Posts Tagged ‘homelessness’

It is sixty years since two Catholic women, Maisie Ward and Molly Walsh, decided that something practical needed to be done to prevent homelessness and help families and individuals into secure affordable accommodation. Maisie Ward was a writer, theologian and the daughter of a prominent Catholic publisher. Molly Walsh and her husband, Bob, ran a House of Hospitality during the depression.  Molly and Maisie met through the Catholic Evidence Guild. They shared a concern about the needs of young families in Britain after the war. Especially as they saw the damage done to children who were being brought up in dreadful slum conditions and the lasting impact on family life. Molly and Maisie joined forces to persuade the Catholic Church to respond to the needs of people who were homeless or living in poverty – a witness of the Catholic community to the problem, but a service to the entire community.

Over the years many Catholics, usually married women, up and down the country, joined forces with Maisie and Molly to run support and advice services from their homes. That was the birth of CHAS, the Catholic Housing Aid Society. In the early days they raised money to buy parish-based houses to convert into flats for families in need.  They also raised money for people to use as a deposit on a home and, indeed, often secretly guaranteed the loan. They brought together groups of volunteer professionals, such as bank managers and surveyors, to give free advice to low income families who were trying to move into home ownership but were experiencing difficulty in finding reliable, honest and affordable advice.    And they established half-way houses, where people could rent accommodation for a few years, but the rent they paid included a compulsory “savings” element which was returned to them at the end of their tenancy so they had a lump sum to use as a deposit on a property.

Sixty years on Housing Justice, as the successor organisation to CHAS, continues to work to meet a need that is tragically, just as great today. As part of the sixtieth anniversary celebrations we are re-issuing “Homelessness: a fact and a scandal” first published in 1990. The problem described then is very similar to the problem as it exists today – but the political and social context in which we are operating is very different. There have been huge changes in attitudes to poverty and to the role of the state as provider of a welfare safety net. But there has also been a big increase in the number of church linked projects, like the winter night shelters Housing Justice supports, and in the number of volunteers from faith communities of all stripes who want to do something to make a real difference. The times are ripe for change.

So maybe, just maybe this is the time when the battle to end homelessness in England is about to make another leap forward. There are three developments that I present in evidence.

The first is the CLG committee’s Homelessness Inquiry. This is an in depth look at the causes of homelessness and the effectiveness of the work being done to tackle it by the voluntary sector and by Local Authorities. It is currently hearing selected oral evidence but it is still open to late submissions if you want to send one.

The second is the independent review of homelessness legislation published on26th April by Crisis. Again this is an in depth review by experts from across the spectrum of Local Authorities and third sector organisations. The focus here is on the legal duties owed to homeless people in England. Even though there is not complete agreement about the recommendations there is broad consensus and the appendix proposes detailed amendments to the current legislative position including the institution of a duty to prevent homelessness.

So far so good – and perhaps you are all thinking that we have been here before. The third element though is a minister who is engaging both with the sector and with the not so usual suspects. Marcus Jones may have got off to a rocky start at Homeless Link’s conference in 2015 but he has made up for it since. He has read the reports, visited projects, talked to people with experience of homelessness and seems to be genuinely committed to finding better ways to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place. Of course this is all on the back of changes that have already taken place in Scotland and are underway in Wales, but I don’t mind if we English are followers rather than leaders here so long as we get there in the end.

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The latest figure for the number of rough sleepers in England was released on 26th February – as expected, at 2,744 it was higher than the 2013 number of 2,414 (by 14%). In any event it is only a snapshot of the number of people counted sleeping rough on one night in November in some Local Authority areas, plus estimates from those areas who decided not to carry out a count. In some ways the estimates are a more reliable indicator of the problem than the actual counts because they are based on intelligence drawn from a range of sources across the community including both official homelessness services, voluntary projects and parishes who come into contact with homeless people, for example folk sleeping in church porches or calling at the presbytery door for assistance. The real number of people who need help because they are homeless or in danger of being made homeless is much higher than the number who can be found sleeping on the streets. A rigorous research project funded by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has been monitoring homelessness and its causes in England, Scotland and Wales since 2012. Their latest report for England has recently been published and that found 280,000 people were homeless or on the verge of homelessness in 2013/14.

Of course volunteers in church homelessness projects like night shelters and day centres or drop-ins don’t need to be told that the problem is getting worse. They can tell you from their own experience of the people they have been trying to help. This winter I have been volunteering in my local night shelter – sometimes sleeping over in the church hall with our homeless guests and sometimes serving breakfasts. Since November I have seen the number of people needing our shelter creep up from 15 to 22. That may not seem like a big increase but we are just one of about 90 similar shelters across England and Wales – and the statistics we collect centrally at Housing Justice suggest that this pattern is being repeated in other places.

Very few night shelter guests fit the stereotype of homeless people. The vast majority are people who are just down on their luck rather than alcoholics or drug addicts. Some of them are holding down jobs so that they can save a deposit to rent a flat, and one brave 18 year old in our shelter is at school studying for A levels. Official statistics show that many more people are becoming homeless just because their tenancy in the private rented sector has come to the end of its term and they are unable to find anywhere else they can afford in time to move in an orderly way. Changes to the benefits system are not helping, especially for people under 35 who receive much less State help with housing costs than they did before 2010. At the same time cuts to Local Authority budgets mean that their services to help homeless people are much reduced. This is where the Church is coming into its own. Without the services – night shelters, day centres, drop-ins, mentoring and befriending, hosting schemes – that parishes are providing people would be homeless for longer, would not get the help they need to find and keep proper accommodation, and more people would be dying homeless on our streets. The scary thing is that the problem is getting worse and so we need to do even more. Could you volunteer in a night shelter next year?

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.