Rural homelessness – an invisible issue?

What can be done to prevent and relieve homelessness in rural areas? Jessica Sellick investigates.

Not having a home can affect a person’s ability to live, work, enjoy and get on in life. Finding yourself with little money, where every day is a struggle, can be seen as something that happens to someone else. Yet in 2015/2016 some 6,270 households were homeless in rural Local Authorities, with many other households threatened with homelessness or people having previously experienced homelessness. But with four-fifths of homelessness cases found in urban areas, rural homelessness all too often remains neglected and misunderstood.

Back in 2003 Crisis and the Countryside Agency jointly published a report on the incidence and experiences of people staying with family and friends in response to homelessness. Based on interviews with 164 people in three areas (London, Sheffield and Craven), the report revealed how staying with family and friends was a common situation in rural areas – often the only option when becoming homeless; with a minority of respondents staying with the same friend or relative since becoming homeless but the vast majority having to move between different friends and relatives.

While this situation was viewed as a positive experience by some, for others it led to insecurity, poor living conditions, limited privacy and restrictions on their behaviour and lifestyle. Less than half of those interviewed had approached their Local Authority for help; having few expectations about the support likely to be forthcoming and in part a recognition of the limited resources available to the Council to respond (i.e., high demand and a limited housing stock in rural areas). For me, this report highlighted both the need to recognise and also the need to respond more adequately to the reality of homelessness in rural areas.

Many of the people staying with friends or relatives were being neglected by traditional measures of homelessness (i.e., official homeless statistics captured through Local Authorities). And it revealed an inequity in being able to provide advice, assistance and accommodation to homeless people regardless of where they are living. How have policy and decision makers recognised and responded to the experiences of homelessness in rural areas since then and what more can be done? I offer three points.

Firstly, what is ‘homelessness’ and how many people in rural areas are affected by (or have experienced) homelessness?

The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 was the first time a definition of homelessness appeared on the statute books. Therein a person was considered homeless if ‘they and anyone who normally resides with them had no accommodation’ or ‘if they had accommodation but could not secure entry to it’. In 1986 Parliament amended this definition to include those who ‘have an entitlement to occupy accommodation but the accommodation is so bad that it would be unreasonable to remain in occupation of it’.

Since 1977 there have been a number of discussions around how homelessness is defined – with some commentators calling for a broader definition (anyone who is ‘roofless’) and others suggesting this would exaggerate the ‘true number’ of people experiencing homelessness. More recently, the Housing Act 1996 defines someone as homeless ‘when they have no accommodation, or it is not reasonable for them to continue to occupy the accommodation they have.’

Homelessness policy is devolved and there are, therefore, different legal definitions and Government responses across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In England, common situations which meet the legal definition of homeless include: if you don’t have a home and you’re on the streets; you have a home but can’t get into it (e.g. you’ve been illegally evicted by your landlord, an ex-partner has changed the locks); you’re evicted by bailiffs and have nowhere else to go; if you are staying rent-free with family or friends and they give you reasonable notice to leave; if you stay with different friends and family for short periods of time because you have nowhere settled to stay (e.g. sofa surfing); if you’re experiencing or threatened with domestic abuse by a partner, former partner or family member; if you’re staying in a night shelter, emergency short-stay hostel or refuge; if your home is unaffordable because you can’t pay for basics like food and heating after you’ve paid the rent or mortgage; and/or if you have somewhere to live yourself but it’s not possible for your partner, dependent children or other household members to live there too.

In each situation the Local Authority must assess if an individual or household is legally homeless now, or likely to become homeless within 28 days. For a homeless household to qualify for temporary accommodation the Local Authority must be satisfied that they meet one or more criteria that would qualify them as being ‘in priority need’ and that their homelessness is not intentional.

Three-quarters of households classified as being ‘in priority need’ do so because they contain dependent children or a pregnant household member. If the Council decides an individual/household is legally homeless they may then qualify for emergency and long-term housing. If the Council decides an individual/household is not legally homeless (i.e., that they’ve made themselves intentionally homeless) it doesn’t have to offer them any housing.

The Housing Act 1996 places a duty on Local Authorities to provide free advice and information about homelessness and its prevention to any person in their district. The Act also places a number of duties on Local Authorities to provide assistance to homeless people (e.g. providing temporary and settled accommodation). The Homelessness Act 2002 introduced further powers for Local Authorities to take reasonable steps to prevent homelessness for households that do not meet any of the criteria that would classify them as ‘in priority need’ and where their homelessness would be unintentional. Since then, Local Authorities with relatively high numbers of applications for assistance have in many cases used this power to provide ‘housing options’ services.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) collates data from Local Authorities on statutory homelessness. To provide a national overview – and identify trends over time – DCLG uses the data to measure the number of rough sleepers, the number of households placed in temporary accommodation and the number of cases of homelessness prevention dealt with. Every quarter, Local Authorities provide DCLG with data on the number of households that have applied for homelessness assistance and the number of households that they have worked with to prevent them from becoming homeless.

The latest statistical release (published in September 2017) found Local Authorities had received 27,470 applications for housing assistance between April and June 2017. 14,400 of these applications (or 52%) were accepted as ‘owed a main homelessness duty’ with the reminder found not to be homeless (6,220 applications or 23%), to be homeless but not in priority need (4,550 applications or 17%) or to be intentionally homeless and in priority need (2,310 applications or 8%).

Since 1998 the proportion of Local Authority decisions that have been acceptances and intentionally homeless has increased slightly, and the proportions that have been found not in priority need and not homeless has fallen slightly. The number of households deemed ‘statutorily homeless’ is down 1% on the previous quarter and down 5% on the same quarter in 2016. However, this data does not include information on people who are staying with family and friends, people who are in accommodation not provided by the Local Authority or people who would otherwise not come to the attention of a Local Authority.

In July 2017, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) published its report ‘right to home?’ Describing homelessness as an issue ‘notably absent in people’s understanding of rural life’; the authors used DCLG’s official statistics and wider literature to consider the scale and nature of rural homelessness. IPPR’s analysis revealed between 2015 and 2016 2,625 households had been accepted as being in priority need in 50 ‘mainly rural’ Local Authorities and 3,645 households in 41 ‘largely rural’ Local Authorities.

An average of 1.3 households for every 1,000 in mainly or largely rural areas was accepted as homeless (a drop from 1.4 in 2010-2011). This compares to an increase of 2.79 in urban areas over the same time period. However, in sixteen predominantly rural Local Authorities, the number of households accepted as homeless were more than in urban areas in 2010-2011. Between 2010 and 2016 mainly rural Local Authorities recorded a rise from 191 to 252 rough sleepers (an increase of 32%).

The report highlights how many cases of homelessness in rural areas go undetected – with individuals “likely to bed down in alternative countryside locations, such as outhouses, barns, tents and parked cars…The stigma of being visibly homeless in rural areas can be much stronger than in urban areas and difficulties accessing local authority services can mean households remain uncounted in official records” (page 3).

What the report illuminates is how homelessness is more than the absence of safe, secure and decent accommodation. Crisis, for example, distinguishes between ‘core homelessness’ and ‘wider homelessness’. Core homelessness refers to households who are considered homeless at any point in time because they are living in short-term or unsuitable accommodation.

This includes rough sleeping, sleeping in tents/cars/public transport, unlicensed/insecure squatting, unsuitable non-residential accommodation such as ‘beds in sheds’, hostels, night/winter shelters, domestic violence victims in refuges, temporary accommodation such as bed and breakfast accommodation and sofa surfing.

Wider homelessness refers to people at risk of homelessness or those who have already experienced it and are living in temporary accommodation. This category encompasses staying with friends/relatives, being under notice to quit, being asked to leave by parents/relatives, in other temporary accommodation (e.g. social housing, private sector leasing), and/or being discharged from prison, hospital or other state institution without permanent housing.

Centrepoint has been bringing together data from Government, Local Authorities and charities to compile a Youth Homelessness Databank. This goes beyond calculating the number of young people who are ‘statutory homeless’ to encompass the number of young people facing homelessness and/or the numbers of young people going to their Local Authority to ask for help (whether or not they qualify as statutory homeless and are eligible for support).

The charity estimates that more than 150,000 young people approached Local Authorities across the UK for help (eight times as many young people than those accepted as ‘statutory homeless’). At least 30,000 young people experiencing or at risk of homelessness have been turned away from their Local Authority and are therefore not captured in any official statistics.

In August 2017 Crisis published research conducted by Heriot Watt University examining current and projected levels of homelessness across different categories. They found nearly 160,000 households (approaching 250,000 people) are experiencing the worst forms of homelessness across Britain; with rough sleeping forecast to rise by 76% in the next decade unless Governments take long-term action to tackle it.

The analysis found in 2016, at any one time, 9,100 people were sleeping rough; 68,300 households were sofa surfing; 19,300 households were living in unsuitable temporary accommodation; and 37,500 households were living in hostels. The forecast reveals how – over the next 10 years – overall numbers of homelessness may rise by 26.5% and the number of households living in unsuitable accommodation double over the same period.

To begin to address the current limitations of monitoring the movement of households from homelessness to settled accommodation, DCLG is seeking to introduce a new system of collecting data.

This will record more information about people who approach a Local Authority for assistance and the outcome of this approach. This is intended to provide a more thorough understanding of the causes of homelessness and the impact of Local Authority responses to it. Eventually DLCG would like to map data on individual households for homelessness onto other Government department datasets to better understand the wider costs of homelessness to the public sector. This P1E /H-CLIC data collection system – which will receive household level rather than aggregated Local Authority level data – is currently being piloted.

Taken as a collective, what these definitions and datasets reveal is how the full extent of homelessness in rural areas (and at any given time) is not fully known. For official statistics require precise categories of clearly identifiable groups of people (i.e., literally counting the number of people deemed to be ‘rough sleeping’) and Local Authority discretion can mean homelessness applications are not assessed in a consistent way across the country. This leads to a continuum of definitions – from people who are ‘roofless’ through to ‘people in housing but who would rather live elsewhere’ – and degrees of homelessness (rough sleepers, hostels/temporary accommodation and other precarious forms of housing). In practice, who counts as homeless and what support they require needs to be reconciled by public servants and charitable organisations supporting homelessness on a day-to-day basis.

Secondly, what are the causes of homelessness and (rural) people’s experiences of it?

Raynor Winn and her husband became homeless after he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. She wrote a blog for The Big Issue – recounting how the Local Authority refused their application for priority housing leaving them to camp and sofa-surf. Filling two rucksacks with the bare essentials they decided to walk the 630 miles of the South West Coast Path. Raynor describes how “it seems that in rural England the homeless are a problem to be hidden. In the land of high-value housing, holiday homes and tourists, the authorities regularly run campaigns to clear the streets of rough sleepers.

Maintaining the public view that there is no homeless problem. Consequently, the few that are seen in rural areas are shunned and prejudice levels are high. But the rural homeless are still there. We met many hidden communities, in sheds, barns, woods, in caves and under bridges. Unseen, but very real, staying hidden because of the prejudice…We were lucky, we found a home at the end of our trail, and now live where the Coast Path runs past the front door. But for the unknown numbers of hidden rural homeless that never happens.”

In the United States, on any given night in 2015, 32,800 Americans in rural families experienced homelessness. Similar to the UK, the practical challenges of counting homeless people in rural areas means we may be underestimating the true size of the rural homeless population. This article, by Zachariah Oquenda, recounts his family’s experiences of living in a tent on a campsite; “after two more weeks at the campsite, someone offered us help.

A friend let us stay with his family. Since resources like shelters and food banks are few and far between in rural areas, many homeless families end up in crowded housing or “doubling-up” with extended family or friends. We lived with that family for a few weeks before we found another home in Henry, Illinois. Though the house in Henry also was substandard—incomplete plumbing, lack of insulation, and faulty electricity—we made it our home. It certainly beat the rain.

Structural issues—such as higher poverty rates; inadequate transportation; and limited access to shelters and services like health, mental health, and child care—make people and families who live in rural areas particularly vulnerable. This helps explain why rural homeless families are disproportionately likely to go without shelter: in 2014, rural families accounted for 15.7 percent of all homeless families, but almost 27% of all unsheltered homeless families (families without access to service shelters that usually live in cars, in tents, or on the street).”

Back in England, in 2016 the House of Commons Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee published the findings of its inquiry into levels of homelessness and the pressures affecting homeless people. This identified ‘observable trends’ causing – and leading to an increase in – homelessness including those that are structural/societal (i.e., not being able to afford a property to live in: income/benefits versus rental on properties) and personal/individual(e.g. relationship breakdown, mental illness, addiction issues, discharge from prison, leaving the care system).

Since 2010 there has been significant reform of the welfare system reducing the level of support for low income households and those at risk of homelessness. In September 2017 the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report on homelessness. Examining whether value for money is being achieved it sets out the causes and costs of homelessness, the response of local government to homelessness, and leadership from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in reducing homelessness. The report found there were 77,240 households in temporary accommodation in England in March 2017, an increase of 60% since March 2011.

These households included 120,540 children, an increase of 73% from March 2011. Homelessness at present costs the public sector in excess of £1 billion a year. More than three quarters of this – £845 million – was spent on temporary accommodation. Three quarters of this spending – £638 million – was funded by housing benefit. The ending of private sector tenancies has overtaken all other causes to become the biggest single driver of statutory homelessness in England. The proportion of households accepted as homeless by local authorities due to the end of an assured shorthold tenancy increased from 11% during 2009-2010 to 32% during 2016-2017.

According to Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, “Homelessness in all its forms has significantly increased in recent years, driven by several factors. Despite this, government has not evaluated the impact of its reforms on this issue, and there remain gaps in its approach. It is difficult to understand why the Department persisted with its light touch approach in the face of such a visibly growing problem. Its recent performance in reducing homelessness therefore cannot be considered value for money”. Overall, the NAO concluded that the Government’s approach to tackling homelessness cannot demonstrate value for money.

DCLG’s live statistics on statutory homelessness (table 774) published in September 2017 shows the reasons for homelessness recorded by Local Authorities in 2016-2017. The main reasons include: the end of an assured shorthold tenancy (31% of all households accepted as homeless), parents no longer able to accommodate (14%), other friends/relatives no longer able to accommodate (12%), relationship breakdown - violent (11%), loss of other rented or tied housing (7%) and relationship breakdown – other (5%).

In a rural context, IPPR found while many of the causes of rural homelessness to be similar to those experienced by households in urban areas (i.e., a change in personal circumstances such as relationship breakdown, being a victim of domestic abuse, unemployment/loss of income); the Welfare Reform Act 2012 had increased the number of households at risk of homelessness. They found this to be particularly challenging for rural dwellers where housing is less affordable than that in urban areas and there is a shortage of affordable homes.

Thirdly and finally, what can be done to support homeless people and prevent homelessness?

During 2015 Crisis established an independent panel of experts from across the housing and homelessness sector to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the current homelessness legislation in England. The panel’s report described the creation of a two tier system of advice and assistance – with applicants owed a main homelessness duty (i.e., families with dependent children) and those who are not owed a main homelessness duty (e.g. single people).

Crisis carried out a mystery shopping exercise, finding only 37 out of the 87 single people approaching a Local Authority for help were given accommodation that evening. The lack of a compulsory and audited quality framework or inspection regime for homelessness services made it difficult to see how Local Authorities were meeting their legislative responsibilities; and they found a lack of evidence around prevention work. The panel recommended a stronger duty be placed on Local Authorities to prevent homelessness at an earlier stage.

In March 2017, the Government announced it would be protecting and maintaining funding for Councils to provide homelessness prevention services at £315 million over the 4 years to 2019-20; it would provide £20 million to support innovative approaches in local areas to tackle and prevent homelessness; it would allocate £20 million to a rough sleeping prevention fund to help individuals at risk or new to the streets get back on their feet; establish a £10 million Social Impact Bond programme to help long-term rough sleepers; and provide £61 million for Councils to implement the measures in the Homelessness Reduction Bill.

The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, expected to be in force by April 2018, will create new legal duties for English Local Authorities to ‘give people meaningful support to try to resolve their homelessness’ and ‘introduce measures to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place’. However, Councils are waiting for Government to publish its code of guidance and provide detailed funding allocations – how will the £61 million allocated by Government be distributed (and what percentage will go to rural areas)?

A report by the Local Government Association in July 2017 reveals Councils are currently housing 77,240 homelessness households in temporary accommodation, including 120,540 children. This is a 25% increase in London (some 54,280 families) and a 52% increase outside of London (now 22,950) since 2014. The increasing unavailability of affordable housing is limiting the options for Councils seeking to find settled accommodation for those that need it leading them to use expensive and less desirable forms of emergency temporary accommodation (e.g. bed and breakfast, nightly rated accommodation).

As well as highlighting the increasing number of people and households requiring temporary accommodation, the report also highlights the innovative approaches taken by some Councils in England to respond to this increasing demand. The report draws together practice from Councils working with partners to provide good quality temporary options for homeless households in ways that are more financially sustainable.

One of the case studies contained in the report is from Teignbridge. Here the District Council has converted a former GP surgery into a well-managed hostel (where homeless households typically stay for less than three months while their needs are assessed and help provided). The Council has also built up a portfolio of properties with Plymouth Access to Housing (PATH) which provides access to private sector property for homelessness prevention; and is working with Young Devon to set up a multi-agency enquiry service for young people with housing issues.

South Norfolk is one of 28 ‘trailblazer areas’ across the country funded as part of a £50 million programme aimed at preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place. South Norfolk Council is running a project called FIRST: Financial, Independence, Resilience, Skills and Training to give people help earlier on and give them access to suitable accommodation. The Council is also using the principles of social enterprise to deliver private rental sector homes and helping tenants by them not having to find high deposits and fees as well as matching those under 35-years with suitable sharers.

An interview with Lisa Lewis, the chief executive of Doorway - a charity that provides a drop in centre and services for rough sleepers in Chippenham, Wiltshire –illuminates how ‘in smaller communities homelessness is much more hidden, and because of that, there is often less support to help our friends that are sleeping rough or sofa surfing. In large urban areas it is common to see people sleeping on the street; whereas in smaller communities homelessness is rarely visible. People double up and triple up in homes, sleep in cars, go from couch to couch, or live in tents far away from public view. It’s still homelessness - both rural and urban homelessness have negative effects on our communities - without exception.’

While the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 seeks to address concerns about rising homelessness by placing a greater duty on Local Authorities to intervene early and prevent homelessness among all groups; this move away from a model of determining ‘priority need’ to assessing ‘vulnerability’ is only part of the picture. More work is needed to improve data collection on rural homelessness.

More work is needed to understand the relationship between housing, welfare, health and employment and how this plays out in a rural context. More work is needed to make sure approaches taken to support people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless meet the needs of rural dwellers. For in the words of Raynor Winn “if the beautiful British countryside is to have any integrity, we must open our eyes to the desperate need of people who are not on our doorsteps, but in our hedgerows.”


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