'If we're going to tackle homelessness we can all play a part.'
As the Homelessness Reduction Bill edges closer to becoming law we spoke to Jon Sparkes, the chief executive of homelessness charity Crisis about the scale of the problem and his hopes for the future.
How big an issue is homelessness?
It is a huge issue; it is no exaggeration to say that is a crisis. If you look at the figures they are increasing and have been since 2010.
Even in historical context there is a real problem. In the 1980s when it was revealed we had 1,000 people sleeping rough in London this was rightly seen as a major issue and there was a raft of activity to tackle it. At the last count there were more than 960 people sleeping rough in London and there are also 75,000 households in temporary accommodation across the country.
So you can see we are heading back to where we were and there is a real need to tackle the problem.
What are the causes of homelessness and why has the problem worsened?
There are individual causes for homelessness and there are structural causes.
On an individual basis there is normally something which precipitates a person becoming homeless – it could be addiction, relationship breakdown or losing a job for example.
There are also causes which are much more closely linked to our institutions and approach and policies that are within our control to change.
The leading cause of homelessness at the moment is the ending of a tenancy in the private rented sector.
That is of course related to the housing market and the lack of provision of housing which people who are vulnerable to homelessness or have become homeless can access.
It isn’t just a question of boosting housing supply; it’s about supplying housing that these people can access.
We also need to look at other things which are impacting the problem. So welfare policies like the benefit cap are contributing further to people being unable to afford housing.
In reality there are a series of causes of homelessness and we have to look at all of those to fully understand the issue.
What impact will the Homeless Reduction Bill have on the issue if it becomes law?
Well I think what it won’t be is a solution on its own. It is not going to address all of the problems or causes of homelessness.
But I think if it becomes law what it will do is to deal with an injustice which has existed for decades. It will stop people being locked out of a system because of their circumstances and allow them to go to their council for help earlier.
If you look at the success of the legislation passed in Wales in 2014 that is an insight into the potential of the bill. The early intervention of councils there has helped to keep thousands of families and individuals off the streets.
I think the significance of the bill also goes beyond the specific changes to the law. It has put homelessness on the government’s agenda again and prompted real debate about the issue and that is a hugely positive step. The real question is whether that momentum will be maintained.
What stage is the bill at and are you confident it will get through?
The bill has progressed into the Lords and is now at the committee stage so there is just one final chance for any amendments which could lead to a further debate and the bill being endangered.
But the bill has cross-party support and there has been very strong public engagement with it. We’re confident it will become law.
Do you think it is realistic that local authorities will be able to deliver?
Clearly there will need to be financial support for councils and the government has recognised this and has pledged £61m and committed to reviewing it after two years.
Of course it is going to be very difficult because local authorities have been under a great deal of pressure financially, but I think councils will enter into the spirit of this as part of a concerted effort to prevent homelessness.
We might initially be in a situation where the law helps to make the situation less bad than it was going to be rather than solve it. But if it means less people on the streets then that can only be a good thing.
What can housing organisations do to help tackle homelessness?
We will need the government’s support to make a lasting change, there’s no doubt about that. But I think there is a challenge there for all organisations to ask themselves if they are doing their bit.
Are housing providers approaching allocations policy and affordability assessments in a fair way? Are private landlords engaging with other organisations which can help them to support homeless tenants? Are they offering sustainable tenancies? Everyone can ask themselves if they are taking a positive approach to this and challenge their perceptions of homeless people. If we’re really going to tackle homelessness then we can all play a part.
Jon Sparkes will explore 'how we end homelessness' at our next executive briefing at our London office on Wednesday March 22. The event is free for members or £25 for non-members.