Homelessness is rising dramatically for the first time in years in the UK as the effects of the recession are felt, with recent increases in some areas of more than 50% in the numbers of people declaring themselves in need of housing, government figures find.
The government data show that 26,400 people approached a local council for housing help in the first three months of 2011, a rise of 23% compared with the same period last year.
Less than half of these applications were successful, triggering warnings of growing numbers of “hidden” homeless – people forced to squat or sleep on friends’ sofas after not qualifying for official help.
Rent arrears or mortgage defaults were to blame for a growing share of the people given housing help, thoughrelationship breakdown (often linked to domestic violence) and being rejected by family or friends, remained the key causes of homelessness.
Though there is evidence councils are refusing proportionately more applicants, the number of people approved as being in need of housing rose by 10% year-on-year in 2010-11 – the first such rise for seven years.
Some of the biggest rises in homelessness applications came in London boroughs: substantial rises were recorded in Bromley (99%), Hammersmith and Fulham (92%), Islington (88%), and Haringey (83%), in the first three months of 2011. The figures also revealed an increase in homeless families being housed in bed and breakfast accommodation.
Campaigners have warned that the surge in homelessness will accelerate over the coming months as changes to housing benefit start to affect households.
The latest government figures, for the three months until the end of March, precede cuts affecting new claimants’ housing allowances. Benefit cuts to existing claimants will start in January 2012.
Leslie Morphy, chief executive of the charity Crisis, said: “The government’s figures show that homelessness is on the rise once more, yet instead of redoubling their efforts to end this scandal, minsters are cutting housing benefit and weakening homeless people’s rights to housing.
“It is vital that the government changes course and prioritises the needs of the most vulnerable, particularly as the impact of the cuts to housing benefit is still to come.”
The housing minister, Grant Shapps, admitted the figures underline “how the recession has brought difficult times for lots of people”. But he said homelessness remained a government priority and urged people at risk of losing their homes to contact a Citizens Advice bureau.
The charity Homeless Link said the numbers of homeless people turned away by local councils for failing to qualify as a “priority need” rose by 15% in 2010-11. Priority need criteria include households with dependent children, pregnant women, people with mental illness or disability and vulnerable young people such as care leavers.
Jenny Edwards, chief executive of Homeless Link, said: “When people experience financial problems, they need effective help, not a closed door, even if they are not defined as being a ‘priority’. We need to prevent people from facing the alternative of illegal lets, staying with friends, or squats. We know these are often the last stop before the streets.
“We need a clearer duty for councils to offer effective advice and information to help people who are homeless but not offered accommodation.”
A ministerial working group on preventing and tackling homelessness is expected to report at the end of this month.
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