Assessing the new homelessness strategies introduced by the Homelessness Act 2002: are the housing needs of the young homeless in the UK closer to being adequately addressed?
Introduction…………………………………………… Page 3
Homelessness Act 2002 & Young People………………Page 5
Distinctive Qualities of ‘Youth Homelessness’…………Page 10
Local Authorities and Discretion Post-2002:…………..Page 12
Lack of Monitoring Procedures / Inadequacy of Performance Indicators………………………………………….Page 12
Diversity or Chaos under the Homelessness Act 2002……………………………………………….Page 15
Priority Need……………………………………………Page 18
Conclusion………………………………………………. Page 20
‘We have weapons of mass destruction we have to address here at home. Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. Homelessness is a weapon of mass destruction. Unemployment is a weapon of mass destruction.’
Property, as a jurisprudential concept, holds a lot of sway in liberal philosophical thought. We see property as a central theme for such institutional writers as Locke, Hegel, Kant and Nozick who see Property Rights as going to the centre of ‘sanctioned behavioural relations among men’. Thus in a purely philosophical manner the Homeless are truly disenfranchised from the underlying rationale of law. This pervasive attitude also leads to a disenfranchisement across a number of important social spheres such as voting, raising money and unemployment benefit However, we recognise limits on all property rights in order to help disadvantaged, for example the Family Law Act 1996 recognises rights for a spouse who suffers domestic abuse. This work is concerned to look at the quantitative and qualitative outcomes for young homeless people achieved by the statutory framework, how does this demographic fare given their no-property status?
The importance of this review cannot be underestimated. In the U.K. it is a general problem which ‘despite economic prosperity, a private housing market boom, and a raft of legislation and homelessness initiatives, recorded levels of homelessness in the U.K. remain stubbornly high’ and in recent years the problem was more prosaically described as ‘taking us back towards the deep social divisions of Victorian society – a moment in history than no one wants to see repeated’ However, despite it’s persistent nature and damaging social effects there is a dearth of real academic research on the topic as a whole. This work hopes to contribute to an area which desperately needs quality academic attention. Secondly, this review is prompted by similar government observations that suggest a review of the legislative apparatus is timely:
‘It is our view that there should not be homeless people in the UK in 2004. A home is a fundamental right which should not be denied to anyone living in as affluent and ambitious a society as our own.’
The Select Committee then goes onto argue that ‘a review of the workings of the 2002 Act would identify the weak spots for the government’. This work will carry out such a review. However, given the limitation of space it focuses on the young homeless. In recent years this demographic has been receiving more academic and media attention than others simply because of the prevalence of youth homelessness within England – in 2004 it was estimated that up to 52,000 young people between the ages of 16-25 were homeless and at any rate that this demographic accounts for a quarter of all the homeless throughout the U.K.. However, whilst there may be a reasonable degree of peripheral awareness of this subject as a social problem which has particular risks and difficulties associated with it there has been no current published research on the effectiveness of the homeless strategies, implemented under the Homelessness Act 2002, as it applies to this demographic. This work will attempt to fill this void and give some guidance on the direction of any review or reform of the legislative apparatus.
Homelessness Act 2002 & Young People
The Homelessness Act 2002 was the culmination of a significant policy from New Labour which, obviously, therefore provides the underlying rationale of the statute. If we are to understand what reforms to the content or rationale are required from our qualitative and quantitative analyses of the operation of the statute we need to first understand what the existing structure represents.
Whilst it is fair to say that ‘the UK has a lengthy history of voluntary and statutory provision for homeless people’ statutory intervention on a large scale was not comprehensively implemented until the introduction of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. However, for many commentators this legislation was seen as ‘an ineffective and inadequate means of resolving the problems of many homeless persons’. There were numerous problems with the legislation which we will briefly precis so as to provide a comparator to the 2002 Act. A large degree of discretionary decision-making was left in the hands of local housing authorities which meant that groups of homeless people who didn’t satisfy the ‘priority need’ criteria or other statutory requirements for other groups of homeless people had virtually no protection. The 1977 Act setup a two-tiered approach which imposed different duties on the local authority at each level. Its initial duties operated when an individual made an application to the local housing authority which indicated a possibility that the person may either be homeless or threatened with homelessness. Accommodation would then only be provided if the local authority had done an investigation and had reasonable grounds for believing the facts of the application and the person fell into a category of ‘priority need’. Otherwise the duty was one of advice and appropriate assistance. Furthermore, the extent of the duty to provide accommodation only covered a ‘period of time reasonable to enable the applicant to secure housing on his own’. The system setup had a narrowing effect in that there were large groups of people, typically non-parent single individuals, who had to rely on charity or voluntary services to provide any kind of accommodation. This system was argued to have lead to ‘an unprecedented increase in street homelessness in the U.K.’.
The period between the 1980’s and 1997 was mirrored by an exponential growth in NGO agencies providing support to the homeless in stark contrast to the complete lack of statutory change, although consolidation did occur in the Housing Act 1996. There were Government sponsored programmes such as the ‘Rough Sleepers Initiative’ and ‘Supporting People’ which transcended many professions such as housing, health, social work, education and employment. These multi-agency initiatives have been seen as vital to the ending of homelessness however there was always a fear over the disjointed and inefficient nature of these many statutory and voluntary agencies as well as confusion to the individual faced with homelessness. As of 5th May 2006 there is a new UK government department for Communities and Local Government, taking over from the Homelessness Directorate within the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which is now in charge of overseeing the current framework.
The Labour Government came to power in 1997 on the back of a manifesto pledge that they would ‘impose a new duty on local authorities to protect those who are homeless through no fault of their own and are in priority need’. The DETR published the Housing Green Paper in April 2000 which outlined the intention of the government this was then introduced in the form of the Homes Bill which fell because of the proroguement of parliament for the general election. However, this was quickly followed by another bill that in time became the Homelessness Act 2002 that received Royal Assent on 26th February 2002
The 2002 Act made some very significant changes to the pre-existent statutory framework detailed above. The central provision was a requirement placed upon local authorities to carry out a review of homelessness in their area and publish strategies to overcome this within 12 months of the passing of the Act and to be renewed every five years. These included audits of current levels of homelessness, programs for combating, preventing or alleviating homelessness. The information gathered under the review was then to be scrutinised and the strategy would build upon any strengths and remedy weaknesses. This was part of a clearer focus on devolving responsibility for tackling homelessness at a local level however the Act did also modify the pre-existent law by amending the Housing Act 1996.
Whilst not implementing a duty it did give local housing authorities the discretionary power to give unintentionally homeless applicants not in priority need accommodation whereas the duty before was advice and assistance. The latter duty still exists but is more clearly defined and requires an investigation into the individual’s circumstances and needs. The hope of the government was that these ‘two provisions combined…can be used by applicants to argue that local authorities should consider referrals of applicants not in priority need to registered social landlords’. There was formerly a two year time limit on the duty to provide housing but the Act now requires more than simply time lapsing including refusal of unsuitable accommodation, intentional homelessness or a change in circumstances. This provision will introduce a lot more equity into the law and its arbitrary time limits. The largest change to the law was undoubtedly wrought through ss.13 – 16 which completely change the rules on allocation of a property in particular the power of the local authorities to power to exclude specific groups from priority need and reduce other priority. Exclusion is permitted to individuals subject to immigration control or those deemed unsuitable by reason of their ‘unacceptable behaviour’. Behaviour in general is also permitted as a reason for reducing the priority of an individual. Local Authorities are still provided with discretion to create an allocation scheme but in determining preferences to be given in that scheme the definition of homelessness was widened to include all homeless, even those who are intentionally so or are not in priority need. The idea here is that in allocating available housing to all homeless people, rather than those that the local authority has a pre-existent duty to provide accommodation to, will clearly be more equitable.
For the sake of brevity the other main changes are bullet-pointed:
Local authorities are able to offer assured tenancies and assured short-hold tenancies provided by private landlords in order to meet their duty to provide accommodation. However, refusal of such an offer doesn’t discharge the duty of the local authority as it normally would.
The protections surrounding domestic violence are extended to those not only actually suffering but also those threatened with violence.
A requirement that social security services’ cooperate with housing authorities this is to combat those families that are intentionally homeless with children.
In summary the 2002 Act placed a much higher emphasis on the responsibility of local authorities through the review and strategy requirements whilst also making relatively minor amendments to the pre-existent structure which were principally designed to extend local authorities duties and powers regarding the homeless. A large part of this work will concentrate on the discretion of local authorities as detailed above in particular looking at whether the Act had created disparity between local authorities and a lack of meaningful monitoring of the operation of discretion or whether the approach by local authorities has lead to more flexibility and choice for individuals. This will be a qualitative assessment of the impact of the Act however we will also have regard to substantive aspects and ask whether the definitions of ‘priority need’ and ‘homelessness’ adequately cater for the urgent need of young, 16-25 year old, persons. It is worth just noting at this point that the Act and the surrounding government publications do not mention youth homelessness as a target but homelessness in general. It is therefore accepted that we may be critiquing the Act for things outside its original remit however given the importance of this demographic any failing will be considered a large one.
Distinctive Qualities of ‘Youth Homelessness’
The fundamental question for this work is to assess whether or not the Homelessness Act 2002 has to any degree moved the U.K. closer to addressing the needs of young homeless persons. However, in doing this what we have to be aware of is that ‘homeless people are a heterogeneous group with diverse social, economic and health needs’. The exposition of these particularistic needs has not always been made explicit but to some degree it needs to be done so for this work to be of any importance. In other words, what are the specific needs of the youth homeless demographic?
This is a difficult question and in itself could form the basis of a much larger work however it is possible to glean from some sources that there are a few predominant needs of the youth demographic which we can use to evaluate the effectiveness of the measures under the 2002 Act. One clear need is that of information, whilst always important the issue is more acute in youth homelessness given their relative inexperience and lack of social awareness. As a logical corollary to this it would include training staff and volunteers on how to relate such information to children. In general this is necessary because unlike other demographics there is a lack of self-sufficiency or financial resources, extremely high emotional and financial exploitability leading to higher risk of mental illness or disease of some form. The problems with self-sufficiency and financial resources are explained because a youth group will tend to have little education, qualifications or job experience. This is coupled with the fact that they will have little or no experience of independent living which prevents them from doing even the most basic of things. This has been recognised by a number of commentators who argue that ‘the problems of long term homelessness are to an extent due to lack of skills, knowledge and social development’. Finally, another prominent need for the youth homelessness is not just the provision of accommodation but is the need for further support after the allocation of accommodation, of any kind. It has been argued that this is a particular need of youth homeless and that provision of such support must be ‘flexible, appropriate and geared to need’.
The foregoing is not meant to be an authoritative statement but a guide to what we will be analysing in the rest of this work. In order to assess the Homelessness Act 2002 we will be looking at how local authorities and the statute are capable of meeting some of these needs that we have outlined above.
Local Authorities and Discretion Post-2002
As we saw, above, the local authorities have a great deal of control and discretion in publishing a strategy and creating there own allocation criteria. The importance of this is that the young homeless tend not to fall into an explicit category of those in ‘priority need’, as we shall see, and therefore the operation of local authorities under the Act become of the utmost importance to assessing the effectiveness of the legislative structure. In determining this we are looking at three separate but inter-related areas that might impact on the effectiveness of providing a coherent approach to youth homelessness. Thus if we look at needs such as information provided to the young – there is a clear danger that if there is a disjointed approach across local authorities then the quality of life enjoyed by those young people who fall into homelessness will become a post-code lottery.
Lack of Monitoring Procedures / Inadequacy of Performance Indicators
The first specific area that this research wants to uncover is whether or not the lack of monitoring provisions leads to an inconsistent application which consequently fails young homeless people. Furthermore, are the indicators used by government to monitor local authority initiatives helpful? The joining up of local authorities under the 2002 Act was a specific aim and the government stated ‘While the Government will join-up policy at the national level, local authorities will need to do so locally’. This was supposed to be achieved by an alliance between supra-local bodies such as the Housing Corporation, Local Government Association and National Housing Federation. They all recommended the adoption of a partnership between housing associations and local authorities to help implement the strategies required under the 2002 Act. However, with this many bodies involved it is hard to monitor the success of the Act especially as the local authorities are under no duty to monitor the success. However, in an indirect way a lack of monitoring will cause severe difficulty for the Local Authority in reviewing current and future levels of homelessness in accordance with their strategy. This is because the raw information will not be in an accessible form, it will be spread across many different agencies or it may not be gathered at all
Shelter has campaigned for the wider introduction of ‘multi-agency monitoring’ which derives from governments ‘Homelessness Strategies: A Good Practice handbook’. The idea of a MAM is that a lead agency, usually a local authority, will take charge of running the scheme and have a department dedicated to the maintenance of it. The scheme operates as follows: ‘All agencies use common forms to collect information, asking the same questions, and using the same data entry codes. A MAM scheme uses a unique identifier for each individual when recording the information onto a central database’. The advantages of this are the ability to identify demographics and look at how policy and initiatives impacts on them. In that way the local authority can look at numerous independent variables such as person of first contact, place of first contact, popularity of various services and many other incredibly important pieces of information. However, the handbook is a recommendation and is not mandatory by any means and it is therefore unsurprising that the Housing Quality Network Services (HQNS) recommended in 2004 that more guidance on the ‘minimum requirement for monitoring to ensure best practice’ be introduced by the government. The HQNS service highlighted that producing an action plan including plans for monitoring and having performance indicators was ‘a weak point in many strategies’ who failed to set out in any substantive detail how they were going to go about monitoring homelessness. However, in fairness there are other council’s who have mentioned MAM’s in their strategies but even there these are prospective and thin on detail. The difficulty for this work is in assessing the effectiveness and the dedication to these limited stated aims without direct access to primary resources. Thus this work must defer to the conclusions of the quantitative research done by the HQNS that makes explicit that whilst many strategies mention monitoring few have much detail or concrete plans for how a MAM would be set-up
The picture that arises, therefore, is that the lack of mandatory minimum monitoring requirement’s is not being counteracted by pro-active councils around the country therefore in that way it fails to achieve the goals of having effective reviews and strategies. As the Bath & North East Somerset strategy stated ‘A strategy is only as good as the information that supports it’. The fact that a government produced report which generally heralded the whole process of producing a review and strategy as a success mentioned data collection and monitoring as a problem on several occasions highlights that this could be a significant problem in targeting the strategies in any meaningful sense at youth homelessness. This has a knock-on effect on performance indicators.
The government had encouraged local authorities to introduce performance indicators and in 2005 they introduced The Local Government (Best Value) Performance Indicators and Performance Standards (England) Order 2005. This followed a wide consultation on the issue. It applied this to all local authorities and measures performance by reference to five criteria:
Average length of stay in bed and breakfast or hostel accommodation by households including dependent children or pregnant women.
Number of rough sleepers on a single night within authority’s area.
Percentage increase / decrease from year to year of statistic 1.
Number of families for which housing advice casework intervention resolved their homeless situation; and
Proportion of repeat homeless people.
Quite apart from the fact that, on a formal level, none of these mention youth homelessness but at another level the performance indicators will be useless if the monitoring procedures are as inadequate as the HQNS review suggests. Whilst it is impossible to be specific about the impact in quantitative terms we can discuss the issue in qualitative terms. We can see that there is an almost blind-spot by the government of youth homelessness in relation to monitoring information and how that translates into performance indicators.
Diversity or Chaos under the Homelessness Act 2002
As we saw in our description of the Act the basic framework set-out is that ‘strategy is led from central government departments…but local housing authorities are key to planning and service delivery, irrespective of their political complexion’. The reason for this was made clear in the government green paper which eventually lead to the 2002 Act: ‘Central Government can set the framework for housing policies. But the delivery of those policies must be tailored to a variety of local circumstances.’ This devolving of responsibility for implementation of strategy to local authorities is clearly designed to avoid a top-down homogenous approach to community-sensitive issues such as homelessness however the question for this work is how this has worked in relation to young people. It is integral to see whether this devolution has lead to innovative solutions which fit the needs of young people and also to see whether this leads to a post-code lottery because of regional discrepancies.
Primarily, we can draw comparative conclusions from a very useful survey of Scottish Local Authorities carried out in 2004 which looked at which authorities were addressing youth homelessness specifically as a problem. The study was carried out only one year after The Homelessness, etc. (Scotland) Act 2003 and thus many strategies were in draft format and some weren’t available at all but the conclusions are stark. As far as having clear aims and objectives in relation to young people the survey only found one strategy that had these specifically stated. There was a much larger emphasis on prevention rather than aiding those already homeless thus twenty-seven strategies dealt with provision of information on services for homelessness in schools. Worryingly there were no strategies that assessed the general availability of affordable housing for young people but as we mentioned one of the major needs of young homeless people was provision of ongoing support and this was identified as an objective in the strategies of twenty-six of the local authorities however only six took this any further and proposed aid in relation to education, training or employment. We will recall that lack of those skills is seen as endemic to youth homelessness and it seemed it was poorly addressed. The conclusions of the SCSH as a whole were that ‘…youth issues are generally not well addressed in the homelessness strategies, aside from one or two exceptions’ and worryingly one of the least well addressed issues was having a specific youth homelessness policy within the general homelessness policy. It is hard to make direct generalisations to England with regard to this study but it is suggestive that youth-specific issues are not as high in the list of priorities of many local authorities as perhaps other demographics such as those suffering domestic abuse or pregnant woman.
In a similar study, which had a much wider remit, the ODPM had argued that in English Homelessness Strategies ‘…Young people, either single or in families, are a key priority in most parts of the country.’ However it noticed a disparity in other demographics such as single people and gypsies / travellers. However, what is worrying about this can be highlighted in a study of the strategies of Bromley and Lewisham Councils. In Bromley it is true to say that ‘Vulnerable Young People’ is one of the specific client groups that were included in their strategy and included plans for the development of specific support services. Thus it created a new team within the council to specifically deal with young people and their needs as well as arranging funding for new supported accommodation facilities as a form of initial accommodation for young people. However, the problem is that such services are de-limited and targeted solely at 16 and 17 year olds. However, our review of young people’s needs indicated that 16 – 25 years olds all felt similar disadvantages. This was also the case in Lewisham Council who talk about vulnerable young people as a group including those leaving care and 16 / 17 year olds. This, as we shall discuss below, is largely in response to the government’s widening of ‘priority need’ in the Homelessness Act 2002 to cover 16 and 17 year olds. This is undoubtedly a step-forward but the approach is undermined because it skews focus onto these two age groups. The other thing that is striking about both of these strategies is the lack of plans specifically to provide information to young people, statistics about youth homelessness and nothing about education, training or employment opportunities or schemes for young people.
Having looked at these two large councils, Scotland and the overall review carried out by the ODPM there are a number of conclusions that we can make. Firstly, disparity between the councils doesn’t seem to be a large problem as far as young people are concerned. However, the approach does seem homogenous and inadequate to cater to the wider 16 – 25 demographic all of whom experience similar needs as well as making up 25% of all homeless rough sleepers in the U.K.. There seems little of this sensitivity to local issues and the government’s focus on 16 and 17 year olds has skewed the debate to a degree and in fact lead to poorer recognition of the needs of 16 – 25 year old homeless people. The major problem with this is that following the abolition of housing lists and the qualifying / non-qualifying groups division that existed pre-2002, above, local authorities have discretion to target groups. Those groups seem unlikely to be a holistic treatment of 16 – 25 year olds.
The importance of being categorised as homeless and in priority need is extremely high. It is the difference between having the possibility of interim accommodation offered and the council having a duty to provide long-term accommodation, as we saw in the second section. Thus for all demographics qualification into these categories will be keenly contested and we must see to what degree young people are catered for.
We don’t have the space to carry out a thorough review of both subjects however a brief precis will again highlight the impact