Across Wales there are more than 500 homeless people in emergency accommodation due to the pandemic. Local agencies have worked incredibly hard to get people into safe places, whether that’s hotels, B&Bs, caravan parks, previously unlet social housing, even into permanent homes.
Finding accommodation for so many people so quickly is a massive credit to homelessness services and their partners. All the stops were pulled out to ensure that as many homeless people as possible could stay safe.
However a huge question – to which there was no guidance until yesterday – is where people are meant to go when lockdown is over.
Nobody, least of all councils, wants to see hundreds of people evicted to the streets. But finding accommodation and support for that many is a challenge so huge, it even dwarfs what’s been achieved so far.
One important part of the question is what people’s legal status should be. Are they owed a homelessness duty under the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, or are they just being unofficially accommodated as a mark of goodwill? Do people have any rights in this situation?
That question was at least partly answered by the Welsh Government yesterday. New statutory guidance stated that in the government’s view, it is ‘almost inevitable’ that a person who is homeless during Covid should meet the test for priority need, and therefore have the right to a permanent home once the outbreak is over.
Almost inevitable – but not completely inevitable. The guidance could have been more clear-cut in several ways. However the point being made here is not just technical, but ethical.
Last year more than 1,600 homeless people across Wales were told they must remain homeless, because the council wasn’t able to help them find a home and their circumstances meant they didn’t have a priority need.
In these bizarre and dangerous times, the Welsh Government has set an expectation that ordinary limits to homelessness assistance don’t apply. Covid has brought so much pain to so many, but it has also brought the chance to do things differently.
We have a unique opportunity before us. We can erase homelessness now and significantly reduce it in future. We can work towards a future where priority need is no longer a barrier to help, certainly for people sleeping rough and ideally for all.
One thing is clear though: council homelessness services can’t do it alone.
Despite the guidance there are plenty of legal ‘get out clauses’ available to councils: intentional homelessness, failure to cooperate, no change of circumstances, could all be used as reasons not to owe someone a duty.
However we know councils don’t want to go down that route. Everyone agrees that the right thing to do is to find people homes, but to make that happen is going to take resources and unprecedented levels of support from local partners.
Social landlords will need to dig deep into their social purpose and be less risk averse than many are used to. Support will need to be provided in new ways, as many people’s support needs have changed during lockdown.
There’s a big task ahead and we all have to pull together.