Rise in families made homeless

by Daphne Liddle

THE NUMBER of families formally recognised as homeless has risen by 44 per cent in the last two years according to a report published last week by the National Housing Federation.

The report found that between January and March 2012 there were 3,960 families nationwide living in bed-and-breakfast (B&B) accommodation, up from 2,750 over the same period in 2011.

Local authorities use B&B accommodation as a temporary measure for homeless families. In these places a breakfast is provided but no other meal and the families have to be out by 10 am every day and cannot return until evening.

The accommodation is frequently cramped, damp and shared bathrooms and toilets are often unsanitary. Infestations of vermin are common.

It is sheer misery for the whole family but particularly distressing for children. It is not meant to last more than six weeks but it often does. And families find themselves frequently being shifted from one place to another, disrupting employment and school life.

The problem is particularly acute in London and the Government has warned 20 councils not to house families in B&Bs for six weeks or more.

Many families have been affected by the cap on housing benefits, leaving them unable to pay high rents, even for those who in are full-time but low-paid work. Job cuts have also sabotaged other families’ ability to keep up mortgage payments.

Alternative temporary accommodation to B&Bs, in the form of houses or flats leased by local authorities and housing associations, provides short-term homes to around 26,000 homeless families.

This accommodation is more stable and secure than B&Bs, with the space and access required for children to live a normal life and for parents to work their way out of homelessness and towards a better future.

But an even bigger problem looms. Temporary accommodation is often provided by the private sector and highly priced — the landlords make as much as they can out of the local authorities — and no one is certain whether the Government’s cap of £500 on the maximum benefit one family can receive will mean that those in temporary, or even B&B accommodation is unaffordable.

This would probably lead to homeless families being sent away to parts of the country where accommodation is cheaper. This is already happening and set to increase when the £500 cap comes in next April.

Westminster council said it now had more than "1,150 households approach for advice and assistance due to the local housing allowance (LHA) cap. In July, 141 households approached for advice, an increase of 27 on the previous month."

"We believe the rise in acceptances is the result of the LHA caps and a high proportion of applications coming from families who are unable to find alternative accommodation, whom we are required to accept through homeless legislation," the council said.

Because of the shortage of affordable properties for low-income people, many are being exported out of London. According to Westminster, "in the last month we have secured properties in Hemel Hempstead, Bletchley, Maidstone and Grays" to house the homeless.

The federation says this sort of temporary accommodation is preferable to B&Bs, which lead to poor people having no security of tenure. But it warned that from April 2013, families living in these homes could be hit by another cap which limits the total amount of benefits paid to households to £500 a week.

"As [homes in the private rental sector] become more expensive to rent and manage, this could mean families are unable to pay the rent — pushing them back into B&Bs, or even on to the streets," it said.

The Government has not yet confirmed how the benefit cap will affect people living in temporary accommodation and what measures will be taken to protect the service.

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said: "In a B&B, whole families can find themselves sharing one room and they are often shut out of their accommodation during the day, causing huge disruption to daily routines of school and work.

“Every child deserves a decent home to come back to after school, where they feel secure, and where they can sit down to do their homework. That is what temporary accommodation provides.

"Without the safety net of temporary accommodation, thousands more families will find themselves in a vicious cycle of homelessness.

"It is essential that the Government puts in place measures to protect this crucial service and the vulnerable families who depend on it."