Exempt from Responsibility? Addressing social inequalities in the exempt accommodation sector
The most common perception of homelessness, and the most visible to us all, is of people who are forced to live in the open; eating, sleeping and staying in our public spaces.
With so much state intervention (and finance) driven towards rough sleeping, this is where most attention has been drawn by the government. Countless others are also homeless, often referred to as the “hidden homeless”. Like most things you can’t see - they are often neglected - in more ways than one.
Many of these ‘invisible’ people are currently hidden in unregulated, non-commissioned exempt accommodation. A report published last week by Spring Housing Association and the Housing and Communities Research Group at the University of Birmingham - supported by Commonweal Housing - highlights the accountability deficits and the social inequalities of this sector in its most raw form.
The report finds that the non-commissioned exempt accommodation sector is broadly ‘unregulated’ by national and local Government oversight – but this isn’t about “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. We believe that non-commissioned exempt accommodation has a really important part to play in housing some of the most vulnerable people in our society. We hope the report helps to foster a learning partnership that aims to drive up standards and puts residents and tenants’ voices at the heart of the conversation.
We want to do this by focussing on what works - creating lasting change through evidence-based practice. We understand that this is a big ask, but we fundamentally believe the recommendations contained within the report are achievable, measurable and sustainable.
This part of the homelessness field is less well known than most. However, we believe that there are accountability deficits which are not catered for within housing benefit regulations, resulting in no meaningful oversight on the services provided to some of our most vulnerable citizens.
Some of our best innovation in supported housing is in the non-commissioned sector. Think of the domestic abuse refuges creating safety and saving lives; or the homeless housing plus centres. Look also to the NHS Long Term Plan, with the closure of long-stay hospitals and institutions and the creation of alternative supported living services. These are all examples of non-commissioned accommodation at its innovative best; supported by housing benefit and acting as a true enabler.
For non-commissioned exempt accommodation to play a key role in addressing social injustice, we need to push for significant reform. Shifting emphasis in government policy, strengthening existing regulation and, I believe, tackling the ethical issues around service delivery and practice are key areas for change.
Over £1.72 billion is spent on housing benefit for people of working age, equating to £9,000 per person, per year. That is a huge public investment, and our report has outlined how, without meaningful oversight, this investment can far too easily harm the people it is intended to help.
We hope our work on this complex, lesser-known sector has opened up a wider question about the type of society we want to be, and whether we are willing to be honest, constructive and bold about what we need to do to change a system that has too often left people who should be at its centre on the margins.