Lee Buss-Blair, Director of Operations at Riverside, writes about the pressures facing supported housing providers and what the Government can do to support.
In the first six months of 2022 alone, 138,220 households were judged by councils to be either at risk of homelessness or already homeless and owed a duty of care, up 5% on the previous year. Meanwhile, the total number of homeless households put up in temporary accommodation by councils has been above 90,000 since the first quarter of 2020. The last time it was this high was in 2006. And the London database CHAIN showed the number of people sleeping rough in the capital for the first time between October and December 2022 increased by a third compared to the previous year.
This pressure is very much being felt at the coalface of homelessness services. But this isn’t just a crisis of demand - it is a crisis of supply, too.
Covid had a huge impact on homelessness commissioning. Most commissioning was halted for two years, and contracts simply extended. The effect of this decision was that contracts that had been costed over a three- or four-year period ended up running for five or six years. Crucially, funding was not adjusted for cost-of-living increases. This would have been a problem at the best of times - let alone a period in which CPI inflation has been as high as 11% and remains, at time of writing, in double figures.
Ensuring that there is a viable route off the streets is critical if we are to see sustained improvements in rough sleeping. Supported housing services are vital in this process through providing people with stable accommodation and personalised support to help them address wider issues in their lives, before eventually moving on to independent living. But a number of factors are now threatening the viability of these services.
One is the ability to recruit and retain staff. Our colleagues are dedicated, and often driven by a sense of vocation. But after a prolonged period of stress from working during a pandemic, in an environment made even more challenging due to staff shortages, we risk losing them to (often) better paid, lower stress, sectors.
As the job market moves, the fixed nature of the funding means that we cannot as a sector, increase salaries without an increase in grant funding levels. This means that, as we move as a nation to the desired ‘high wage economy,’ without the levels of funding required to provide salaries that are both commensurate to the work, and competitive, the supported housing sector risks being left behind.
Additionally, rising energy bills are causing managers of supported housing services endless sleepless nights. From April, the Government will be significantly reducing the support available for non-domestic energy bills. Unlike profit making businesses, we can’t pass on rising costs to the people we support, leaving us with very few options.
It is therefore imperative that the Government provides an inflation-linked increase for homelessness support in the Spring Budget, as well as providing a range of support with energy costs to people living in communal settings including providing an equivalent to the Energy Bill Support Scheme and extending the Warm Homes Discount eligibility.
Ultimately, we need to ensure that homelessness services can continue to provide support for people at a time when the cost-of-living crisis threatens to lead to further increases in homelessness and rough sleeping.