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028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

World Homeless Day - The need for a fresh look at ending an age old problem

The need for a fresh look at helping the homeless

On 10th October 2013 people around the world will mark World Homeless Day. On this auspicious day Housing Rights Service is keen to draw attention to the needs of local homeless people and promote discussion on how policy makers can effectively end the scourge of homelessness.

Despite many government initiatives and numerous policy studies, homelessness continues to be a significant challenge in NI. Nearly 5,000 households presented as homeless to the Housing Executive (NIHE) during January to March 2013. This was an increase of 15% from the previous quarter. The most common reason for presenting as homeless is relationship breakdown.

In this special feature for World Homeless Day, Peter O’Neill, Policy & Participation Officer, examines how government and other agencies can address this growing problem and assist vulnerable people in finding permanent accommodation that meets their complex needs.

Current homelessness strategy in Northern Ireland

Following an extensive consultation process, NIHE launched its 5 year Homelessness Strategy in May 2012 with the main aim of eliminating long term homelessness and rough sleeping across Northern Ireland by 2020. It has four strategic objectives:

  • To place homelessness prevention at the forefront of service delivery
  • To reduce the length of time households experience homelessness by improving access to affordable housing
  • To remove the need to sleep rough
  • To improve services to vulnerable homeless households and individuals.

The strategy includes 38 actions to address homelessness but recognises that no single organisation can address these issues in isolation. The new strategy therefore focuses on a wide range of agencies working together to deliver housing, advice, employment, health, financial support and support services to those who experience homelessness.

In order to assist the Department for Social Development (DSD) and NIHE to implement the actions contained in the strategy, the Promoting Social Inclusion (PSI) Homelessness Partnership, which is a cross-sectoral, inter-departmental body, has been established. Four sub-groups have been set up to take forward each of the above strategic objectives and they have developed detailed plans which they are currently progressing.

Recent research on meeting the needs of homeless people

Housing Rights Service has representation on each of these PSI sub-groups and last year produced a major research study on meeting the needs of vulnerable homeless people which examined how the private rented sector (PRS) can provide a long-term and sustainable housing solution for homeless people with complex needs. Although the Oak Foundation sponsored study found that no single model of housing and support is likely to be appropriate for all chronically homeless people, it nevertheless concludes that the use of rented accommodation in ‘Housing First’ or ‘Housing Led’ models of housing support could provide a solution if adequate safeguards are put in place. The research therefore supports the value of these models, which place homeless people directly into private accommodation supported by  ‘wrap around services’, as a means of reducing homelessness and promoting social inclusion.

Other studies have shown that these housing first/led-approaches are more effective in ending homelessness than the traditional ‘staircase’ approach. This latter approach, with its emphasis on pathways through hostels, shelters and transitional housing, unfortunately results in very few homeless people progressing through these steps to access permanent housing. As our research confirms, the housing experience for many homeless people has been a revolving door of temporary placements and serial housing failure. We argue in our report that new thinking is required particularly about the suitability of rented accommodation to provide settled homes for the vulnerable homeless, as it is now widely recognised that the social housing sector will never be in a position to meet future housing need in NI.

Is the Private Rented Sector the answer?

However, as our research has shown, the major barrier to the use of the PRS to house vulnerable tenants, who have little chance of being housed within the social housing sector, is affordability. Rents in the PRS are significantly more expensive than the social housing sector, while the requirement for a deposit and rent in advance, alongside miscellaneous upfront letting fees, can pose an insuperable barrier for many homeless people. For the serially homeless and those at greatest risk of homelessness, the affordability barriers are compounded by issues around mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, financial and social exclusion, and a lack of life skills.

It is ironic that as housing first/led approaches are gradually gaining acceptance amongst policy makers, access to private rented housing for homeless people is emerging as a major challenge. In addition to issues relating to affordability, the attitudes of some landlords towards homeless people, who can often be viewed as undesirable tenants, can be a significant obstacle to the provision of rented housing. Although private landlords have generally little appetite for housing vulnerable or high risk tenants, as our research confirms, they can nevertheless be open to propositions which guarantee rent, length of tenure and assurances that the property will be returned in good condition - providing these elements are also combined with tenant support to minimise any disturbance to neighbours and easy exit in the event of a tenancy going badly wrong.

We believe the establishment of a NI Social Lettings Agency in order to assist landlords and overcome resistance to housing vulnerable tenants could be part of this agenda and we look forward to the imminent announcement of the new NIHE PRS access scheme. Nevertheless, despite the emerging international consensus on the effectiveness of housing first/led approaches, the implementation of any new local approach to homelessness, based on private rented accommodation, will unfortunately be stymied unless there is a commitment by government to improve landlord management practices and accord the same level of protection to private tenants compared to social tenants, particularly in regard to security of tenure.

Meeting needs and supporting the most vulnerable

The need to work with and support progressive landlords in providing affordable and adequate housing for homeless people, in our opinion, needs to be more fully recognised by policy makers and we are supportive of a pilot project now being taken forward by NIHE and Depaul Ireland to test out housing first/led approaches with vulnerable private tenants, including a number of our clients. With the local Housing Selection Scheme under review, we believe it is important that different models for the allocation of housing should be considered, albeit with the fundamental principle based on addressing housing need still retained.

Rights based approaches

One model that has generated particular interest is the new scheme in Scotland, where existing legal rights, previously confined to only certain categories of homeless people within ‘priority need’ groups, have now been extended to every homeless person who is a citizen of Scotland and can show they are not ‘intentionally’ homeless.  It is argued that rights based approaches to tackling homelessness, such as those developed in Scotland, are much more effective in tackling housing need, and can help to minimise stigma by recognising homeless people as rights-bearers with legitimate entitlements.  The Scottish Government has recently reported a 13% drop in homelessness applications.

We believe there is much to learn from this rights based approach, particularly in regard to preventing homelessness when framing the implementation of welfare reform in NI, and we believe there should be a legislative duty on NIHE to carry out a comprehensive assessment of both housing and support needs as part of any homelessness assessment.

On World Homeless Day as we focus on the estimated 100 million people around the globe who live without a roof over their heads, and yet are so easily overlooked by policy makers and the general public, we need to have a long hard look at fresh approaches to eliminating this blight on our community.

Tagged In

Private Tenancies, Homelessness

This article was written on 4 October 2013. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.