Getting a bit stressed about Christmas? (If you are celebrating)

By Wendy Dearden – Policy and Public Affairs Manager

I know I am! Will my online orders arrive in time? Will I get some parsnips at the supermarket before they run out? Is there going to be enough room for us all around the table?

Sound familiar? Please have a pause and have a look at our Christmas appeal to put everything into perspective…….

I know where my daughter will be waking up on Christmas Day morning, in her usual bed, surrounded by the familiar, the comfortable and the secure. I don’t need to reassure her that Santa will find us, he knows our address from last year. And it won’t matter whether the dinner takes longer than I’d planned to cook, at least I’ve got somewhere to cook it…….

Shelter Cymru’s Christmas Appeal this year is a stark reminder that this won’t be the case for a many. A record number of people in Wales are spending the festive period living in temporary accommodation.

Latest Welsh Government figures show that 11,228 individuals call temporary accommodation home, 3,409 of these being dependent child aged under 16 (as at September 2023). We have been watching these numbers rise pretty much on a month by month basis since the start of the pandemic with more than double the number of people living in temporary accommodation now than in December 2020.

Here’s a bit of the legal background……. The Welsh Government’s Housing (Wales) Act 2014 requires that local authorities assist those homeless applicants who are eligible for assistance by:

  • Assessing to determine whether they are homeless or threatened with homelessness
  • Taking reasonable steps to prevent homelessness or help to secure accommodation
  • If homelessness has not been prevented or no suitable accommodation has been found, securing suitable accommodation for those in priority need, who are homeless through no fault of their own and have a local connection.

Households should be considered to be in priority need if they are:

  • A family with dependent children or pregnant
  • Made homeless by flood, fire or other disaster
  • A young person aged 16 or 17, or aged 18 to 20 at risk of exploitation or having been in care
  • Victims of domestic violence
  • Armed forces personnel who have been homeless since leaving the forces
  • Someone who is vulnerable as a result of time in prison
  • Someone who is vulnerable for some other reason, e.g. old age or disability

We use the term temporary accommodation to describe all forms of short-term accommodation used by local authorities to fulfil their homelessness duties. People will have a vastly different experience of living in this accommodation depending on its nature and the facilities provided.

At its best, this is self-contained accommodation provided as short term private and social lets. At its worst, we’re talking about a hotel room where facilities could be shared, and a whole family could be in the same room

From our case work, we’ve heard about the practical struggles of having just a kettle to prepare meals with or being unable to wash clothes without a trip to a laundry or relying on the support of family and friends.  Quite often people have been accommodated miles away from family and other support networks. We also know of cases where people are frequently asked to move between different locations.

The people we see talk about their life being on hold and a feeling of being in limbo. Employment opportunities, education, relationships, and health and wellbeing are adversely affected. People have told us about their feelings of loneliness and isolation and the limits it places on their ability to socialise, find or keep work, and access services.

*We totally appreciate the extremely difficult circumstances in which local authorities are having to work, and that placements in poor quality or otherwise unsuitable accommodation are made as a last resort. We are constantly hearing the message of how difficult it is to find alternative homes, both for individual households and for local authorities seeking to assist them.

In response to the pandemic, people who presented to homelessness services without accommodation could expect to be  provided with accommodation by local authorities, and offered the support they needed to stay safe. This approach became known as “no one left out”, and led to an extra category of priority need being set – those who are street homeless or vulnerable due to a public health emergency.

This was an initial cause of the growth numbers living in temporary accommodation, but it is only a small part of the story. Since then there has been a rising tide of homelessness more generally. This is fuelled by our housing emergency and in particular the difficulties being faced by households looking for a suitable home they can afford.

The first factor at play is a lack of social housing. Across Wales, around 90,000 households are currently waiting for a social home. Research by Shelter Cymru and the BBC reveals that this figure is 40% higher than it was in 2018.

The Welsh Government has increased its spending on social housing for rent and committed to a target of 20,000 new social homes in this term of the Senedd. It’s pretty much accepted though, that the target is unlikely to be met due to the rising cost of construction, skills shortages and delays in the planning system.

The private rented sector has grown to fill this gap. It is providing homes for households who cannot find a social home or are not in a position to buy their own home, but private rents have increased significantly as has the number of no fault evictions. Wales has seen significant rent increases of up 10% or 11% in hotspots such as Merthyr, Rhondda Cynon Taff, Cardiff, Newport, Vale of Glamorgan and Conwy. In our casework, we’ve seen landlords deciding to hike up, or even double, their rent. Some are facing increasing mortgage repayments, but that’s not the case for all, and in any case highlights why so many people are waiting, and hoping, for a more affordable social home.

It really is a perfect storm in our housing system at the moment and the record numbers living in temporary accommodation are the eye of that storm.

I made our Christmas cake the other day and took the annual opportunity to make a wish for next year…… I’m not supposed to tell anyone …… but I’ll make an exception this time. Please can we find a way to fix our housing system and make sure everyone has a permanent place to call home by next Christmas!