'No place to call home' - Massive rise in homelessness applications leaves councils reliant on B&Bs
PUBLISHED: 06:00 13 June 2019 | UPDATED: 08:12 13 June 2019
A huge rise in homelessness applications has seen councils spend six-figure sums placing people in emergency B&Bs.
Figures released following Freedom of Information requests from this newspaper show councils have faced increases of up to 500% in the number of people seeking help from homelessness.
It has pushed spending on emergency accommodation to record levels. Ipswich Borough Council spent £434,000 on B&Bs last year. In Tendring, where homelessness applications doubled in a year, more than £800,000 was spent from 2017-19.
Councils say they are working to reduce their reliance on B&Bs and only use them as a last resort. But the charity Crisis has warned many families were being left in emergency accommodation for months at a time.
The longest single B&B stay in our region was 293 days recorded by Babergh District Council (BDC), followed by 227 days by Colchester Borough Council.
One father, who BDC placed in The Chequers in Ipswich for 10 weeks with his partner and children, said it almost tore his family apart.
The rise in B&B use followed the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA) in April 2018, which has been described as the "biggest change in homelessness regulation in 40 years".
Councils are now obliged to help anyone threatened with homelessness within 56 days, regardless of priority need; while other public bodies have a "duty to refer" anyone they believe needs assistance.
Crisis welcomed the change, which it said had reduced homelessness and made support available to groups who would not have previously missed out, such as single men.
But the charity also warned the increased demand on councils had exposed problems in the wider housing sector.
Councils with poor access to social housing or in areas where private accommodation is expensive are likely to face challenges fulfilling their new duties, which the charity said had led to an increased reliance on B&Bs.
Crisis's director of policy and external affairs, Matt Downie, said B&Bs were "no place to call home". "They can be crowded, in poor condition and sometimes even dangerous," he added. "But more and more we are seeing single people and families trapped in B&Bs for months or even years at a time with no hope of moving on. This is in part because housing benefit no longer covers the true cost of renting in large swathes of the East of England, leaving people at risk of homelessness."
This newspaper reported in April on Kylie Goodyear, who was placed in emergency B&B accommodation in Ipswich with her partner and children by Suffolk Coastal District Council after falling behind on rent in their privately rented home near Felixstowe. The family chose to leave the B&B to live in a caravan in her father's garden, as they felt conditions were unsuitable. Other guests placed in B&Bs said they felt abandoned by authorities. Many said they struggled to pay rent while on Universal Credit.
Crisis has called on the Government to help by bringing housing benefit in line with the cost of renting. Recent studies by the charity found private accommodation in many parts of the country, particularly London and the South East, was no longer affordable on benefits. In Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds, the study found none of the private housing market was accessible to young single people on benefits.
The loss of rented tenancy has been the leading cause of homelessness for six years.
Across Suffolk and Essex the number applying for help to avoid homelessness has increased massively. Ipswich Borough Council received 2,228 applications in 2018/19 - more than twice the previous year's figure. The figures in Babergh more than quadrupled from 111 to 501, while in Mid Suffolk they went up 500% from 75 to 433. In Colchester the number of applications increased from 328 to 1344. East Suffolk Council was the only authority to record a drop in homelessness applications after the HRA - but its B&B spending still increased by more than 20%.
Despite more people seeking help, several councils managed to achieve a reduction in the number of people classified as homeless by providing support before problems reached crisis point. At IBC, for example, 217 applied for help in March - but none was classified homeless. IBC said it prevented 502 households from becoming homeless last year.
West Suffolk Council achieved similar reductions.
Councils invest in new accommodation to reduce B&B spending
Authorities say new duties towards homelessness have brought positive changes - but also challenges.
Suffolk and Essex councils said the Homelessness Reduction Act enabled them to help more people, but some also admitted to increased B&B usage. Several have invested in projects to cut their B&B spend.
Ipswich Borough Council is to open the £2.8m East Villa apartments, adding to the temporary accommodation it provides at West Villa.
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Neil MacDonald, who is responsible for housing at IBC, said he hoped to end family use of B&Bs. "This is so homeless families have safe, quality and well managed accommodation so children's upbringing is disrupted as little as possible," he added.
Paul Honeywood, who is responsible for housing at Tendring District Council, said it was increasing council housing stock by acquiring existing properties and building its own, such as in Jaywick Sands.
"While we will continue to do what we can locally ... this is an issue which requires national focus and would ask the government for planning regulations to be tightened so developers are less able to dodge their obligations on providing affordable housing," he added.
Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils said their work on homelessness had been recognised by the Government.
The councils, together with West Suffolk Council, have successfully bid to create a supported lettings team helping rough sleepers find private sector housing. They are also reviewing their temporary accommodation to ensure it meets future requirements.
WSC also secured £320,000 of Government funding to help prevent tenants in the private sector from being made homeless after falling on hard times.
Sara Mildmay-White, who is responsible for housing at WSC said: "The council recognises it is better to work with the tenant and their landlord to address any issues rather than people going through the trauma of being made homeless and being placed in somewhere more temporary.
"A huge part of our work is designed to prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place wherever and however we can and the act has given us more power to work with people at risk of homelessness much earlier which is important. In 2017 our housing team assisted or prevented more than 500 West Suffolk households from becoming homeless and between April and November last year we assessed more than 2000 homelessness prevention cases."
Colchester Borough Council said the HRA had put pressure on the already limited supply of affordable accommodation.
"We had almost eliminated use of B&B accommodation, but the pressure that we now face having to prevent or relieve homelessness through a time-limited stay in accommodation has led to increasing use of B&B and short-term accommodation," a spokesman added. The council has offered incentive payments to private landlords and set up a matching service to help homeless people to find housing. It also invested in acquiring homes to use as temporary accommodation. It claims to have helped more people stay in their own home.
Campaigners call for greater housing help for domestic abuse survivors
A young mum who fled from domestic abuse has highlighted the importance of ensuring survivors are offered housing help.
The woman, who was given emergency accommodation in Ipswich, said housing support was essential to allow her family to "finally pursue the life we deserve".
"I know for me and my children all we want is a place we can call ours and to be physically and emotionally stable and secure," she said.
The mother of two whose identity we are protecting, made her comments amid growing calls for new laws to ensure every domestic abuse survivor is supported in finding a safe place to live.
Crisis and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ending Homelessness (APPGEH) are pressing the government to pass the upcoming Domestic Abuse Bill through their 'A Safe Home' campaign.
Rebecca Pritchard, director of services at Crisis, said: "It's simply unforgiveable that people fleeing domestic abuse are being forced to choose between homelessness or returning to their abusers because they aren't getting the help they need to find a safe home.
"Our own research shows that nearly 2,000 domestic abuse survivors a year are being told they aren't eligible for help from their local authorities, but it doesn't have to be this way.
"The government has a chance to turn this shocking situation around through the upcoming Domestic Abuse Bill - enshrining in law that every domestic abuse survivor should be helped to find a safe place to call home. And in 21st century Britain this change can't come soon enough."
APPGEH chairman Neil Coyle MP said: "Currently, people fleeing domestic abuse must prove they are significantly more 'vulnerable' than any other person would be if made homeless in order to secure the main homelessness duty of settled housing.
"We heard that proving vulnerability can be traumatic and near impossible for some survivors and there is evidence of local authorities using the vulnerability test as a gatekeeping tool.
"The APPGEH argues that everyone who experiences domestic abuse is, by definition, vulnerable and should be placed in the automatic priority need category."
Ian Blofield, head of housing and community services at Ipswich Borough Council said his team would always take a domestic abuse survivor's claim at face value, rather than insisting upon proof of their vulnerability.
"We don't start asking a long list of question, we just try to accommodate them the best we can on the information we have," he added.