The problem with homeless hostels. And why they need fixed

Britain is in the midst of a homeless hostel crisis costing the country millions – and fuelling the nation's housing crisis

Paul Jones, 45 years old and homeless, prefers to keep away from hostels. Like many men and women selling The Big Issue, he has become thoroughly fed-up of sleeping in places provided by charities for rough sleepers.

Paul stayed in the night shelter run by the Julian Trust in Bristol for about eight months after losing his job and flat in the city. “There’s 18 people packed in one big room,” he explains. “It’s chaotic, and there’s a lot of drugs and alcohol going on, which I really want to keep away from. I never really felt comfortable there at all.”

Paul (below) now makes sure he sells enough copies of The Big Issue to pay £17.50 each night for a spot at Bristol’s main backpackers’ hostel – a privately-run place used by young travellers and itinerant workers. “It’s cleaner and warmer and everybody just wants a good night’s sleep,” says Paul. “It’s been a much better place to start getting my life back together.”

Supported accommodation is supposed to offer exactly what Paul has found elsewhere: a place for homeless people to begin putting their lives together. Yet many of our vendors have reported finding it difficult to make changes and move on from the open-floor night shelters and single bedroom hostels run by charities and housing associations across the UK.

“In a lot of the large hostels they are really just warehousing homeless people,” says Matt Thomas, a 47-year-old Big Issue vendor in Oxford. “People seem to get stuck in the system indefinitely.”

The supported accommodation system is also expensive. It is a system that has come to rely heavily on housing benefit, claimed on behalf of homeless residents. The government, keen to work out the true costs of supported accommodation and how best to fund it, recently commissioned an Ipsos Mori-led review of the sector. The report, set for release in November, is expected to show that supported accommodation costs the taxpayer close to £2bn a year.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

While it doesn’t come near the staggering £9.3bn a year going to private, property-owning landlords in housing benefit, it is worth investigating whether we can expect better from the accommodation provided for homeless people. Are hostels really offering value for money? And are hostels really the best environment for vulnerable people to address their problems?

Pat Cadwallader, 40, a Big Issue vendor who also now helps distribute magazines to other vendors in central London, recalls spending six frustrating months at a hostel in Camden where rent was more than £200 a week. Like the rest of the residents, Pat’s rent was covered by housing benefit.

“It wasn’t a very nice place,” he says. “Let’s just say I didn’t like my time there. I did have a little room to myself, and I was sharing a bathroom and showers with 10 others on the floor. I found it too rigid, in terms of curfews and all the meetings you were expected to attend. The problem was that the place was for people with high needs, as they call it. People who needed a lot of attention. I didn’t really have high needs – I just needed somewhere to stay.”

Having found social housing in Southwark, south London, Pat (below) now pays less than £450 a month in rent and £60 a month in fuel bills. He is – unsurprisingly – much happier than in the hostel, where housing costs were much higher. Jason Petch, formerly homeless in Hull, also found it strange how much nominal rent was charged at the city’s Salvation Army hostel, William Booth House. Jason ended up in the hostel in December 2014 after splitting up with his partner and falling into rent arrears.

Photo: David Tett

“The first things the guy in the hostel said to me was, are you on benefits? You need to get housing benefit or we can’t have you here’. Outside services would come in but there wasn’t much offered by the hostel itself by way of services. Even if you asked the staff for help with something, they would tell you to go online.

“My housing benefit claim there was £866 a month,” Jason adds. “And yet I could have got decent private lets in Hull for somewhere between £350 and £425 a month for one or two-bedroom houses. It seemed crazy to me. The only thing stopping me leaving was finding the money for a deposit.”

Jason left the hostel in May after finding a one-bedroom house with a housing association, where he pays just under £350 a month in rent and around £75 a month in council tax and fuel bills. “I’m in a much better situation,” he says. “I just don’t see how hostels can possibly be worth what they’re charging – it’s a monthly wage for a lot of people across the country. Very few people would choose to be in a hostel rather than have their own place. So how can it cost more?”

The providers of supported accommodation argue that offering constant support costs a lot of money. Homeless people, after all, have often accumulated serious mental health and addiction problems while living on the streets. And yet the housing benefit these providers claim is supposed to be solely for housing costs. Many of the charities will have other income streams – donations or local authority grants coming under the ‘Supporting People’ rubric – to help pay for the support services offered to struggling residents.

A previous Department of Work and Pensions report into the sector, published back in 2010, revealed the suspicions of council rent officers who approved hostels’ housing benefit payments. As one officer explained: “The Supporting People budget has decreased… I think people are trying to recoup the costs through the Housing Benefit scheme.”

The 2010 report showed the average housing benefit claim for someone in supported accommodation to be £155 a week (a rise of 52 per cent over a six-year period). November’s report is expected to show further big increases – many hostels now charge more than £200 a week. Beatrice Orchard, policy, public affairs and research manager at St Mungo’s, a leading charity and supported housing provider, says there are good reasons the costs are higher than with “general needs” housing.

“A lot of that cost is to do with the specialist nature of the accommodation,” she says. “There’s more communal space to manage, staff required to supervise and provide security. There’s also a high turnover of tenants, and that has an impact on maintenance and repairs. And it’s also more intensively used than other housing – used all day, every day.”

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According to Homeless Link, the umbrella body for supported accommodation providers, 38 per cent of residents have at least one other issue outside of their housing crisis – metal health or drug and alcohol problems. Some people have undoubtedly benefited from specialist support on offer. But as Paul, Pat and Jason all found, it became easier to sort out personal problems when they got away from hostels and found a place of their own.

THE WAY AHEAD

If this system is broken, how might we create a better one? There may be a surprisingly simple answer: give homeless people a home. A proper home. Give them a roof over their heads, their own front door and their own address and see if they can start to sort out their own problems.

This ‘Housing First’ strategy originated in the United States, where rough sleeping remains a big problem in many cities. Rather than make homeless people with ‘high support needs’ go through bureaucratic hurdles and pass various good behaviour tests to make sure they were ‘housing ready’, American charities set them up with a home first, and then provided open-ended support from a distance.

Some providers in the UK have taken tentative steps in this direction. A recent study on Housing First by researchers at the University of York showed great promise for the model here. People housed by services using the Housing First approach noted better physical and mental health, a fall in drug use and anti-social behavior, and greater contact with family.

The difficulty in finding decent homes for homeless people remains tricky. But the gains could be huge. Not only is the approach effective – it is also cheaper. Researchers found potential annual savings in emergency housing costs and services ranged between £3,048 and £4,794 per person.

Oxford Big Issue vendor Matt Thomas (above), 47, has spent much of the past 15 years struggling with homelessness. Matt describes himself as an “alcoholic who is sober these days” and is feeling upbeat about the future. “I’ve been in a lot of hostels over the years,” he explains. “I’m glad to be out of all that.”

For the past few months, Matt has moved into an “independent living” house – an Edwardian terraced home he shares with four others, rented out and supported by Julian Housing, part of the Oxford Homeless Pathways charity. It costs £189 a week for each person, cheaper than the £225 a week rent charged at the last hostel he stayed in. “It’s a much better idea to encourage independent living,” says Matt. “To live in an ordinary community, in a house where people take more responsibility for keeping things tidy and watching their behaviour with each other. It’s much preferable than holding 50 or 60 people in one place at a time. If you have a whole lot of people with addiction problems and mental health problems held in the same place, it becomes more difficult to address those things.”

Homelessness is an extremely damaging and costly problem. British taxpayers are spending huge amounts trying to put out the fires it causes, only to let those fires ignite over and over again. It’s a false economy. If we decided to build more houses, we might change a lot of lives and save a lot of money.

Have you found yourself stuck in the supported housing system? Have you worked in the sector and know what works and what doesn’t?

The Big Issue wants to hear about it. Contact: adam.forrest@bigissue.com