At the heart of this research was a recognition that the way we talk about homelessness prevention needs to change, recognising the vital importance of upstream cross-service prevention work in local homelessness systems, and the role of councils, their partners and central government policy in delivering this work.
The COVID-19 crisis has had profound effects on our communities. In the UK alone, tens of thousands have tragically passed away as a result of the virus. Restrictions on our daily lives have been immediate, and, for peacetime, unprecedented in scale. The impact on local people, and on the services which support them, has been huge.
The crisis has, understandably, highlighted the importance of a strong and agile emergency response. Across the country, we have all mobilised quickly to mitigate or alleviate the impact of COVID-19 on our communities.
Thousands of people - previously sleeping rough – have been given shelter to enable them to self-isolate. Hundreds of thousands have been given food parcels, including people who could not leave their homes for fear of contracting COVID-19. And an army of volunteers has supported their neighbours and communities to keep well. In the process, we have begun to rethink what is possible.
However, just as the crisis has highlighted the strength of our emergency response, it has exposed gaps in preventative services, with many suddenly facing precarity, hunger, or homelessness. When the crisis began, it was estimated that 4,266 people were sleeping rough on a single night in Autumn 2019. Now, government data suggests that over 29,000 people have been given safe accommodation – many of whom were suddenly at risk of sleeping on the streets for the very first time.
It has also highlighted that the impact of the crisis on our communities has been uneven, and that some are far more vulnerable than others, including the elderly, people suffering in abusive relationships, people from Black and Ethnic Minority Communities, and people already experiencing financial hardship or uncertainty.
Over the coming months, we face the challenge of ensuring that the gains we have made in supporting people are not just emergency responses, but a new normal. At the same time, we will need to push against the impact of a declining economy on our communities – especially for those who are already vulnerable.
This means a renewed focus on homelessness prevention – in its broadest sense, moving beyond homelessness services, and beyond a reactive response to need and vulnerability. The crisis has reminded us of the importance of financial stability, social connections, opportunities, and good health. A new focus on prevention must be about a broader plan of action - across the whole public sector – for delaying the onset of need through the renewal of stable, supportive, and inclusive communities.
Here too, the crisis has demonstrated what can be done, and public sector silos and distinctions have taken on less importance. At heart councils are all seeking to serve the public, and throughout the crisis all areas of the public sector have sought to do that. As the democratic leaders of our communities, councils now must consider how partnerships were helpful and where we can celebrate and build on them, and how distinctions and boundaries created obstacles, and where we can collectively work to remove them for good.
Councils have led during this pandemic despite already facing significant pressure on increasingly fragile services. To make the kind of progress we want, these issues will need to be resolved. We must ask tough questions about what councils are for, recognising that we do not exist simply to deliver services or receive government grants but to improve outcomes and opportunities. We must also reflect on the role of central government in preventing homelessness. During the crisis, it has demonstrated an understanding of how national policy measures can play a vital role in preventing homelessness. Without the lifting of local housing allowance rates, or the six-month delay on eviction proceedings, many more households would have undoubtedly faced the loss of their homes during the global pandemic. Government must recognise their role as councils’ enablers and partners in homelessness prevention and build on this progress.
This document is intended to explore our roles further, so that we can begin to rethink homelessness prevention.
Our Re-thinking homelessness prevention report and the underlying research carried out by Dr Beth Watts from I-SPHERE and Neil Morland and Co. are available to view and download.