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Fighting the scourge of homelessness

January 27, 2014

A card arrived at the council the other day to the department that helps homeless people.

It read: “No words will ever describe how much we are grateful and indebted to you!  Thank you so much for your support, effort, patience and understanding. There is always a question that keeps popping in our heads:  are all English people as kind and whole hearted as you?  Or are you just some beautiful accidents of nature?”

The words of thanks were from a family who had fled war torn Sudan with their disabled child. They had fallen on the mercy of our emergency accommodation team who had found them shelter. It was no accident. It was a result of choices that the council has made which bring out the best in people and represents the values of our community which has a proud tradition of helping people when they are down on their luck. We see these values in a range of our services as more and more of our local residents struggle with welfare reforms.

The threat of homelessness affects more than just the stereotyped street beggar we so often see on TV. It also affects tenants and homeowners. 

Last year 5,964 households in Newcastle received housing advice from the council and there were 3,673 cases of homelessness prevention.  As a result of the hard work of our staff

  • statutory homelessness reduced from 1,038 cases in 2002/3 to 220 cases in 2012/13;
  • we have not used B&B accommodation since 2006 when £58,584 was spent;
  • 642 cases of homelessness was prevented in 2006/7 compared to 3,673 cases in 2012/13;
  •  evictions reduced from 176 cases in 2007/8 to 85 2012/13;
  • 620 cases of homelessness were prevented through good debt advice

These figures – in the face of huge cuts – are something that the council and the city can be proud of. We were recently commended for our efforts to prevent homelessness in a study by Herriot Watt and Northumbria Universities.

Since the last evaluation in 2011, the report acknowledged:  “…increasing difficulties, most notably as a result of cuts to public spending and welfare reform.

It continued: “The consensus that emerged from this evaluation was that, despite these difficulties, the local authority continues to provide and coordinate high quality services and is seeking to develop and improve these services, particularly in areas of perceived weakness.”

Last September the UN reported on UK housing, saying it had “a history of ensuring that low-income households are not obliged to cope with insecure tenure and poor housing conditions, and can be well-housed.”

However, it acknowledged; “…signs of retrogression in the enjoyment of the right to adequate housing.  It is not clear that every effort has been made to protect the most vulnerable from the impacts of retrogression, indeed much of the testimony I heard suggests they are bearing the brunt.  Housing deprivation is worsening in the UK.”

We know that we will have to do more to meet the challenges of the Government’s welfare reforms and public sector cuts which will mean that over 5,000 households in Newcastle are at risk of homelessness due to the “bedroom tax” alone.  This is because they will lose an average of £709 per year. They are already the most disadvantaged, living in areas with the least employment opportunities, highest rates of child poverty and the worst impacts of the welfare reforms which will take an estimated £100m out of Newcastle by 2017.

Welfare reforms and public sector cuts will make it very difficult to maintain our good performance in preventing homelessness. Many people will not be able to afford to keep their homes and some may face eviction – despite our best efforts to avoid this.  However, as Raymond Williams said, “To be truly radical we must make hope possible rather than despair convincing.” In hard times, more than ever, we need to give people a helping hand, not put them down. It is the right thing to do.

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