A councillor's guide to leading the homelessness sector

Cover image for cllr guide to homelessness sector doc
In this guide, we seek to provide councillors whether in cabinet, scrutiny or their own wards, with some key information about homelessness and, perhaps, more importantly, some inspiring examples of action by councils that has made a real difference already.

Foreword

When someone becomes homeless it is a personal tragedy. For a single person it can mean living rough, and a downward spiral of ill-health, unemployment and poverty. For families it can mean disrupted education, long hours travelling to work and huge strains on relationships.

Councils face increased housing demand pressures across the board as they strive to provide homelessness support and invest in homelessness prevention services. Councillors face challenging policy choices and often see the impact of homelessness on individuals and their communities at first hand. The immediate impact of COVID-19 was a great concern and we saw councils do an incredible job getting people sleeping rough off the streets and into safe accommodation in record time.

As we emerge from the pandemic waiting lists are set to potentially nearly double and the Local Government Association (LGA) is asking for councils to be given powers to kickstart a post-pandemic building boom of 100,000 new social homes for rent each year to help tackle the issue. However, solving the homelessness crisis will not happen overnight and in this guide, we seek to provide councillors whether in cabinet, scrutiny or their own wards, with some key information about homelessness and, perhaps, more importantly, some inspiring examples of action by councils that has made a real difference already.

There will be many competing priorities for councils in the years ahead and tackling homelessness must be one that takes centre stage. Councillors have a vital role to play in this. Whether by supporting front line staff who deal with homeless people everyday, linking up with voluntary organisations who can share knowledge of what is happening locally or making the case for investment that helps both those in need and ease future demand, councillors are able to provide genuine local leadership.

The LGA will be making the case at national level for the resources needed to tackle homelessness and will offer training opportunities and highlight good practice wherever it is found. We hope you will find this guide a useful resource as you continue to play your part in reducing and hopefully one day eliminating the tragedy of homelessness in our communities.

Cllr David Renard,
Local Government Association housing spokesperson

Purpose and scope of the guide

This guide has been written with recently appointed cabinet members, with responsibility for homelessness, in mind but it will be of interest to any councillor dealing with homelessness, either as a ward councillor or through scrutiny work. The guide aims to provide an overview of the issues surrounding homelessness and suggests some things you may want to investigate. It also contains links to a range of sources which will enable you to look at particular aspects more deeply.

The guide looks at the legislative framework on homelessness within which councils work and at specific aspects of the policy area and how responsibilities are discharged. Councils have considerable discretion about how they carry out their duties and this guide seeks to highlight some of the different approaches which can be taken to reflect local circumstances and priorities.

Where statistics are quoted these were the most up to date available at the time of writing. There have been both legislative and methodological changes affecting some homelessness statistics in recent years but links in the document have been provided to authoritative sources, while council officers will be able to provide local figures.

A number of good practice examples are highlighted and there are links to more details of these as well as to other examples.

Thinking at both local and national government levels on homelessness continues to develop and there are live debates about how best to address the issue in a given locality. This guide tries to provide signposts to places where you can follow and participate in those discussions.

This guide was prepared for the LGA by Sir Steve Bullock, the Independent Chair of the Pan London Accommodation Collaborative Enterprise (PLACE) and Cllr Diarmaid Ward, Cabinet Member for Housing, LB Islington. Editing and proofreading by Two Faces Design, 12 Upleatham Street, Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire, TS12 1LQ.

Introduction

A good home provides a place where an individual or a family can feel safe and secure. If it is affordable it creates opportunities and offers choices about the life that its residents want to lead. The lack of a home leaves individuals and families vulnerable, disadvantaged and trapped in a situation where employment, education, health and personal relationships are put under huge strain.

Yet if you talk to most residents of your area about homelessness, they will not know how serious this problem has become. They may be aware of some people who are sleeping rough but when told for how many families the council is responsible and has placed in temporary accommodation, they will probably be shocked. On 30 September 2020, there were 93,490 households in temporary accommodation in England according to recent figures published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have been monitoring data about homelessness for a number of years and their annual Homelessness Monitor provides detailed information and commentary. At Christmas 2020 a Crisis media release estimated that over 200,000 households in England faced what is known as core homelessness, a figure that includes rough sleepers, hostel residents and ‘sofa surfers’ among others.

Over the last decade the scale of this challenge has grown significantly but actions that have been taken at both local and national levels demonstrate that it is possible to make a difference. The LGA itself published a comprehensive report in 2017 which provides many examples of effective local innovation to tackle homelessness by councils and their local partners.

Although the changes needed to reduce homelessness at scale will take years to work through, there are things you can do in your role as a councillor that can make a difference. Working with council officers, housing providers and local organisations you can provide leadership and encourage innovation. We hope that this guide will help you to do that and offer ideas that you can take forward and adapt to your local circumstances.

One city’s approach

Newcastle City Council, in partnership with its Arm’s Length Management Organisation (ALMO), Your Homes Newcastle (YHN) and more than 100 agencies and organisations across the city, has prevented over 24,000 households from becoming homeless since 2014. It has the highest homelessness prevention rate of England’s core cities and has pledged to become the first UK city to eradicate homelessness. Last December, this achievement was recognised with the prestigious international World Habitat 2020 Gold Award for its long-term approach to homelessness prevention. In 2020 alone, 918 individuals were given supported accommodation and 4,233 cases of homelessness were prevented. Evictions from Your Homes Newcastle properties have been cut by 75 per cent since 2008.

Newcastle City Council Deputy Leader, Joyce McCarty, explains how it has been done

Homelessness is always a crisis, whether someone has been homeless for a day or a year. Its impact ripples out far beyond the distress and damage done to the individuals and families who find themselves with no place to call their own.

People who have fallen into homelessness are never happy about the turn their life has taken; it’s something almost no-one deliberately chooses. The rest of us often are – and should be – ashamed that one of the world’s richest economies can’t find a way to put a roof over every citizen’s head.

Obviously, there are no quick fixes. But here in Newcastle we have found the slow, steady, consistent fix that eradicates homelessness for good.

How? Obviously, the root causes of homelessness are complex and there’s no one road that leads there.

But the council decided in 2013 to make preventing homelessness a priority. Now we’ve committed ourselves to eradicating homelessness entirely. Despite the complexity of the problem, we have come to understand that we only need to follow a single guiding principle to make this apparently unattainable ambition achievable. In this city, we no longer see homelessness as only crisis management.

With our many partners across the city, from government agencies to charities and welfare organisations, we now see homelessness as a process.

It is somewhere people arrive after a sequence of events that – often quite slowly – push an individual or a family over the edge. There is nothing inevitable about the final destination; so, it follows that if we can get help to them before the crisis point, everyone wins.

Austerity has been at least partly responsible, although we were already on this road. Bed and breakfast accommodation to fulfil our statutory duty to look after the homeless was a crippling cost for the council in the early 2000s but we haven’t needed to use B&B to meet our homelessness duties since 2006.

But a partnership approach was simply the right thing to do. It is about fairness, inclusion, and social justice. We should be putting our resources into identifying those at risk of homelessness as early as possible and working with them to keep a roof over their head. Our focus should be wider than a literal interpretation of the law – our commitment is to end every kind of homelessness, whether that’s rough sleeping, sofa surfing or being forced to live in hostels and B&Bs.

And it turns out that what is right also happens to be what is best value for money. When we can support someone in the home they already have, that will always be cheaper than a crisis-driven emergency response.

The city commissions 779 rooms to respond to homelessness. Ideally these should be a quick, short-term fix to get someone off the street but we know that hostels don’t solve homelessness and that people can get ‘stuck’ in hostels. This approach doesn’t help anyone solve the conundrum of needing an income to get a home yet needing a home to be able to get and keep a job.

The main ingredients of Newcastle’s approach are:

  • Partnership: the key principle of the Active Inclusion Newcastle partnership approach that we launched in 2013 is that we work more effectively together. Some examples include our major partnership with Crisis, the national homelessness charity; with financial inclusion groups, who can identify those who haven’t enough income to pay rent and bills and offer help early; with local DWP offices on difficulties around Universal Credit.
  • Evidence-based decisions: Early on, for instance, we looked at other projects to end homelessness in Scotland, Canada, Scandinavia and many other parts of the world. We have become a learning organisation.
  • Checking whether what we do is working: We welcome research into what we’re doing – we have a thriving partnership with Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University – and research findings influence what we do. In 2019 Heriot-Watt conducted a major study, Homelessness Prevention in Newcastle: Examining the role of the ‘local state’ in the context of austerity and welfare reforms.
  • Knowing our community: We can now say that we know who is homeless in our city and why they are homeless. We know their background and we learn from every story they tell us. That’s how we know for certain that very, very few people choose to be homeless.

It has never been more important to understand homelessness and how we can end it. We know that in the next few years, people are going to be poorer. We know we have to be really creative with dwindling resources. We also know that our communities are not as resilient as they were back in 2007 when the global financial crisis first hit. Austerity cuts have hollowed out expertise and knowledge, as social support organisations have been closed and staff have been laid off to save money.

The bottom line is that crisis management is always more expensive than prevention and it’s a mindset that can even alienate people who would otherwise ask for help before things get too bad. It’s often short-term relief that doesn’t tackle root causes. It doesn’t build for the future. So, this is an opportunity to do things differently and to look around us and cherry pick the best of what others are doing. We can’t afford not to.

This presentation was prepared for a National Federation of ALMOs (NFA) seminar Rebalancing the Homelessness Equation which took place in February 2021. It is reproduced here by kind permission of Cllr McCarty and the NFA.

For Further information visit the following

Your Homes Newcastle’s Homelessness pages

Newcastle City Council Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Strategy 2020–2025

Duties, responsibilities, and legislation

Local housing authorities are responsible for ensuring the delivery of safe and affordable housing in a specific area. Generally, a local council will perform this function. There is no duty to secure accommodation for all homeless people but councils do have a duty to immediately accommodate those most in need, to help prevent homelessness in their area and to provide advice and assistance to people whose circumstances mean they may be at risk of becoming homeless.

Councils' duty to secure accommodation

Councils have a duty to secure accommodation for eligible households. To be eligible they must meet all the following criteria:

  • are legally homeless

An applicant may have been evicted from their home, asked to leave by friends or family, forced to leave due to domestic violence, unable to remain due to fire or flood or be sleeping on the streets. 

  • have a local connection

An applicant will have a local connection if they have lived in the council area for six out of the last twelve months or three out of the last five years.

  • are unintentionally homeless

An applicant could be found intentionally homeless if the council decides that it is their fault that they are homeless, for example if they have refused a previous suitable offer of accommodation.

  • are in priority need

An applicant will be in priority need if they

  • have children living with them
  • are pregnant
  • are aged 16 or 17
  • are a care leaver aged 18 to 20
  • are homeless because of fire or flood
  • are assessed by the council as vulnerable.
  • meet the immigration conditions

This is likely to involve one of the following:

  • British or Irish citizenship
  • settled status from the EU settlement scheme 
  • indefinite leave to remain (ILR)
  • refugee status or humanitarian protection

Shelter offers a more detailed explanation of these criteria.

Councils' duty to prevent and relieve homelessness

On 3 April 2018, councils also acquired further duties to work to prevent and relieve homelessness for all eligible homeless applicants, together with broader advice and assistance duties. Shelter published a useful briefing on the Act.

The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 came into force on 3 April 2018.

Under the Act councils now have:

a duty to assess all eligible applicants who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, identify their housing needs, and provide them with a personalised housing plan”

This means that:

  • the council must provide assistance if the applicant is likely to become homeless within 56 days (previously, people were given help only if they were likely to become homeless within 28 days)
  • there is a new duty to provide anyone who is homeless with a Personalised Housing Plan (PHP). The PHP sets out what the applicant and the council need to do to ensure that housing can be secured and retained.

Councils also have a duty to help to prevent homelessness

This might include:

  • specialist assistance for victims of domestic abuse
  • negotiation with private sector landlords, helping residents to find private sector accommodation and help with a deposit
  • advice on welfare benefits and employment options
  • helping residents to find a home by using Homefinder UK– the national register of vacant council housing.

Key questions for councillors to ask of officers

  • How does an applicant go about making a homelessness application to the council?
  • If there is a single point of access when is it open, is there a waiting area and how busy does it become?
  • Does the council have specialist advisers to help vulnerable applicants?
  • How is the homelessness prevention work done? Is there a specialist team?
  • How does the council help applicants who are not in priority need? What sort of advice are they given?
Case study - The North London Early Homelessness Prevention Service

This is an award-winning collaborative project between six boroughs – Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Haringey, Islington and Westminster. The project is grant funded by central government.

By reaching out to the community and intervening early, the service aims to resolve issues before they escalate. The project works with letting agents and private landlords, as well as hospitals and prisons, to actively help those at risk of becoming homeless.

The service’s prevention activities include mediation within families, debt, welfare benefits and employment options advice, as well as liaison with landlords to try to prevent evictions.

Case study - The Essex Partnership
 

Through its Housing Advisers Programme the LGA supported Essex County Council with the implementation of the agreed priority area for the multi-partner Future of Essex Vision for local housing allocations (LHAs), Essex County Council's adult and children’s services, prison and probation services, hospitals, clinical commissioning groups (CCGs), housing associations, voluntary sector and other partners, to work together more closely to prevent and tackle homelessness across the county.

Work took place to establish the main problem areas in preventing and tackling homelessness and identify existing good practice and potential solutions. A multi-agency Memorandum of Understanding was developed setting out a range of proposed organisational commitments and areas for targeted action, which commits partners to change practice, communicate better, consult and agree a range of short- and longer-term actions to improve the way homelessness is treated as a system.  

Further information

House of Commons Library Briefing on Statutory Homelessness in England

The homelessness strategy

Your council’s homelessness strategy is a key document. You will want to be familiar with it and to be able to assess how well the council is doing in meeting its stated objectives.

Councils have a responsibility for both tackling and preventing homelessness and they must take the lead in preparing a local homelessness strategy that will act as a single plan for all local agencies involved in addressing aspects of homelessness.

For some councils, the pressures arising from worsening levels of homelessness can make it difficult to see beyond the immediate need of putting a roof over someone’s head. This can lead to short-term decisions which have problematic consequences later, for both the council and those it has a responsibility to house. The existence of an over-arching strategy can act as a counterbalance to those pressures and is essential if there is to be long-term change.

When beginning to prepare a plan the council must first review current homelessness. As the strategy is developed it should cross reference other council housing policies such as allocations. There should be consultation about the strategy as it is being developed. The strategy must be published at least every five years, though some councils choose to do so more often. An annual review will enable your council to monitor and evaluate progress and make changes if necessary.

The LGA has published detailed guidance for councils on how to make homelessness strategies happen. It contains good practice examples covering both the formulation of homelessness strategies as well as delivering and evaluating homelessness strategies.

Developing the strategy

Some councils have renamed their strategies as ‘homelessness and rough sleeping strategies’ to be clear that they are addressing all forms of homelessness. This can indicate that the strategy is intended to be all-encompassing but attention is needed at a level of detail to understand the local situation. Priorities and specific approaches in the strategy need to respond to that local situation. For example, how big an issue is homelessness for young people in your area and is this getting better or worse?

More generally the strategy needs to address Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and identify whether people with protected characteristics are over-represented within local homeless people. It is known, for example, that LGBTQI+ young people are more likely to find themselves homeless than their non-LGBT peers, comprising up to 24 per cent of the youth homeless population. For any groups identified consideration should be given to how to assess and address their specific needs.

Once the evidence base has been gathered consultation needs to take place with all those who have an involvement, including people with lived experience of homelessness. The emerging strategy then needs to be linked to other strategies which are already in place that touch on homelessness. For example, what does the council’s health and well-being strategy say about the needs of people experiencing different forms of homelessness?

The impacts of homelessness on health are very significant and the LGA published a guide about this issue and working with health partners.

The LGA guidance on producing homelessness strategies also has an accompanying appendix which sets out a useful strategy self-assessment checklist.

Consultation

This list of organisations that need to be involved will include those from the statutory sector including health services, emergency services, social services and education. The way your council as a housing authority engages with these will be different in each area depending on the ways responsibilities are allocated to tiers of local government but the importance of engaging is the same whether they are part of the same organisation or based elsewhere.

Other housing providers will also need to be involved and any voluntary groups which are working with homeless people in the area. Building clear links and establishing a shared strategy will facilitate inputs from those partners later when progress is being reviewed.

Delivering, reviewing and assessing

Once the plan has been agreed an action plan to deliver it will be needed. Work on this need not await formal agreement and publication of the plan. Such an action plan will set out what will happen and when and will indicate how the successful completion of those actions is intended to impact on the statistics.

The arrangements for delivering and evaluating the strategy need to be clear and all stakeholders should know what is expected of them and what the timetable is for reviewing progress.

As councillors, you will want to know that progress is being made on the specific actions and to see up-to-date statistics. If the things are being delivered but the numbers are still deteriorating, you will want to understand the underlying issues at work and engage with both your officers and stakeholders in exploring this.

Key questions for councillors to ask of officers

  • Is the council’s Homelessness Strategy up to date? If it is when was it last published and when will it be renewed?
  • What information is available about current levels of homelessness in the area and what is the direction of travel for the numbers in each type of homelessness?
  • How does the council coordinate work on homelessness internally? How does it do this with external partners?
  • What has been done to identify the extent to which people with protected characteristics are over-represented among those locally who are homeless and does the strategy specifically address their needs?
  • How does the council hear from those who have lived experience of homelessness?
  • How is the delivery of the strategy monitored and evaluated?
  • Does the strategy address the financial implications of spending now to reduce later costs?
Case study - Thurrock Council’s Strategy
 

Thurrock Council refreshed its Homelessness Prevention and Rough Sleeping Strategy in January 2020. One of the high-level actions set out in the strategy was to establish a Homelessness Partnership Board for Thurrock comprising key stakeholders from other public bodies and public sector organisations such as the NHS and from organisations within the community, voluntary and faith sector. The board also seeks to learn from those with lived experience of homelessness.

This collaborative approach is intended to ensure that successful outcomes can be delivered over the lifetime of the strategy by leveraging the collective knowledge, experience, influence and expertise of the range of board members and their respective organisations.

The first progress report on that plan was recently considered by the council’s housing scrutiny committee.

Different forms of homelessness

Homelessness can take many forms, some of which are highly visible while others are hidden. Perhaps the most visible form of homelessness is rough sleeping but there are also members of our communities who are sleeping in cars, vans or sheds or moving from sofa to sofa each night without having anywhere to call home. This section looks in particular at rough sleeping and also ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ and how councils are addressing these issues.

Rough sleeping

Councils generally have a specialist street outreach team that works with rough sleepers to help them into safe and secure accommodation. This team often works with a charity partner that the council has contracted to assist with outreach work and may have specialist staff to help those with mental health or addiction challenges. Members of the public can make their local homeless outreach team aware of someone who needs help by contacting Streetlink.

Government statistics show street homelessness in England rose from 1,768 people in autumn 2010 to 4,677 people in autumn 2018.

Some councils have a specialist team to work with people experiencing homelessness who are subject to No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) rules based on their immigration status.

What is 'No Recourse to Public Funds'

Section 115 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 states that a person will have ‘no recourse to public funds’ if they are ‘subject to immigration control’. This means they have no entitlement to the majority of welfare benefits, including income support, housing benefit and a range of allowances and tax credits.

Examples of groups with no recourse to public funds include:

  • unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) care leavers: UASC who have ‘aged out’ of the care system, who are yet to receive a determination of immigration status in their favour
  • ‘zambrano’ carers: primary carers of British citizen children, where the primary carer is not an EEA national 
  • people in the UK on a spousal visa, student visa or who have limited leave granted under family or private life rules.

NRPF individuals can, nevertheless, be eligible for assistance from their councils for a range of services including education and social care. Councils have duties under a legislation that includes the National Assistance Act 1948, the Children Act 1989 and the Human Rights Act 1998. Consequently, boroughs are often left with the responsibility to provide for subsistence and accommodation needs that, under different circumstances, would be centrally funded. At the moment, councils receive no additional funding for these costs. 

The NRPF Network offers more detailed information. The LGA has called for the NRPF condition to be lifted for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. The High Court ruled in March 2021 that during the pandemic councils can lawfully provide accommodation to rough sleepers who are normally ineligible.

Key questions for councillors to ask of officers

  • What is the current understanding of the numbers of rough sleepers in the council area?
  • How did the council respond to the initiative to house all rough sleepers in 2020?  Has this changed the way the council and its partners work with rough sleepers?
  • Does the council work with a third sector partner on a street outreach service?
  • How much emergency accommodation is available?
  • Does the council have a Housing First project?
  • How many people have NRPF and how does the council assist them?
Case study - Housing First
 

Born in New York in the 1990s and rolled out nationwide in Finland, Housing First offers an unconditional home to vulnerable rough sleepers, together with a package of wrap-around support.

Amsterdam’s Housing First service reported in 2013 that 97 per cent of the high needs homeless people who were using it were still in their homes after 12 months. Copenhagen’s programme had a 94 per cent success rate. Canada’s At Home/Chez Soi project found that over two years Housing First participants “achieved significantly greater housing stability, quality of life and community functioning…” than those on more traditional housing and treatment pathways.

In the UK, Housing First programmes have been initiated by a number of councils including the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), the Liverpool City Region and some London Boroughs.

Case study - Southend-on-Sea Borough Council
 

After the Government issued a directive to all councils to temporarily house all rough sleepers during the pandemic in March 2020, Southend-on-Sea placed 89 rough sleepers in hotel and B&B accommodation in just two days and housed a total of 138 across the entire period of lockdown. When restrictions began to ease, the council’s housing and homelessness teams put into action their plans to move those people from temporary to permanent accommodation, with the right support plan for each individual.

Case study - North East Lincolnshire Council 

Nurses working in Grimsby identified large numbers of people who were not registered with a doctor. This included homeless people. With the help of funding from the Department of Health’s social enterprise fund, a new primary care service, Open Door, was established in the centre of the town by the Care Plus Group.

Today, Open Door is a thriving and busy multi-disciplinary health centre. It relies on word-of-mouth and referrals in from the voluntary sector, faith groups and North East Lincolnshire Council and NHS services to identify patients. As well as providing direct health care, Open Door also places a big emphasis on helping patients in other areas of their lives too. There is a social advice worker who can help them access benefits and employment support, while a housing advice service is also run from the centre. The council also provides a dedicated financial advisor to run sessions on some days. 

Temporary accommodation and discharging the duty to relieve homelessness

In the previous sections we looked at the basis on which councils must accept responsibilities for some homeless families. Once a family has been accepted as being in ‘priority need’ the council has a duty to relieve their homelessness. This section looks at the ways in which this can be done.

Temporary accommodation

Where an applicant has been assessed as being in ‘priority need’ they will generally be allocated temporary accommodation (also known as TA) in the first instance. The applicant will still be statutorily homeless until they have been given permanent accommodation.

The word ‘temporary’ usually implies that something will be short term, probably for a matter of weeks or perhaps a few months. However, in this context ‘temporary’ simply means that this is not permanent accommodation. In some cases, families may remain in temporary accommodation of one sort or another for several years before the council is able to offer them a permanent home. It is important when talking to constituents that you are clear about this, as the sense of disappointment when time in temporary accommodation stretches out can be very difficult to resolve.

Temporary accommodation must be suitable and sufficient to accommodate applicants and those who normally live with them. It may be:

  • in a reception centre
  • in bed and breakfast accommodation
  • in a self-contained house or flat either owned by the council or in the private rented sector.

Throughout the time someone in priority need remains in temporary accommodation the council continues to have a duty to relieve their homelessness.

Where is the temporary accommodation located?

In recent years some councils have found it difficult to meet the demand for temporary accommodation solely with units that are within their own borders. On 30 September 2020, 25,930 or 27.7 per cent of households in temporary accommodation were in accommodation in a different local authority district as shown in the relevant government statistics.

Where this has led to private sector accommodation outside the council area but close to the boundary this may not cause such severe problems, although it can have significant impact on access to schools. However, in some cases councils have had to house families many miles away, with very significant impact on employment, education and access to family support.

Some councils have done this by working closely with other councils and paying a lot of attention to how they support families that are relocated out of borough on a temporary basis. In some cases, schemes have been developed where families can relocate permanently with the council’s help if they feel it will be a better solution for them.

Discharging the duty to relieve homelessness

You will come across references to ‘discharge of duty’ and this is about the council taking such action as will enable it to no longer have a duty to that family or individual. In most cases this will be achieved by an offer of suitable accommodation including in the private rental sector but there are some exceptions which are set out below.

The council can, in some instances, discharge the duty by offering advice and assistance that enables the applicant to secure accommodation for themselves but the duty is only discharged if they actually find accommodation as a result.

In some cases, the council may accept that it needs to provide accommodation but agree that the family will remain in their current accommodation until the council finds somewhere for them. This is called ‘Homeless at home’ and an example would be where there are two households in a single dwelling and one has been asked to leave (eg an adult child still living in the family home who has been asked to move out by their parent[s]).

There are other circumstances in which action taken by the applicant themselves can lead to the council’s duty coming to an end. For more information about this visit Shelter’s web site.

Key questions for councillors to ask of officers

  • How many families are in temporary accommodation overall?
  • What is the breakdown between different types of accommodation and how long are families staying?
  • Are any families being placed outside the council’s area – if so, how are they being supported?  What arrangements are there for liaising with the council in the area families are moved to?
  • Is there a maximum distance/travel time from their temporary accommodation to their home area and, if so, how is this calculated?
Case study - Capital Letters
 

The need to place families outside the council area has been a particular problem for London Boroughs because of the high cost of rental accommodation in the city. In December 2018, 13 London Boroughs – expanded to 17 from April 2020 – came together to set up Capital Letters, a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee and owned by its members. Its objective is to increase the supply of rented accommodation for homeless households across London, reduce competition for the limited pool of properties and drive down costs. Capital Letters aimed to have housed 20,000 families by the end of 2020.

Case study - Newark & Sherwood District Council
 

In early 2019, consultants were appointed through the LGA Housing Advisers programme to work with Newark and Sherwood District Council to complete an appraisal for the development of temporary accommodation on an existing site, Seven Hills in Newark.

One of the fundamental weaknesses of the existing provision at Seven Hills was the size and design of the accommodation facilities especially for families with children, with significant challenges being experienced for those with young and older dependents.

At the heart of the appraisal was the need to ensure that, whilst safeguarding value for money and best use of council assets, provision of temporary accommodation for those in critical housing need was appropriate to household demographic and protected against further deterioration of wellbeing.

Case study - London Borough of Redbridge
 

Redbridge Council faced an increasing demand for temporary housing. People evicted from the private rented sector were spending longer and longer homeless in B&B accommodation.

The council was also grappling with a £4.5 million overspend on temporary accommodation and the hidden costs of the additional support that residents in temporary housing required from the local community and council services

The Design in the Public Sector programme was adopted and led to a better understanding of the issue and changes to the way it was being addressed which led to the team reducing the number of families living in high-cost B&Bs to zero in just eight months.

Housing allocations

Councils have a housing register to allocate homes over which they have ‘nomination rights’. These can include council homes and homes managed by housing associations. If a council owns a stock of council homes, these will be managed and maintained through a Housing Revenue Account, separate from all other spending, which is managed through the council’s General Fund.

Councils are also permitted to ‘discharge’ their homelessness duty towards a household if a suitable home can be found in the private rented sector.

Most councils operate a ‘choice-based lettings’ system. This means that households on the council’s housing register, including homeless households, will be awarded points based on need. Some priority must be awarded to households who are:

  • homeless
  • fleeing domestic violence
  • living in very overcrowded conditions
  • in need of a move because of health problems or a disability.

Council allocations policies often also include the discretion to award a ‘direct offer’ of a home to a household outside of the normal lettings process, in special circumstances.

Some councils do not use a choice-based lettings system and allocate all of their homes through direct offers to households on their housing register.

Key questions for councillors to ask of officers

  • How many households are on the council’s housing register?
  • Does the council use a choice-based lettings system?
  • How does the council’s allocation policy assign priority and how many households are in each priority band?
  • Does the council use direct offers for some or all of its allocations?
  • Does the council balance choice-based lettings with some direct offers? If so, in what circumstances?
  • How does the council’s allocation policy assist families in temporary accommodation, applicants with serious health issues or a disability and single people experiencing homelessness?
  • How many homes on average does the council allocate per year? Is this number rising or falling? How long does it take to allocate a home when it becomes vacant?
  • What is the average waiting time to be allocated permanent social housing, broken down by priority band and type of accommodation including accessible accommodation? Is this going up or down?
  • How many council homes does the council own and manage?
  • Does the council have ‘nomination rights’ on other social rent homes, eg homes owned and managed by housing associations?
  • Does the council discharge its duty into the private sector?
Case study - Nottingham City Council

Effective use of the private rented sector (PRS) as a housing resource is important in Nottingham because the private sector is often both the cause and solution for homelessness. As well as exploring ways in which they could better engage with the PRS in order to secure more properties, the council wanted to look at the ways in which it could deploy earlier interventions in order to prevent people from becoming homeless from PRS homes.

Further information: Statutory guidance on social housing allocations for local housing authorities in England.

Wider housing supply issues

It is often very difficult, even for those in desperate need, to secure a council or social rent home. This is because these homes are in very short supply. Some councils are building new council homes and the government provides a grant for each new home that is built. However, this grant generally does not cover any more than a third of the build costs of a new home.

Council homes also continue to be lost through ‘Right to Buy’ where a tenant who has lived in their council home for at least three years can buy their home from the council at a discount.

Councils were given more freedom on how they spend the money from homes sold through Right to Buy in a recent ministerial announcement which set out new arrangements.

Councils can also use the planning system to try to get more social rent homes built. S106 planning agreements can be used to ensure that all new developments include a percentage of social rent homes.

Key questions for councillors to ask of officers

  • Is the council building new homes? What are the barriers to this?
  • Are new social rent homes built through S106 planning agreements?
  • If so, how many have been built in the past five years? What proportion of affordable/social housing does the council’s planning policy mandate? How often is this delivered?
  • How many socially rented homes have been lost to Right to Buy in the past five years? Has the number of homes for social rent gone up or down in the past five years?
Case study - Spelthorne Borough Council
 

Spelthorne Borough Council faces challenges including: affordability; supply, particularly affordable housing; and meeting the need for temporary accommodation. They worked with an external consultancy to develop an action plan to guide interventions in the housing market.

Further information

A report from the Mayor of London on council house building explains how London Councils are being supported by mayoral funding.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MCHLG) published statistics on the Supply of Affordable Housing for 2019/20.

Rural homelessness

Readers of this guide will not need to be told that there has been a significant rise in homelessness over the last decade but it is easy to assume that this is mainly an urban issue. Research commissioned by CPRE, the Countryside Charity with English Rural and the Rural Services Network, showed that the number of households categorised as homeless in rural councils had risen by 115 per cent from 2017/18.

The challenges involved in preventing and relieving homelessness in rural areas can be different because of the particular circumstances in such areas, such as poor transport connections, isolated communities and lack of emergency provision. Even identifying the presence of rough sleepers is problematic because they are likely to be less visible than in urban areas. A report for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in 2017 provides some useful information on this issue.

Key questions for councillors to ask of officers

  • What are the trends in homelessness locally for all types of homelessness?
  • Does the council work with neighbouring authorities on homelessness issues?
  • Are there other local organisations working on homelessness, eg housing associations or voluntary groups? If so, how does the council liaise with them?
  • What is the council’s strategy for delivering affordable homes?
Case study - Cornwall Council

In March 2020, Cornwall Council needed to offer accommodation to rough sleepers to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Working with its ALMO, Cornwall Housing, a pop-up development of 11 single berth and fully self-contained units was established in Truro town centre. Residents have been supported on site and the council is working with residents to find more permanent accommodation for them.

Case study - Cotswold District Council
 

Cotswold District Council worked in partnership with a local housing association, Cirencester Housing, to develop 12 new affordable homes for local people. The scheme was grant funded by the council and provided 10 homes for rent and two for shared ownership.

Further information

St Mungo’s published a report in 2020 which compared responses to rural homelessness in England and the United States.

 

Universal Credit and Local Housing Allowance

Welfare reform measures are gradually replacing housing benefit and other allowances with a single monthly payment called Universal Credit. The housing costs element of Universal Credit is known as Local Housing Allowance. This allowance is capped at a maximum amount in each local area.

Local Housing Allowance can be used to assist with rent costs in all tenures of homes, including both council homes and privately rented homes. However, the cap on local housing allowance has meant some areas have very few private rented homes which are affordable and available to those in receipt of benefits.

The rising costs of renting or buying private sector homes has proved very challenging for families on low incomes. The impact of welfare reform, particularly the benefit cap and the local housing allowance cap, has made private rented accommodation very difficult to afford for some households in some parts of the country. Social rented housing is also in much shorter supply than it has been in previous decades.

Discretionary Housing Payments

Councils can decide to provide extra money towards housing costs in the form of Discretionary Housing Payments, especially when a household has been affected by the local housing allowance cap.

Key questions for councillors to ask of officers

  • Do Local Housing Allowance Rates match private sector rents in the area? What is the gap?
  • Does the council help some households with Discretionary Housing Payments? 

Homelessness and the COVID-19 pandemic

The 'eviction ban'

The Coronavirus Act 2020 required landlords to give tenants three months’ notice if they were seeking to end a tenancy, which has been generally referred to as the ‘eviction ban’. On 28 August 2020, new regulations required landlords to give six months’ notice. This extension does not apply where the eviction notice is for circumstances such as anti-social behaviour, domestic violence or rent arrears.

On 10 September 2020, further regulations were announced meaning the bailiffs could not enforce evictions. This ban was subsequently extended and, at the time of writing, will remain in place until 31 May 2021 at least. A briefing on the support available for both landlords and tenants may be helpful.

The government's 'Everyone In' policy

In March 2020, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) wrote to all councils telling them that, in light of the COIVD-19 pandemic, they needed to tackle rough sleeping by getting ‘Everyone In’, ie no longer sleeping on the streets, by the end of the week. Financial assistance was provided to councils.

On 2 May 2020, it was announced a new government taskforce, led by Dame Louise Casey, is to work with councils “to ensure rough sleepers can move into long-term, safe accommodation once the immediate crisis is over…”.

The LGA commissioned a report which looked at the success of ‘Everyone In’ and outstanding issues that needed to be resolved for the future. It also contains case studies of successful local approaches.

Key questions for councillors to ask of officers

  • Has the council given specialist advice to residents on the new eviction regulations during the coronavirus pandemic?
  • How has well has ‘Everyone In’ policy worked in that locality?
  • Has the council procured new self-contained emergency accommodation and stopped using dormitory-style emergency accommodation during the coronavirus pandemic?
Case study - Birmingham City Council
 

Birmingham City Council’s preventative and collaborative approach meant that when the government launched the ‘Everyone In’ initiative in March last year they were in a better place than most to respond to the pandemic.

The council recognised that the current need and flow of those presenting need had the potential to be overwhelming and undermine efforts to keep people safe as well any hope of sustainable solutions. The solution was to share responsibility and tasks across programmes and the sector, while keeping the needs of the individual front and centre.

Working with the local voluntary sector

In your local area there are likely to be groups both large and small that are working on aspects of homelessness. Some will take a very focused approach such as supporting people who have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status, while others will take a broader approach. They are all potential allies and an early priority for any councillor with an interest in homelessness will be to identify such groups and begin to make contact with them.

In some cases, this may lead to some opportunities for you to visit individual projects and deepen your understanding of what is happening on the ground. There may be some existing arrangements bringing such groups together with the council to discuss both delivery of services on the ground and share information.

In 2020 Homeless Link and the LGA published guidance for voluntary organisations on working strategically with councils to end homelessness. While this was aimed at voluntary organisations themselves it has a great deal of helpful information and suggestions about how such strategic working can be developed. It suggests six elements of effective joint working on homelessness and it may be helpful to ask some key questions about these in your locality.

Key questions for councillors to ask of officers

  • Are there effective operational relationships and links in place between the council and local organisations?
  • Are there effective relationships involving senior officers and councillors and those leading local homelessness organisations?
  • Do current local multi-agency meeting structures and groups provide opportunities for the council and local groups to work together on homelessness?
  • Did your local homelessness strategy and action plan have significant input from local homelessness organisations?
  • Do you regularly share good quality data?
  • Is there shared knowledge of what local services are currently available?
Case study - London Borough of Lewisham
 

The Lewisham Homelessness Forum brings together representatives of organisations in the borough which work on homelessness. It liaises with the council and government agencies to share local learning from the frontline and acts as advocates for those experiencing homelessness in Lewisham. One of its co-chairs, Simon Allen from the Jericho Road Project, wrote a short blog which describes how the forum works and why it makes a difference.

Tackling homelessness – councillor roles

Elsewhere in this guide we have provided information and ideas about how councils address homelessness and the kind of questions you may want to ask about the situation in your locality. You will also want to think about how you carry out your own role and, in this section, we offer some ideas about how you can do that effectively. There isn’t a single way to do so of course. You will have your own leadership style and, while you may want to explore ways to enhance your skill set, it is important that you work in ways which build on what you are good at rather than trying to fit someone else’s template.

The LGA offers a range of resources and support for councillors directly and also through the political group offices.

As the cabinet lead

As the senior councillor with responsibility for work on homelessness you have an opportunity to provide leadership in your locality in a number of different settings. Inevitably much of your day-to-day work will be within the council itself with fellow councillors and officers but those involved in homelessness in the community will also look to you to offer a lead about the way that together your community can tackle all aspects of this issue.

You are not expected to be an expert in the way that the professional staff who work for the council are but you will need to develop a broad understanding of the subject matter so that you can begin to make informed judgements about the choices that face the council. As your understanding deepens you will want to look critically at the strategy that is currently being pursued and discuss it with people inside and outside the council who have knowledge and experience to share.

When the council is making financial decisions, you will need to be aware of and explain to your colleagues what the implications are of decisions to change the levels of funding for work on homelessness.

A key part of the information needed to do these things well will be the lived experience of individuals and families who are or have been homeless in your area. Your officers and local voluntary groups will be able to provide insights and also facilitate you engaging directly with service users.

As a ward councillor

If your council is experiencing a high level of homelessness you may find that this is a significant part of your casework load. Dealing with individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness can be a distressing experience and you will be able to assist them more effectively if you know what information they need to provide. Many in that situation will not be aware of the support and assistance they may be entitled to or the constraints on the council when trying to assist.

If you can, be supportive but do so without raising unrealistic expectations; this will be helpful to everyone concerned. For example, a family which has been placed in ‘temporary accommodation’ might reasonably expect that will mean they will be there for weeks or perhaps months. You will however be aware of the situation locally and if their stay is likely to be for some years you can explain this.

Some ward councillors may become aware that there are rough sleepers in the area either from their own observation or because constituents tell them about it. Getting a briefing from the officer team working on this will enable you to provide leadership to your local community by sharing the real story rather than some of the misconceptions which may arise.

The council may want to create accommodation in your ward, as part of its homelessness strategy. This may involve new homes or the conversion of existing properties, both of which can provoke strong feelings. You will need to make sure that your colleagues who are leading on the strategy are aware of local concerns, while also sharing with your constituents facts about the situation and what is planned.

As a scrutiny councillor

When a council is addressing an issue where there can be sudden changes in demand requiring urgent action, scrutiny councillors have a key role to play. Offering a constructive challenge to quickly formulated proposals can often lead to improvements ahead of implementation, while reviewing outcomes and identifying what has and hasn’t worked well is critical to improving future performance.

Scrutiny can also provide an opportunity to look at how issues such as homelessness have been addressed by other councils or in other countries. Decisions made in your council always need to take into account local circumstances but looking at ideas from elsewhere can stimulate new thinking locally.

Working with officers

In most councils there will be a corporate director whose brief includes housing in general and homelessness specifically. However, there may be aspects of homelessness that are dealt with in other directorates, in particular those covering social care, education and finance. There will be officers who are leading on particular aspects of the council’s housing services. This could include management and maintenance of council homes, external partnerships with other housing providers and housing needs including strategy and construction of new homes as well as homelessness itself.

As well as senior officers, for whom homelessness will be one of a significant number of priorities they have to address, there will be staff who work on the frontline and who meet homeless families and individuals every working day.

Doing a frontline job in this field can be very challenging. As a councillor you will know how distressing it is to talk to a family to whom you cannot offer immediate solutions but some staff are doing that day after day and a visit to their workplace can make clear that you not only value what they are doing but want to hear from them about what they are learning.

When policies are being framed and budgets decided, the role of the cabinet member in being an advocate for work on homelessness is key and the officer team will provide the briefings and information needed to do this effectively. But whatever your role as councillor, making sure that homelessness is given thorough consideration alongside other pressing issues will be important and will potentially make a difference for those experiencing homelessness and those inside and outside the council working with them.

Helping you to be effective

Whatever your role, it is worth asking for some basic information that will help you do your job.

Know who the key people to talk to are – you might ask for a structure chart showing which officers work on homelessness and related issues. You may also want to identify the people who are involved in other organisations who are working on homelessness locally.

Does the council provide councillors with regularly updated headline statistics? There will be detailed figures provided but do you know how many families are in temporary accommodation each night and whether the number is rising or falling? Try talking to officers about a short list of key numbers on which they can give you monthly updates.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the council’s internal processes. Working in partnership with other organisations is important but do the different parts of the council work well together? Is homelessness understood as a priority by all parts of the council?

Is the council open to new ideas about tacking homelessness? It can be very difficult to find the time for thinking about how things could change when facing everyday pressures to just to keep things going. Councillors can make sure that there are opportunities to step back and look at what is working well and what is not, what ideas are emerging elsewhere and could they be adopted in your council.

In conclusion

We began by looking at how one council, Newcastle City, is approaching homelessness in its locality. Their ambition is to eliminate homelessness but they acknowledge that this will take many years and along the way it is vital to help, as much as possible, those who are currently homeless.

Councillors can play a key part in making that happen and this guide offers some suggestions about how this can be done and where ideas and information can be gathered but it does not tell you what the right answer is for your locality – only you, working with council officers, partners and local residents can work that out.

Further sources of information

The LGA itself has information about aspects of homelessness as well as housing matters more generally.

The National Federation of ALMOs is the representative body for council’s arm-length housing management organisations.

The National Housing Federation is the national body for Housing Associations – they have an important role to play in addressing homelessness.

There are a number of national organisations which are working specifically in the Homelessness sector. These are some of the most active ones.

Homeless Link is the national membership charity for organisations working directly with people who become homeless in England.

The Big Issue Foundation is a charity supporting magazine vendors to rebuild their own pathways to a better future and a shop curating social enterprise products.

Shelter helps people struggling with bad housing or homelessness, through advice, support and legal services.

Crisis provides one-to-one support, advice and courses for homeless people.

St. Mungo’s takes a recovery-based approach for its clients, focusing on addressing the issues a person faces to help them move on with their lives.

Emmaus offers a home for as long as someone needs it, as well as meaningful work in their social enterprises.

Streetlink connects rough sleepers to homelessness services. The charity also runs a website, app and phone line enabling concerned members of the public to report rough sleepers.

Pathway is the UK’s leading homeless healthcare charity.

Centrepoint provides housing and support for young people, regionally in London, Manchester, Yorkshire and the North East and through partnerships all over the UK.

There are local organisations working in every council area and it is well worthwhile finding out about them and making contact – they will have very useful information and play a vital part in the work on homelessness in your locality. Homeless Link have a search facility which can identify local services.