Even as an irrepressible optimist I am struggling to find any reasons to be cheerful about the prospects for homelessness and housing in 2013.
The seriously dark clouds on the horizon all relate to the impact of caps on benefits and changes to the welfare system. These clouds began to gather in 2011 but the hurricane will hit in 2013. The first gale will blow in in April when the Overall Benefit Cap is introduced, effectively removing any social safety net for families with three or more children and predicted to lead to increases in homelessness and overcrowding, especially in London.
Letters have gone out from Local Authorities to households they believe will be hit by this cap and at Housing Justice we have been sharing the pain as families and agencies contact us to see if we can help. Last week we were emailed by Sarah, a single parent, who wrote, “ I have received an eviction notice from my landlord. My rent is £350 a week so when the benefit cap comes in it will leave me with £150 a week to look after my three children, one aged three and twins nearly two, so he is doing it now before I get in arrears. There will be nowhere affordable to privately rent in Islington or surrounding boroughs. I am really scared, the only support I have is in Islington and my daughter goes to a Catholic Nursery attached to the church we go to. I have an appointment with Housing Options team tomorrow but I know its going to be very difficult to get a council house in the borough.” We were able to advise Sarah to ask about a discretionary payment, and but this will only buy a year’s grace before the situation arises again.
Also in April people of working age living in Council and Housing Association properties will begin to be charged for their ‘spare’ rooms (aka the bedroom tax). This will cause real hardship, especially in the Midlands and the North where there really are no smaller properties for people to move to if they wish to avoid this new tax.
Meanwhile homelessness is undeniably on the increase. The latest figures for street homelessness in London (CHAIN data for September and October 2012) show 26% more people were found sleeping out, and the most recent numbers for homeless households in England record nearly 53,000 households (including more than 75,000 children) as homeless and in temporary accommodation. Even more disturbing is the fact that there has been a 185% increase in the number of homeless families kept in B&B accommodation for more than six weeks. This is early evidence of a system close to breaking point and comes before any further side effects of the introduction of Universal Credit in October 2013, or holding the benefit increases to 1% regardless of inflation.
At Housing Justice we are also gathering evidence of the effects of the cuts in benefits already introduced. Since January 2012 people between 25 and 34 have no longer been allowed sufficient Housing Benefit to enable them to rent self contained accommodation. This change to the Shared Accommodation Rate is already beginning to bite. For example, Fiona was living in private rented accommodation in Haringey for a year, but when her benefit was reduced she was evicted. She ended up rough sleeping and was referred to the Outreach Team, but was not found because, for safety, she kept changing her sleeping place. She has been referred to a hostel but there is a waiting list, which means she will remain homeless for at least another two months.
It certainly feels like the Government is operating the opposite of an option for the poor in its efforts to reduce our national deficit.
So, apart from battening down the hatches how can we as Church respond? Firstly, through prayer for people who are bearing the brunt of these changes, people who are homeless or overcrowded or getting deeper into debt. And not just private prayer; these prayers should be articulated in our intercessions at mass Sunday by Sunday. Poverty and Homelessness Action Week (26th January to 3rd February) is a good place to start (resources available to download from http://www.actionweek.org.uk).
Secondly, through practical action, for example, providing food banks and night shelters, taking in lodgers, letting property to benefit claimants and working together with other denominations to maximise the use of our land and property in London for social and mutual housing projects, like cooperatives and community land trusts. In the same way that social housing in London in the 19th century was shaped by the actions of private philanthropists like Octavia Hill, there is an opportunity for the provision of genuinely and permanently affordable housing to be created through the gifting of church land and property to community land trusts or to housing cooperatives.
Finally, we need to raise our voices in protest against the unfair burden of cuts being placed on some of the most vulnerable in our society and in favour of the building of genuinely affordable housing in our communities. If the Church doesn’t speak up for the option for the poor that is a functioning social safety net, who will?
More ideas for practical action and protest can be found on the Housing Justice website: http://www.housingjustice.org.uk.

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