It’s a popular adage that anyone can become homeless.
A few unforeseen misfortunes and the lack of a support network is enough for many people to be at risk of losing their place to stay. And the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed that reality with the economic impact of the virus disrupting jobs and slashing incomes.
But there are many other reasons why people are pushed out of safe accommodation and forced on to the streets, into shelters and hostels or to seeking a roof overhead with a friend or family.
Why do people become homeless?
There are many reasons why people become homeless and these can be down to systemic issues in the country, such as a lack of affordable housing or rising unemployment. Both of these reasons are particularly common as the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to be felt.
Personal challenges can also lead to homelessness. Mental or physical health problems and substance misuse can see people struggle to hold on to their home while the loss of a job or the breakdown of a relationship can mean that people cannot carry on covering rent or are forced to find a new home.
People who leave prison, care or the armed forces with no home to go to can find themselves homeless too.
But the most common reason for homelessness is the loss of a private rented home. According to Homeless Link, the percentage of people losing their home due to the end of an assured short-term tenancy rose from 15 per cent in 2011 to 29 per cent in 2015.
Annual statutory homelessness figures for England backed up this trend in 2019/20. The loss of a private rented assured shorthold tenancy accounted for 43,260 households who required help from councils to avoid homelessness. That is still around the 29 per cent figure seen five years earlier.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of homelessness in the UK and that has changed the main driver of homelessness. According to the latest statutory homelessness figures, the Everyone In scheme and the eviction ban introduced last summer meant the loss of a place to stay with friends and relatives became more prominent than the loss of a private tenancy between July and September last year.
A third of households who were owed council support for homelessness were sofa surfing before asking for help, a rise of 3,400 households in one year. The loss of a private tenancy and domestic abuse followed and made up 13 and 12 per cent of cases respectively.
But the change is likely to be short-lived. From the end of September 2020, the ban on evictions under Section 21 of the Housing Act in cases where the tenant is struggling to pay rent were lifted. Section 21 orders are also known as no-fault evictions as landlords are not required to give a reason to evict a tenant. While the ban meant Section 21 cases fell, it has now lapsed and a promised reform of the law has been put back until after the pandemic.
What are the causes and effects of homelessness?
Some of the same issues that lead to the loss of a settled home can also make it difficult to solve homelessness.
Mental or physical health issues can prove difficult when rehousing someone who has found themselves homeless. It can make accessing support services more difficult and people may require homes with specific needs in order to live there, for example, properties may need to be adapted to help mobility or support might need to be on-hand for mental health or addiction issues.
This is why a “Housing First” scheme is often suggested as a method of solving homelessness. Renowned for virtually eradicating street homelessness in Finland, the model proposes giving rough sleepers their own property coupled with wraparound support to help them adapt to their new surroundings and work on issues that might have caused them to become homeless in the first place.
Housing First has also been a success in recent years in Scotland, rolled out through the Pathfinder programme.The UK government has been running pilot schemes in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands. Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has confirmed that the Housing First approach is at the heart of the government’s plans to rehouse rough sleepers following the Everyone In scheme’s emergency Covid-19 protections which saw more than 15,000 people helped off the streets when the pandemic first hit.
What is the UK doing about homelessness?
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed how street homelessness is treated with rough sleepers brought off the streets to protect them from the virus. The government says that more than 30,000 people have been put up in hotels and other emergency accommodation in recent months as part of the Everyone In scheme.
A total of 6,000 homes have been promised to help people move on to more permanent accommodation, including 3,300 by the end of March.
The government has also pledged an extra £15 million on its Protect Programme to help councils protect rough sleepers through the winter and Covid-19 lockdowns. That takes government spending on homelessness up to £700m since the pandemic began.
However, while the urgent action by the government, housing charities and campaigners and local authorities has done much to save lives – 266 according to estimates by University College London researchers – there is a warning of more homelessness to come. With the loss of jobs and the UK now in recession there is a chance that more people will find themselves facing homelessnes in the months ahead.