Homelessness in England has been a growing problem over the last five years. The number of people sleeping rough has doubled, and the number of homeless households seeking help from local authorities has also increased.
Homelessness can have a devastating impact on a person’s health and well-being, and since the early 1990s successive governments made large investments in services to tackle the problem. But after 2010, funds were cut for many homelessness and housing support services. Several radical changes to housing and welfare policies were also introduced, which presented further challenges for formerly homeless people.
In an effort to assess the outcomes of rehousing homeless people, and learn how best to meet their longer-term support needs, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) School for Social Care Research funded Rebuilding Lives. This study has sought to understand the experiences of 297 formerly homeless people, five years after they made the transition from hostels and other temporary accommodation, into independent housing.
Colleagues at King’s College London and I carried out the study, the largest of its kind in the UK. Our research followed up an earlier study, which investigated the experiences of 400 single homeless people over 18 months after they were resettled.
What we found
Once they are rehoused, many homeless people are able to rebuild their lives. After five years, many participants in our study had settled into their accommodation, and made considerable progress. Some had become involved in education, work-training programmes or had attained employment, and for many family and social relationships had improved. Several young people had started their own family.
But we found that a significant proportion remained vulnerable during the first few years, and required long-term support in order to maintain a tenancy and prevent a return to homelessness. By the end of the Rebuilding Lives study, 89% of our participants were housed, although 16% had become homeless at some time during the five years since they were resettled.
Living independently was not easy for them. Even after five years, some were still finding it hard to cope. One quarter were struggling to look after their accommodation and manage everyday tasks, and were living in dirty or squalid conditions. Many of these had mental health or substance misuse problems, and had little or no experience of living alone. A few were hoarding, and parts of their accommodation had become inaccessible.
For just over a third (35%) of our participants, their accommodation was in serious disrepair: they were experiencing problems with damp and mould, faulty heating or wiring, or damage caused by floods and leaks. People in both social housing and the private-rented sector were affected by poor living conditions.
Many formerly homeless people faced new financial demands immediately after they were resettled, as they tried to set up a home and rebuild their lives. When interviewed after five years, many of those who were housed were on low incomes (65% were living below the UK poverty line), and struggling to meet everyday living expenses. Around a half ran short of money for food at times, and did not have enough money to heat their home.
Over the course of our study, the prevalence of debts among the participants gradually increased. Five years after being resettled, 75% owed money, including almost a third who had debts of more than £1,000. The debts were mainly due to the cost of living expenses, such as rent, household bills and council tax. Young people aged under 25 years were most likely to have built up large debts – just over half of them (55%) owed £1,000 or more.
One of the key factors contributing to the participants’ financial difficulties was the suspension or withdrawal of social security benefits. Three quarters of our participants were reliant on such benefits and, at the time of their five-year interview, 24% of these had had their Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) or Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) benefits suspended or stopped in the preceding 12 months.
In some cases, JSA was stopped because the participants missed appointments at the Job Centre or failed to attend training or apply for jobs. Some did not understand what they should do when their ESA – which was time-limited – ended, and failed to complete a new claim form.
Benefit sanctions led to great difficulties, as many people had no family or friends who could help them financially. For some people, this resulted in eviction for rent arrears as their housing benefit was also stopped – even though housing benefits should not be affected by JSA sanctions.
Many participants were keen to work, but finding a steady job with sufficient hours was problematic and contributed to financial difficulties. Some worked casually or under “zero-hours” contracts: their working hours were irregular and their income low.
Although zero-hours contracts may offer flexibility to employers and suit the circumstances of some people, such insecure hours can be problematic for formerly homeless people who have no other source of income and are trying to re-establish themselves and live independently. Most study participants employed under zero-hours contracts would have preferred to work more hours, but the option was unavailable to them.
Building a home
Changes to the housing market in England over the last few years are also affecting on the resettlement of homeless people. With a shortage of available social housing, single homeless people are now more likely to be resettled into the private rented sector.
Yet among the study participants, those resettled in the private rented sector had poorer housing outcomes than those who moved to local authority or housing association tenancies. They were more likely to have changed tenancy several times, and 36% of those resettled in the private rented sector became homeless again.
Factors contributing to their housing instability included fixed-term tenancy agreements, difficulties with rent payments, poor conditions in the accommodation, and conflicts with landlords regarding repairs.
After five years, 32% of participants were receiving housing-related support from services. People who received this support were predominantly those who had longer histories of homelessness, and health and substance misuse problems. Young people were least likely to receive support from services, yet they were also least likely to have had previous experience of living alone and managing a tenancy. People living in the private rented sector were also less likely than others to have received support.
Our study has shown that planned resettlement for homeless people works, and should be encouraged. But many homeless people require long-term tenancy support after they are rehoused. In many areas, there have been cuts to tenancy support services, and increasing pressures to restrict how long support can be provided. Yet taking into account the difficulties that many study participants were facing after five years, they are highly likely to need help for the foreseeable future, if further homelessness is to be prevented.