This week James wrote for Conservative Home about the Public Accounts Committee report "Covid 19: housing people sleeping rough." James was a lead member for the inquiry and highlights the success in bringing 30,000 people off the streets and now the need for a clear definition, long term funding, and an updated strategy to deliver on this target.
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"Putting up a Christmas tree is a simple act that most people take for granted. But as the Purfleet Trust, a charity in my constituency, explained to me, for someone they helped who used to sleep on the streets buying a tree marked the moment when their accommodation turned into a home.
One of the few positive effects of the pandemic was that the “Everyone In” initiative accelerated the Government’s manifesto pledge to end rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. During my time as an adviser in the Cabinet Office, I was repeatedly told that achieving the previous target of doing this any sooner than by by 2027 was not possible. That owed much to previous Treasury reluctance to fund the plans, so this is an issue the Prime Minister has rightly prioritised.
In the Public Accounts Committee report published today, we recognise the “considerable achievement” of “Everyone In”, which has helped more than 37,000 people into accommodation. Despite not having a specific plan for a pandemic, the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government, under Robert Jenrick’s direction, acted “swiftly” in conjunction with local authorities and charities to ensure that people sleeping rough were helped off the streets. It is estimated that action helped avert 20,000 infections and 200 deaths.
Now it is essential to ensure this progress is not lost. Our report calls for the 2018 rough sleeping strategy to be updated as a priority to reflect government’s manifesto commitment. Before the pandemic hit, Baroness Louise Casey had agreed to review the existing strategy, but this was understandably put on hold as she helped lead the Covid response. In her evidence to us, she said that the review was still needed and should be more expansive, considering “wider aspects of homelessness, particularly families in temporary accommodation”.
Clarity on what “ending” rough-sleeping means, how such a target will be measured, and then reported against is now needed. Snapshot data showed 2,688 people sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2020, down from 4,266 in the year before the pandemic. However, the “Everyone In” campaign has helped nine times that many people, which shows that the size of the rough sleeping population and those at risk of rough sleeping is far higher than the snapshot data. While I wasn’t wholly surprised when the MHCLG Permanent Secretary was unable to clarify what the goal meant in practice, an agreed definition is needed urgently.
For the PAC, “ending” implies more than just housing people captured in snapshot data and requires a plan that addresses long-term factors that cause people to start sleeping rough in the first place, including the wider availability of supported and affordable housing.
As well available accommodation, the new strategy needs to reflect the fact that more than 80 per cent of rough sleepers have mental health needs and a significant majority have substance abuse problems. This underlines the importance of wraparound support as per the Housing First model. By bringing forward the Next Steps Accommodation plan to deliver 3,300 houses for people sleeping rough by the end of March, my borough council for instance will be providing six properties which will offer more personalised support for people with complex needs.
Since being elected, I have worked closely with the Purfleet Trust which helps homeless people to build the confidence and skills they need to lead more fulfilling lives. As they tell me, in many ways getting someone into accommodation is the easy part. The challenge is then to keep them there. They are rightly proud of their track record in helping people to move into jobs by developing close relationships with local employers.
One area I believe deserves more attention as the strategy is refreshed is the role of day centres. These are often the first port of call for people on the street. By getting people in for a meal and offering a safe space to sit down and help them to deal with some of the longer-term issues they face, these centres play an important role.
And, of course, a strategy is only valuable insofar as it is funded. £700 million was made available to local authorities in 2020-21 through a combination of spending brought forward and new funding. A further £750 million will be provided to help tackle rough sleeping over the next year. However, both local authorities and the voluntary sector are calling for long-term strategic funding. We recommend individual funding streams are aligned and that the government addresses the importance of multi-year funding certainty.
A further focus must be on improving resilience in the sector. The toll on those on the frontline who have gone from helping people keep tenancies to dealing with people in chaotic circumstances is immense. These roles are akin to specialist social workers and when funding is short term, charities can only offer limited contracts. The uncertainty over how long a role will last makes it much harder to find people with the skills to do this vital work. In addition, longer term funding would avoid councils and charities spending time bidding into multiple small pots.
Last month, this site raised again the issues of non-UK nationals who account for a quarter of all those sleeping rough. Under “Everyone In”, the public health priority was helping people whether they were from Bromley or Portugal. Our report highlights that the messaging to local authorities has become more ambiguous as the pandemic has continued. 50% of those put into emergency accommodation in London, for instance, were ineligible for benefits.
This goes to the cross-cutting nature of the problem – solving it will require the Government to address rough-sleeping and immigration issues together and to provide clear guidance to local authorities on what this means for the support they offer this group.
When the pandemic hit, the government rightly prioritised people sleeping rough for urgent support. Local authorities, the voluntary sector, hotel chains, and many more organisations stepped up to meet this goal. To build on this success requires a refreshed plan urgently to provide the clarity, funding, and regular reporting to achieve the objective the government has rightly set to end rough sleeping."
The article is also available here
The Report's Conclusions and recommendations:
The Everyone In initiative succeeded in its objective of protecting public health in the first wave of the pandemic, averting more than 20,000 infections. Despite not having a national pandemic plan in place for the rough sleeping population, the Department acted swiftly, in conjunction with local authorities and charities, to ensure that people sleeping rough were supported off the street through Everyone In in the first wave of the pandemic. Recognising the additional demands from the pandemic on its capacity, it invited Baroness Casey to run its Rough Sleeping Taskforce. The Department then showed flexibility in rapidly reorganising its activities, in partnership with charities and local authorities. However, maintaining a heightened level of intensity for a prolonged period impacted on its resilience, as well as that of charities and local authorities. Delays in the awarding of funding in autumn 2020 may be signs that the Department’s capacity was being stretched.
Recommendation: The Department should, in seeking to learn lessons from what made Everyone In a success in the first wave of the pandemic, assess what additional staff capacity it needs to be able to sustain its response and its support for local partners, as the pandemic continues.
2.The Department still does not have a plan for achieving its target of ending rough sleeping by 2024, and risks failing to capitalise on the successes of Everyone In. Following the general election in December 2019 the government began this Parliament with a manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping by May 2024: only three years from now. This brought forward the government’s previous commitment, which had been to end rough sleeping by May 2027. In February 2020 the Department commissioned a review of its 2018 rough sleeping strategy towards meeting its new target but, owing to the prioritisation given to dealing with the pandemic, this has not yet been conducted. Not only does the Department not have a plan for ending rough sleeping by 2024, it also has not worked out how to define what ‘ending’ rough sleeping means or how it will measure and report on progress in a meaningful way. To end rough sleeping will certainly involve addressing the wider lack of availability of supported housing and affordable housing. The Department’s evidence shows that 80% of rough sleepers have mental health needs and a significant majority have substance abuse which underlines the importance of providing appropriate wraparound care to provide a sustainable pathway out of rough-sleeping. In 2017 this Committee recommended that the Department launch a cross-government strategy for addressing homelessness in the round, which could have helped it to address this issue, but it has so far failed to do so.
Recommendation: The Department must, before summer recess, publish at least a draft strategy for how it will achieve its goal of ending rough sleeping by 2024. This should set out its definition of ‘ending’ rough sleeping, how it will measure and report progress in achieving and maintaining this goal, and the capacity of supported and affordable housing required to reduce the flow of people onto the streets towards zero for the long term.
3.The size of the rough sleeping population and those at risk of rough sleeping is far higher than the snapshot the Department is relying on, exposing the inadequacy of its current approach to data collection and reporting. One consequence of Everyone In has been that for the first time the Department has publicly acknowledged the scale of the rough sleeping population over the course of a year. The number of people assisted under Everyone In from the end of March 2020 to the end of January 2021 (37,430) is nearly nine times the number in its official snapshot of the number of people sleeping rough on one night in autumn 2019 (4,266), its last such measure before the pandemic. This illustrates that there is a churn of people moving onto and off the streets during the year, something which cannot be captured by a single snapshot. In spite of the Everyone In initiative (and other measures, such as a ban on evictions in the private rental sector), this churn continued during 2020, with Data collected by the Department from local authorities apparently showing numbers of people on the streets growing again over the summer, although the number recorded in the official snapshot taken in autumn 2020 was 2,688, a reduction of 37% on the 2019 figure. In February 2021 the Department began publishing monthly rolling estimates of rough sleeping numbers, which should belatedly improve Parliament’s capacity to monitor the Department’s performance. The Department’s most recent snapshot shows that rough sleeping has fallen 43% with 2,688 people estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2020, compared to 4,677 in 2018. The Department must continually scrutinise and improve its own data collection system to make sure it is up to date in monitoring the rough sleeping population.
Recommendation: To support proper accountability, the Department must ensure it continues to publish its monthly data on numbers of people sleeping rough. Drawing on this information, it should report back to this Committee on a quarterly basis on its performance against its target for ending rough sleeping.
4.The Department has provided a number of different funding streams to local authorities to cover the pandemic response for people sleeping rough, but many are short-term and reactive, and the Department does not have a cohesive long-term funding plan for its commitment to end rough sleeping. Local authorities expect to spend £192 million on rehousing people sleeping rough by the end of March 2021. The Department provided £4.6 billion between March and October 2020 to cover additional costs resulting from the COVID-19 response, but rough sleeping is only one of a number of priorities covered by this un-ringfenced funding. The Department also brought forward and augmented existing funding, with a total of £700 million available to local authorities for tackling homelessness in 2020–21. More recent funding announcements have seen a series of smaller amounts allocated as a reaction to immediate priorities, rather than to address a more strategic long-term plan, which would provide more certainty to the many small organisations in the voluntary sector working with people sleeping rough. These groups also face high levels of bureaucracy when applying for relatively small ad-hoc grants.
Recommendation: To inform the review of its strategy, the Department should reassess the level of funding required to meet its target of ending rough sleeping and align all individual streams of funding for tackling rough sleeping to this end. This should address the importance of multi-year funding certainty for local authorities and the voluntary sector. In doing so, it should state how it will assess the long-term value for money of its spending on rough sleeping and homelessness, focusing on interventions which do most to reduce the long-term public costs associated with both rough sleeping and housing people in temporary accommodation.
5.The Department has provided mixed messages to local authorities on how to support people sleeping rough who have no recourse to public funds, and has no long-term plan for those who have been taken into hotels. Local authorities are generally not permitted to support non-UK nationals who legally have no recourse to public funds, or are otherwise ineligible for benefits, other than where there is a risk to life. At the outset of the pandemic the Department provided clear advice that, because of the risks to public health, local authorities should provide accommodation for all people sleeping rough irrespective of immigration status. Over the course of the year, however, the messaging it provided to local authorities became more ambiguous, and the approach they took to these cohorts of people became increasingly divergent. In particular, it appears that local authorities in London and the West Midlands are facing practical and financial difficulties regarding their support for these cohorts, with around 50% of those staying in hotels in London being recorded as having no recourse to public funds at the beginning of winter 2020–21. The Department has not been able to say what actions local authorities should take with respect to this cohort of people once the pandemic has abated, nor has it provided clarity on the implications of its recent work with the Home Office on plans to address immigration issues related to rough sleeping. The Department must do more to support those with no recourse to public-funds.
Recommendation: Within two months the Department should publish details of its agreed plans with the Home Office to address rough sleeping and immigration issues together, and provide clear guidance to local authorities on what this means for the support they offer this cohort, including those staying in hotels under Everyone In.
6.It is uncertain whether the Department will meet its objective of providing 3,300 homes for people sleeping rough by the end of March 2021. Under its Rough Sleeper Accommodation Programme, the Department has distributed £161 million funding against bids from local authorities for the provision of 3,300 homes for housing people sleeping rough. Contrary to what it previously told us, the Department expects the majority of these homes to involve the leasing or purchasing of existing buildings (though sometimes involving significant renovation), rather than new additions to the housing stock. It expects people to stay in them on average for two years. The Department has not published or provided us with details on how these homes will contribute to its target of ending rough sleeping, or what further accommodation will be available for people to move into once their stay in these homes comes to an end. At the time we took evidence, in late January 2021, the Department was unable to provide any figures on the number of homes that had already been provided and occupied, nor how many it was on track to provide by the end of the financial year.
Recommendation: The Department should write to us within two months on the progress it is making in securing 3,300 homes under its Rough Sleeper Accommodation Programme, and include details on how it will ensure the availability of the supported and affordable housing required for people to move into, once their stay in these homes comes to an end.