accepted as eligible for assistance by their local authority is at its lowest level since 1985.(1)

The government has invested 200m in tackling homelessness over the past three years and every housing authority now has a duty to draw up a strategy to prevent homelessness in its area.

But some campaigners believe that behind the headline reductions, one particular group – single homeless people without dependants – is continuing to lose out.

Jamie Williams is one example. He lost his job as a child protection social worker last year after he became clinically depressed and started to drink heavily. Unable to pay his rent he slept in a doorway, constructing a shelter from bread trays and old sofa cushions. Three times he asked his council for help, but each time he was told that nothing could be done.

“I was told you had to be vulnerable, with severe mental health problems or severe disability otherwise they wouldn’t consider you,” he says.

On his fourth visit to the council’s homeless persons’ unit, after three months on the street and with his drinking and depression deteriorating, he was referred to an outreach team who found him a place in a Salvation Army hostel. Now a trainee at the Skylight caf, run by the charity Crisis to help homeless people return to mainstream life, Williams accepts that other people might have had a higher priority for housing than him. But he believes even a place in a bed and breakfast would have been preferable to being on the street.

Under current law, housing authorities must accommodate people who are homeless through no fault of their own, have a connection to the local area and are in one of several “priority need” categories. These groups include pregnant women, people who have dependants and most 16 and 17-year-olds and care leavers. Other individuals can be in priority need if they are considered “vulnerable” because of their age, illness or institutional background, such as those who have been in jail.

Duncan Shrubsole, head of policy and strategy at Crisis, says the priority need system has historically left single people literally out in the cold.

Introduced in 1977 under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, the priority-need system was set up with children in mind. The by-product is that working-age single people who have lost their home through family or relationship breakdown have little chance of statutory assistance.

Shrubsole says the official homelessness figures focus on those who have been judged eligible for assistance, typically families, and hide a mass of single people who have been turned away by their council or who do not even apply because they know they will not get housed.

Councils do not have to collate information about what happens to people who have been unsuccessful in their homelessness application. But Shrubsole suggests up to 380,000 single homeless people may be spending periods sleeping rough, in hostels or on friends’ floors – their lives on hold or in decline without any permanent base.

He believes England and Wales should follow Scotland’s lead in committing itself to abolishing the priority need categories. The Homelessness etc (Scotland) Act 2003 promised that by 2012 anyone who is unintentionally homeless will be guaranteed a permanent home.

Shrubsole accepts that, once the change occurs, the number entitled to housing will increase. But he says the Scottish executive has responded by committing extra resources to address the problem.

The Local Government Association, which represents local authorities in England, says it does not have a position on extending the Scottish approach but the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister rejects it. It says its preventive strategy approach goes far wider than extending priority need categories. It points out that authorities must offer “advice and assistance” to those not in priority need to help them find their own accommodation.

How the priority need categories came about was something of an accident of history. Robina Rafferty, chief executive of Christian housing organisation Housing Justice, has worked in the housing field for 30 years. She says that the 1977 act was drawn up from the assumption that private landlords were prejudiced against families but single people could easily access rented accommodation.

The legislation was, however, originally meant to cover all homeless people, but was opposed by local authorities for financial reasons. As a private members’ bill it was not intended to have significant financial implications so, for tactical reasons, it was decided to exclude single people under the assumption they could be included again after a year or two. But two years later a Conservative government was elected and the moment was lost.

Rafferty says it is important not to minimise the plight of homeless families, but to recognise that homeless singles also need assistance. But she says the housing market appears to have turned full circle, with rising accommodation costs making it particularly difficult for single people to find private sector housing.

The Supporting People programme has funded much accommodation for vulnerable groups. “But there isn’t a source of decent accommodation for people whose vulnerability is simply that they don’t have a home they can afford,” she says.

Rafferty agrees that the only way forward is to have a universal safety net, as in Scotland, which could be tested in areas of low housing demand. “The other issue we have to face is the fact there’s a shortage of affordable housing, including accommodation for single people,” she adds.

Latest population projections predict the number of households in England will increase by 209,000 a year for the next 20 years, with three-quarters being single people. Yet Shrubsole says the number of one-bed properties put up each year has fallen from 44,000 in 1971 to 8,000 in 2003 as council house building has declined.

The government intends to increase new house building from 150,000 to 200,000 properties a year by 2016 but, until then, demand for single-person accommodation will continue to intensify.
St John’s Housing Trust in Lowestoft, Suffolk, works with single people and homeless families. Chief executive John O’Sullivan says the demand for help from single people, particularly young people, seems to be rising. But housing projects run by the charity quickly become “silted up” with tenants ready to move on but with no permanent accommodation to go to.

“More single households are being created each year because of family breakdown. More people are looking for single-person accommodation which is diminishing year on year,” says O’Sullivan.

Against the backdrop of growing housing demand, Shelter says extending priority need would be “an empty promise” if it were not backed by the commitment to build more social housing.

And Jeremy Swain, chief executive of London homelessness project Thames Reach Bondway, says choices must be made about who takes priority for available housing. He says councils need to be more rigorous in investigating the circumstances of under-25s who say they have been thrown out by their parents. Private rented flats may be more suitable for young people, but some continue to use a homelessness application as a quick route to the social housing needed by more vulnerable older people.

“Not everybody can have a bigger slice of the cake; it doesn’t work out,” Swain says.

Perhaps a pecking order is inevitable but it is difficult to see how homelessness can ever really be beaten while one group in society remains a low priority.

(1) Homelessness statistics from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Go to

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