Housing in Britain is in crisis. We have a broken housing market where even rising prices – e.g. in London – do not cause sufficient homes to be built to satisfy our needs (every year around 100,000 more households are created than new homes are built). There are not enough homes of the right size in the right places at a genuinely affordable cost. So homes lie empty in one area while families live in appallingly overcrowded conditions in another. Private rents are rising out of control, subsidised by Housing Benefit, and more and more people are being evicted when their short-term tenancies end. The so called Bedroom Tax penalises people in social housing even when there are no smaller properties for them to move into. And changes to the benefit system are contributing to homelessness and housing insecurity.
Against this backdrop Housing Justice is helping parishes across the country take practical steps to make a difference. We know It’s a huge problem but it is one where even a small parish or joint churches project can make a big difference.
Ever since the Catholic Housing Aid Society was founded in 1956 we have been pursuing our vision – that everyone should have a home that truly meets their needs. Over the years we’ve changed our activities to meet the changing needs of people who need help with their housing. Where rough sleeping and sofa surfing are a big problem Housing Justice can help set up a Night Shelter to provide basic accommodation and food through the winter months – and link the shelter guests into local services to help them move off the street into proper accommodation. There are around 50 church and community Night Shelters across England and Wales but more are needed. (You can see some videos about Night Shelters in action on our website: http://goo.gl/cZnXK.)
Folk are always willing to help but often need some guidance about the best way to do so. That’s why every year Housing Justice trains thousands of volunteers who go on to help in Night Shelters, soup kitchens, day centres and drop ins. The next stage though is providing help for people who have just moved off the streets and into housing. Our Mentoring and Befriending project trains and supports volunteers (and helps set up new projects) to be mentors and befrienders for people who are newly housed. The volunteers help people settle in to their new life and new community in practical ways, doing things like negotiating the process of opening a bank account, writing an attractive CV, finding work or volunteering opportunities, and building new social circles. We run our own scheme in London (new volunteers are always welcome) and support projects across the country.
There are even ways in which a parish can make a difference to the supply of genuinely affordable housing in its community. The biggest contribution is through the work of our Faith in Affordable Housing team, Judith Derbyshire and Sharon Lee. These two dynamic women support parishes, dioceses and religious orders through the process of converting empty churches, presbyteries and other buildings into new social housing. There are some great examples of what can be achieved here: http://goo.gl/fpDmC. But if you don’t have a building or any land to spare there are still ways to have an impact. Even one person taking in a lodger or a buy-to-let landlord deciding to rent to a family claiming benefits or at a lower than market rent will make a difference to people living in your community.
If this article has inspired you to find out more a representative of Housing Justice will be pleased to come and talk to you, your group, your church or local churches together organisation. Or you can come to see us at one of the Roadshows we are holding this year. The first one is in Liverpool on 22nd May, then Birmingham on 12th June, and Rayleigh (Essex) on 28th June. At the roadshows there will be a chance to find out about the problem locally and nationally as well as to be informed about how you can make a difference.
Contact us on 0203544 8094 or email info@housingjustice.org.uk.
Website: http://www.housingjustice.org.uk

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.

I hope that as you read this you are somewhere warm and comfortable and where you feel secure – or that at least you have somewhere like that to return to. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens do not have this luxury. Rough sleeping, the visible iceberg tip of homelessness, has been increasing month on month for more than a year now. The first victims of the Coalition Government’s benefit cuts, people between 26 and 34 in age whose Housing Benefit no longer covers the cost of independent accommodation, have begun to turn up homeless at church-run drop ins. As the Night Shelters Housing Justice supports have opened for the new winter season they are quickly filling up with street homeless people, and with those who have run out of friend’s floors to sleep on.
And all this before the worst of the planned cuts in benefits have begun. All over our country there are families where a cloud has been cast over Christmas by the receipt of a letter informing them that from 1st April the money they receive will be cut by the Overall Benefit Cap. Whatever the size, ages and particular needs of the family they will be limited to £500 per week to pay for all their wants. People who were already making hard decisions about whether to heat their home or have sufficient to eat are now faced with the additional worry of whether to scrimp further to pay the rent or try to find somewhere else (somewhere smaller and cheaper) to live. This is the backdrop for the announcement by the Chancellor that benefit increases will no longer be linked to inflation but instead will be fixed at 1% for the next three years. If we really believe that, as the Psalmist says, the Lord hears the cry of the poor, then a thunderous roar must be rising up from Britain as so many poor and marginalised people are made to bear the brunt of cuts to reduce our national deficit.
But what are we to do? How should we respond? First with practical help and hospitality: we can give food, clothes and a warm welcome to the homeless, hungry and needy people who turn to our churches and charities for help and support. (There are more suggestions for practical help at http://www.housingjustice.org.uk.) Second with prayer, mindfulness and attention: be aware of the people around you at work, in the shops, in the street – recognise the dignity, the troubles, and the peace in them. Finally be prepared to stand up for those who are labelled as scroungers and shirkers – a truly fair society is one where poor and homeless people are the last to be scapegoated and penalised.

On the one hand there has been a housing crisis in London (and in the rest of England) for at least the last ten years. On the other, churches have a long history of both practical and campaigning responses to housing and homelessness. The situation we face today is as bad as it has ever been, and is set to deteriorate as welfare reform bites and the economy continues to flatline. But it’s not enough to be prophets of doom and gloom. Now is the moment to shine a light on housing, to challenge the morality of failing policies and to take whatever action we can ourselves to remedy the situation.
Failure to build enough homes each year to keep up with the growth in the number of households has finally combined with changes to the benefit system to create the perfect storm. We are now on the edge of a housing precipice the like of which has not been seen since the post WWII need to replace all the dwellings lost to bombing raids. The churches have always responded to housing need whether by providing basic food and shelter, by founding housing associations, or by offering advice and assistance. (Exactly the activities that the Catholic Housing Aid Society, one of the constituent bodies of Housing Justice, carried out from its foundation in 1956.)
Our motivations are a complex mix of humanitarian compassion, practical necessity (how do I help this caller at the vicarage door), and theological imperative (there are many Biblical references, but Isaiah 58:6 and Matthew 25:40 are good places to start). People in the pews (and even the pulpit) are just as likely as anyone else to have benefited from rising house prices, to be buy-to-let landlords, or to be struggling to match rising living costs with a falling income.
So on October 10th (World Homelessness Day) more than 80 people from a wide range of churches gathered to discuss how churches should respond to the deepening crisis of affordable housing in London; a crisis that is impacting most heavily on the poorest amongst us. We met against a backdrop of rising homelessness and an avalanche of impending welfare benefit changes. More and more people are sleeping on the streets – in July and August outreach teams met 1,869 people in London, up 17% from the same period last year. Meanwhile between April and June 2012 12,860 households (more than 36,000 people) were accepted by local authorities in England as homeless, more than 21% of them because their shorthold tenancy had come to an end. A report in Thursday’s (11.10.12) Manchester Evening News revealed that less than 1 in 4 properties available for rent were within the range of Housing Benefit, showing that the problem is more than a London concern. And at the Conservative Party conference ministers continued to heap blame and shame upon benefit recipients, with the Chancellor contrasting people who ‘sleep off a life on benefits’ with ‘hard working tax payers’ and suggesting that the whole of the welfare benefits bill is spent on people who are out of work, apparently forgetting that the majority of benefits go to people who are low paid, pensioners or sick and disabled.
A key concern is the unfairness of caps on Housing Benefit (in action now for over a year) which are forcing people out of their homes and failing to bring down rents. While economic and political orthodoxy has it that it was the removal of rent regulation in 1988 that caused the expansion of the private rented sector in Britain in fact several other factors were at work. Social housing was being rapidly shrunk by Right to Buy. Lending controls were removed and buy-to-let mortgages became available. Residential property became the most popular form of private investment and the social status of landlords has greatly improved from the days of Rigsby in Rising Damp. The experience of other countries, Eire for example, where rent regulation is successfully in operation, is that the key factor in increasing the supply of private rented accommodation is the confidence of landlords that they can remove unwanted tenants when necessary. The conclusion: rent regulation is a viable alternative to benefit capping as a means of reducing the Houisng Benefit bill.
So how should the churches respond? For effective change to happen we need to change the discourse in our society about both benefit claimants and about wealth gained through house price appreciation. This has to begin with listening to ourselves and altering how we speak of these things in our homes, churches and our media (even the Church Times!). So we need to remember that a homeless person may well be as clean, well read and abstemious as you or I and should not always be represented as dirty, ignorant and addicted. And that the wealth I have gained through the increasing value of my house is actually less the fruit of my labours than the banker’s bonus is of his – and less likely to be fairly taxed.
Churches (and individual Christians) can commit to campaigning for the household benefit cap in London to reflect average incomes (and higher housing costs) in London by the simple means of adding a London Weighting to the national average calculation, and for private sector rent increases to be limited to the annual increase in the Consumer Prices Index as a minimalist, but effective, form of rent regulation.
There is a real possibility for churches and denominations to work together to maximise the use of their 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. Here London churches would be following the example of rural areas, for example in the diocese of Salisbury glebe land has been used to create new social housing in villages.
Finally, a group led by Houisng Justice will investigate the possibility of setting up a new ethical Lettings Agency or Cooperative to allow small landlords to let to benefit claimants and formerly homeless people with a greater degree of ease and confidence.
Now is the moment for churches to once again rise to the challenge of a housing crisis. If we unite our voices, mobilise our resources and focus our activities we really can lift up the dignity of our fellow citizens who have the misfortune to claim benefits, challenge the unfairness of government policies, and take action to make a lasting difference to the provision of affordable housing. The question is, are you up for it?

So now we have the Government’s second step on the path to ending homelessness – Making every contact count http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/housing/pdf/2200459.pdf. And it’s OK – the suggestions (can’t have a strategy or a plan in these days of localism) are all sensible and it’s great to see the quotes from Homeless Link’s expert panel at the beginning of the chapters. But the focus is actually quite narrow; it only addresses itself to actions that can be taken by government (national and local) or by commissioned and publically funded services. Some great new services will be launched or expanded – but how will they be linked with and publicised to the wider community? Homelessness is far too important an issue to be restricted to an expert domain. I am strongly of the opinion that, as a nation, we will only adequately deal with homelessness when we recognise that it is a problem that affects us all: society, communities, families and individuals (and I don’t mean just those families and individuals who themselves experience homelessness). So while I warmly welcome the 10 local challenges in the report I also urge those forming local multi-agency partnerships to ensure that non-commissioned, faith linked services are at the table alongisde commissioned services and other agencies. The experience of local Homelessness Forums demonstrates the value of this. So I call on Housing Justice’s members, and all church and faith linked projects to do two things. First to step forward and join the party – I don’t believe the commissioned services and Local Authorities can or should be doing this alone. And secondly I foresee a vital role for HJ Members and supporters in holding their Local Authorties to account – watch out for a resource from Housing Justice to enable you all to do just that!