What is Homelessness?
We are only too aware of street homelessness - people sleeping rough on benches and in doorways - but there are also the so-called "hidden" homeless. These include people "sofa-surfing" with friends or relatives, people living in hostels, shelters, squats or bed and breakfasts. And there are other vulnerable groups of people that are defined as being homeless; for example those whose safety is at-risk in their home.
The main elements of current homelessness legislation first appeared on the statute book with the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. Later incorporated into Part III of the Housing Act 1985, this gave legal definitions of homelessness and so-called "priority need" focused on provision for people with families and, in practice, denying most homeless people without dependents a statutory right to be housed by their local authority.
Broadly speaking, the law defines someone as being homeless if they do not have a legal right to occupy accommodation, or if their accommodation is unsuitable to live in. This can cover a wide range of circumstances, including, but not restricted to, the following:
- having no accommodation at all
- having accommodation that is not reasonable to live in, even in the short-term (eg because of violence or health reasons)
- having a legal right to accommodation that you cannot access (eg if you have been evicted illegally)
- living in accommodation you have no legal right to occupy (eg living in a squat or staying with friends temporarily)
Local councils have a legal duty to provide advice and assistance to people who are legally defined as homeless or threatened with homelessness. As mentioned above, local authorities also have a statutory duty to house those in "priority need". Broadly speaking, people in this category are either pregnant, have children, are under 18, are 18-21 and from a care home or have been made homeless through fire, flood or other disaster or emergency event. The council may decide people are in "priority need" if they are classed as "vulnerable" as a result of old age, disability, serious mental health, being the victim of violence or harassment, being a veteran or having been in prison, a young offenders institute or a care home.
For those in "priority need", provided a person has a right to live in the UK, is not intentionally homeless and does not have personal local support available, the local authority must provide temporary accommodation until such time as that person can be re-housed.
The most significant recent change in housing and homelessness legislation in England and Wales was brought about by the Homelessness Act 2002. This Act forms the main part of the government's strategy for tackling homelessness. It moves away from priority need categories and towards a national strategy for the prevention of homelessness.
Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Crisis found almost one in 10 people experience homelessness at some point in their life. In 2013, it was reported by the charity Crisis that homelessness had increased for the previous three consecutive years, partly because of housing shortages and cuts to benefits, with an estimated 185,000 people a year affected in England in that year.
In April 2013, the charity Shelter released figures showing that more than 8 million people in the UK are just one payday away from not being able to pay their mortgage or rent. The risk of further cuts to services and higher interest rates clearly threatens a worsening of the situation. It is reported by Homeless Link that recorded figures for rough sleeping in the three years from 2010 - 2013 have increased by 37%. The data indicates that this region is amongst the worst.