The COVID-19 cliff edge for homelessness
5th June 2020
There are currently three levels of support for someone facing homelessness; emergency accommodation, temporary housing and social housing. When an individual finds themselves street homeless, local authorities will sometimes offer emergency accommodation whilst the council considers their homeless application. If a person then meets the criteria for longer-term housing, they may be offered ‘temporary accommodation’ until long-term social housing become available.
On 27 March, the Government gave local authorities 48 hours to find emergency accommodation for all rough sleepers in England. Local authorities responded swiftly and now thousands (approximately 5,400) of rough sleepers known to councils are residing in emergency accommodation provided by hotels or B&Bs so that they can self-isolate during the crisis. This accommodation is only available due to the provision of emergency budget and government restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which currently prevents these establishments from operating in their usual capacity.
As a provider of temporary accommodation, Caridon Property has been working with local authorities across the south of England even more closely over the last six weeks to help house rough sleepers or those fleeing domestic violence. They have first-hand experience of the uphill battle our country is about to face when it comes to homelessness.
Exploring the ‘COVID cliff-edge’, Mario Carrozzo, CEO of Caridon Group, raises concerns that the emergency measures put in place to house homeless people in facilities which cannot currently accommodate their usual clientele is an eviction time-bomb. He believes this, combined with several challenges faced by the Private Rented Sector, could see homelessness surge to a scale not seen before.
Firstly, local authorities should be commended on how efficiently they rose to the challenge of providing emergency accommodation for homeless people. The funding provided by government and the efficient action taken by local authorities virtually eradicated homelessness overnight. However, when the emergency funding ends and hotels and B&Bs reopen, what happens next?
The true impact of the pandemic on our economy is yet to be seen. A surge in unemployment and an increase in the breakdown of relationships will put more people at risk of homelessness. Couple that with displacing some 5000 people currently residing in emergency accommodation and our shortage of temporary and social housing becomes even more apparent.
For many years, due to the chronic shortage of social housing, in particular one-bed properties as they are rarely built or developed for the single occupants of working age, the escape from homelessness for many (an estimated 90%) has been the private landlord. However, following the outbreak of COVID-19, the fluidity of the PRS is facing some challenging factors: -
1.In an average three-month period, hundreds of thousands of new tenancies are agreed in the PRS. The nationwide lockdown saw the whole property market put on ice, with landlords unable to move existing tenants out or new tenants in. Although this has now been relaxed, the private rented sector is still at reduced capacity, with many tenants and landlords reluctant to make changes due to the volatility of the current situation.
2.The three-month ban on evictions (which looks likely to be extended) has deferred existing eviction cases, creating a backlog. When courts do finally reopen, there will be an influx of evictions and these people will need help to find accommodation and avoid ending up homeless.
3.The stark reality is that COVID-19 is forcing millions of people into poverty through reduced work and unemployment. We know from the Department of Work and Pensions that an additional 1.8million people have already signed up to claim Universal Credit. With so many tenants seeing their income significantly reduced, rent arrears at an unprecedented level are inevitable. Regrettably, this will undoubtedly lead to an increase in evictions in a few months, and this surge will cause a further delay to the property repossession and eviction process, adding further to the shortage of new rented accommodation available.
4.The impending upheaval of those currently residing in hotels and B&Bs will be heightened by the planned banning of Section 21 no-fault evictions, meaning it will be more difficult for landlords to gain possession of their properties. In response, we know that private landlords were already pre-empting this ban and looking to rehouse less risky tenants, such as the student market which provides the opportunity to generate greater income. This puts even more tenants at risk of homelessness.
What does all this mean? In addition to the usual change of personal circumstances, such as the breakdown of a relationship, COVID-19 will rapidly increase homeless numbers through reduced stock, increased rent arrears and delays to evictions.
The large proportion of people who may previously have had their housing needs met by private landlords are likely to find this increasingly challenging. Just a 10% reduction in available rental accommodation in the PRS would see thousands fewer homeless people being housed meaning social housing will be their only option.
However, with central and local government resources already stretched, we know the supply of housing stock to the social sector is insufficient. They simply do not have the capacity to house thousands more tenants.
On top of this, when the government relaxes lockdown rules and hotels and B&Bs can resume their normal service, those homeless people currently residing there will find themselves back out on the streets with even less of a chance of securing accommodation.
COVID-19 has exposed the existing homelessness crisis and highlighted the lack of one-bed housing provision that enables single homeless cohorts to escape the state of homelessness. A worrying combination of factors outlined above suggest we are standing on a cliff edge, with homelessness in the UK set to surge to unprecedented levels that will take years to get back to a pre COVID-19 level.
The big question is where will the 5000+ people go once hotels and similar emergency establishments go back to ‘business as usual’?
If the budget and desire was there to end homelessness in the wake of a global pandemic, all but ending rough sleeping overnight, we cannot afford to go backwards. We must act now.