The rise in homelessness in England over recent years is a national scandal. Homelessness acceptances have increased 42% in England and 95% in London since 2009. The number of homeless families in temporary accommodation has gone up nearly 10% in the past year alone and now stands at close to 76,000 households.
And these are just the visible people in distress - the ‘official statistics’. The numbers of ‘hidden’ homeless people - those sofa surfing, rough sleeping etc - is far higher.
While austerity and welfare reforms have added impetus to the problem, this is hardly a new issue to which policymakers have not had time to develop a response.
Last year Network Homes published research to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Cathy Come Home, showing that the scale of official homelessness today almost exactly mirrors the position 40 years ago, just after the introduction of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977.
To have made such little progress over four decades in being able to provide every family with a decent, affordable place to live is an indictment of our society. Behind each homelessness statistic are human faces seeking dignified lives, but actually living in anxiety, poverty, and deep uncertainty. All too often, the lives of young children are scarred by the experience.
Housing associations have a vital role to play, but the elimination of homelessness is not within our power. That can only be achieved when government gets truly serious about fixing the broken housing market, and politicians of all stripes at national and local levels match their words with funding and policy prescriptions that can genuinely change things. The Homelessness Reduction Act is helpful, but it is not a cure.
Nevertheless, even in the current unpropitious circumstances for public funding, there is a lot housing associations can do.
Over the past 18 months Network Homes has been working with the New Horizon Youth Centre on a Housing First initiative. Network now provides flats at a discounted rent in four properties in Islington for 20 homeless young people either working on low wages or going through the charity’s employment, education and training programme.
New Horizon provides holistic support, including around budgeting and independent living skills, and then helps the young people to find a place in the private rented sector at the end of the tenancy. We expanded the scheme this year after the dramatic success of the initial partnership, where the first 10 people all increased their working hours, took on a job or got a promotion. The stability of their living circumstances was key.
Network Homes is also one of the few large housing associations in London to manage a substantial portfolio of private sector accommodation dedicated to providing temporary housing for homeless families.
The need for temporary accommodation is particularly acute in London. More than 71% of homeless families in temporary homes are in the capital.
"Behind each homelessness statistic are human faces seeking dignified lives"
Housing associations are frequently criticised for being too commercial, but this is a service which adds almost nothing to our bottom line.
At Network we do it because it fits squarely with our social purpose and it supports our local authority partners in their ability to meet their statutory responsibilities - something that is becoming ever harder as budgetary constraints cut deeper into service provision.
This year the Network board re-affirmed its commitment to maintaining our 1,100-home temporary housing service. More than 16% of London’s homeless families who are in temporary housing association or council homes and are waiting for a permanent home are now living in warm, secure and comfortable Network Homes properties in the meantime.
The biggest contribution housing associations make to reducing homelessness is simply through new development. In the end, the only way we will overcome homelessness is by building homes at the volumes necessary to balance supply and demand. National Housing Federation figures show that housing associations in England started nearly 48,000 homes in the year to April 2017.
Network Homes started 1,235 of those homes. Our board believes passionately that Network must make the maximum contribution it can to tackling the housing crisis. Sweating our assets to develop as many homes as possible without taking undue risks is a key part of our philosophy.
We have scaled up our development programme and become one of the major developing housing associations in London and the South East.
We obtained the second largest allocation of funding in the mayor of London’s Affordable Homes Programme 2015/18 and pro rata we had one of the largest development programmes in the country in 2015 and 2016.
We could do this because of the strength of our balance sheet, helped by market sales boosting our ability to cross-subsidise our affordable rented homes programme.
In May 2017, to support our future programme, we secured a £50m loan from Mitsubishi UFJ, with long-term funding of the loan through BAE Systems Pension Funds Investment Management, our first step into bond finance.
The final strand in Network’s commitment to alleviating homelessness is our fundraising activities. For the past two years we have been sponsoring homelessness charity St Mungo’s and our staff have been amazing in helping to raise funds.
Our efforts come to a climax this September when 20 Network Homes staff will cycle the 300 miles from London to Paris to raise at least £50,000 for the charity. With fantastic support from some of our main contractors, we had donations and pledges exceeding £47,000 by the end of May.
Last November, Network Homes used the Cathy Come Home anniversary to remind ourselves of our core purpose as a housing association. As well as publishing our own research on homelessness, we were delighted to back Inside Housing’s Reel Homes film competition.
Many associations were founded in the aftermath of Cathy Come Home precisely to help homeless people and those in the most dire housing need. Sadly, despite the intervening 50 years of effort, there is still no more profound role for a housing association.
Simon Graham, director of strategy and external affairs, Network Homes
This opinion piece was written independently, but first appeared in a chapter sponsored by United Living