Last week the Welsh Government published a rather important set of statistics on homelessness.
The figures mean that for the first time we can get a sense what’s been happening in Welsh homelessness over the last two years since the law was changed to increase prevention work and help more people.
And the picture that’s emerging is a pretty stark one.
From every angle, the figures tell the same story: homelessness is high, and is continuing to grow.
Limitations with the data
As ever, we need state up front that there are shortcomings with Welsh homelessness data. There is considerable potential for human error in the way figures are currently recorded.
It’s a constant source of frustration and yes, there are better ways of doing it and yes, we have asked Welsh Government to look at alternatives.
It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that the official stats only count people who have been all the way through the system, not those who are still owed a homelessness duty. If they included open cases, the numbers would be even higher.
Demand on local authorities
Unfortunately, numbers of homelessness assessments aren’t currently monitored. However we can make a good estimate – and our analysis suggests that, over the course of Year Two of the legislation, the number of households having their homelessness assessed by local authorities has increased by 32 per cent.
That’s on top of a 27 per cent increase in Year One.
More and more households are seeking help. Is this because people have more rights now, and are more likely to come forward? Or is it because more people are experiencing hardship?
The recent 72 per cent rise in rough sleeping would suggest the answer is the latter.
The stats also reveal a change in the nature of the work local authorities are doing. During Year One there was roughly an equal amount of activity taking place under prevention (stopping households from becoming homeless) as under relief (helping households who are already homeless).
We can now see that in Year Two, a considerable gap has opened up. Local authorities are now doing more casework to deal with homelessness once it has already happened, than to prevent it happening in the first place.
While the number of households threatened with homelessness has gone up by 29 per cent in the last year, the number that are actually homeless has increased by an astonishing 58 per cent, to 10,884 households.
Figure 1: Outcomes under prevention and relief of homelessness, by quarter
What’s going on? Is prevention not working anymore?
Our caseworkers find that prevention can be extremely challenging, due to a fatal combination of welfare reform, benefit cap, universal credit and a large number of private landlords either leaving the market or refusing to take on benefit claimants as tenants.
Although private landlord licensing under Rent Smart Wales has brought many positives, it can’t be denied that it does make it harder to find accommodation for homeless households.
But the statistics don’t suggest that prevention is failing. In fact local authorities successfully prevented homelessness for 62 per cent, which is only slightly below their performance in Year One. For single households the success rate was 60 per cent, even higher than last year.
Given the scale of increases in demand, this is a massive achievement.
What the stats do suggest, though, is that more people are going straight to the relief duty and bypassing prevention altogether.
There are likely to be a number of reasons for this: the economic climate, levels of poverty and other drivers of homelessness in society; local authority workloads; and also changes in practice in some authorities.
For example, we’ve seen a small number of recent cases where our client isn’t yet homeless but the council is treating them as if they are, and fast-tracking them to the relief and final duties.
Sometimes this might be in the individual’s interest. But sometimes it risks closing them off from assistance too soon, especially if they aren’t in a priority need group.
And it suggests a lack of faith in the whole concept of homelessness prevention – an attitude that’s very much a hangover from the old system.
Supporting the prevention agenda
Wales is now more than two years into the new homelessness system, and here comes the acid test: how well can we cope with a significant rise in the number of people seeking help?
Our caseworkers and our research suggest that more needs to be done to expand the inventiveness of prevention activity, making it more bespoke to people’s needs and more focused on helping people to keep their current accommodation.
What we’re seeing is an over-reliance on a narrow set of standard interventions: PRS lists, bond board, pay-offs from prevention funds.
We need to think bigger.
But this kind of service improvement is incredibly hard to achieve when you are running at full pelt just to stand still.
People working in frontline homelessness services need to be supported – with funding, with training, with good practice guidance, with decent wages.
Because homelessness carries a cost to the whole of society, and preventing it is everybody’s business.
Campaigns Manager, Shelter Cymru