United Kingdom

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom – National Response to Homelessness

In the United Kingdom, the national response to homelessness is built upon a much more robust welfare state model.  Citizens have access to a much broader range of economic, social and health supports than is the case in Canada or the United States, though this has begun to shift under the current Conservative government that is implementing austerity measures. The  response to homelessness in the UK evolved from a more narrow focus on emergency provision, to one that is more strategic and focuses on prevention (early intervention) and housing . It is important to note that there are some significant differences in terms of the homelessness strategy in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act was established, requiring Local Authorities (lower levels of government) to permanently house some categories of homeless people. The act targeted priority groups, including families, ‘vulnerable’ lone individuals and people made homeless by an emergency (fires, for instance).  The requirement for local authorities to house people happened at a time when affordable and social housing supply was shrinking (the Thatcher years), so there was a growth in homelessness, in emergency shelters and in the use of B&Bs to house people.  By 1987 there were 11,000 people living in such accommodation (compared to 1000 ten years earlier), which was identified as being of poor quality

In 1990, the central government launched the Rough Sleepers Strategy; a strategy to target people who were homeless, who were sleeping out of doors .  This strategy included: a) outreach, b) a ‘case management’ approach, and c) targets.  The goal was to reduce rough sleeping by two thirds, a target that was achieved by 2002.  People were to be assessed, and referred to not-for-profit agencies and government bodies     

A big shift took place at the turn of the century, under Prime Minister Tony Blair.  The Homelessness Act 2002 (for England and Wales) and the Housing Act 2001 (Scotland) outlined a national strategy to address homelessness, and in fact required local authorities to conduct a review of homelessness in their area and one year later (July 2003) to actually roll out a five- year homelessness strategy that addressed the problems highlighted in the review. 

Local Authorities thus had a statutory duty to provide a housing advice and information to all citizens, and to develop an effective homelessness service.  The Act also emphasized the need for Local Authorities to work in collaboration with other government, not-for-profit and private sector agencies in order to tackle homelessness more effectively.

Some key points: 

  • The legislation outlines a distinction in the level of statutory responsibility as a way of prioritizing need.  For instance, they construct a division between ‘statutory homelessness’ – high risk populations for whom the government has a legal duty to provide housing because they are both homeless and in ‘priority need’ – and ‘non-statutory homelessness’ – where there is no duty of guaranteeing immediate access to housing.   As such, being declared ‘statutory homeless’ entitles you to different benefits.
  • the strategy included a renewal of the Rough Sleepers Initiative. The strategy also focuses strongly on prevention, and so in this way was ahead of the game. The strategy also emphasized that where possible, homeless people should be rehoused in their communities of origin, which has become somewhat controversial as this strategy ignores the importance of economic dislocation in creating homelessness.  In other words, homeless people were restrained from moving to where the jobs are. 

The approach in the UK has also been criticized because in order to access services, “People need first to be accepted as being homeless, then to be accepted as being unintentionally homeless, so that they can then receive assistance according to their priority needs, but these needs are determined by an assessment of the individual’s vulnerability in comparison with other individuals.” (Minnery and Greenhalgh, 2007:650) There was a concern that: a) people will not easily understand the notion of being ‘intentionally homeless’, and b) people will not come forward to identify themselves as such, for fear that they will not be prioritized.

In 2005, the UK government released: “Sustainable Communities: Settled homes; changing lives.  A strategy for tackling homelessness” .  This strategy outlined the goal of halving the number of households living in insecure accommodation by 2010, through:

  • Preventing homelessness;
  • Providing support for vulnerable people;
  • Tackling the wider causes and symptoms of homelessness;
  • Helping more people move away from rough sleeping; and
  • Providing more settled homes.

A detailed action plan was laid out for each of these objectives. To deliver on their strategy, they planned to:

  • increase funding for homelessness by 23% from £60 million to £74 million by 2007-08;
  • support what works, based on an evaluation of new initiatives developed and piloted with our funding over the last three years;
  • consider changes to the homelessness legislation to improve the provision and take-up of preventative services and housing options;
  • deliver our agenda across Government overseen by the Ministerial Committee on Homelessness;
  • provide better services in hostels through a £90m capital improvement programme to ensure people can be helped to move away from the streets and homelessness more quickly and permanently;
  • increase the supply of new social housing by 50% and make better use of existing social and private rented stock to provide settled homes;
  • develop area based initiatives;
  • support and work in partnership with local authorities, voluntary sector agencies, landlords, homelessness service users and others; and
  • improve information about homelessness to support more effective solutions.

In the past several years, the UK government has renewed its Rough Sleepers strategy (2011) and introduced a prevention strategy (2012) that emphazises the necessity of inter-ministerial collaboration.  The UK approach is notable, then, for the evolving focus on prevention, an increase in affordable housing supply, support for partnership and collaboration, and a continuing shift in the role of emergency shelters, away from being long term temporary residences.  The evolving view of the emergency shelter system in the UK is that shelters should be smaller, people should have individual rooms with doors they can lock, and that stays in the shelter system should be as short as possible.  

Given a change in government, the fate of British reforms in the area of homelessness are open to question.