Crisis chief: No end to homelessness without affordable housing

Jon Sparkes, homeless charity Crisis chief executive, says without building more genuinely affordable homes, homelessness cannot be eradicated.

Actor Richard Gere visited national homelessness charity Crisis on Wednesday 2 March and met with men and women who have been supported by the charity in rebuilding their lives after being homeless. He learned about Crisis’ employment, housing and education initiatives and heard from their Chief Executive Jon Sparkes about the charity’s campaigning work to end homelessness for good.

It has been a great year for Crisis in terms of getting the Homeless Reduction Bill passed its second reading and into the committee stage, as well as being a driving force for getting homelessness funding from government.

However, homelessness is on the rise which is not such good news for the charity.

It is said there are around 3,500 people sleeping on the street on any given night and over 70,000 households in temporary accommodation.

You only have to look at our figures from last year on why temporary accommodation funding is not viable.

Sparkes outlines the reasons behind the Homelessness Reduction Bill: “For us, this isn’t an issue of cross party politics, it is about treating people fairly and sorting out the injustice of those sent away to live on the streets.

“We’re quietly optimistic but we are also realistic that often private members bills don’t make it all the way through the process. We’ll be doing everything we can to help get it through. This will make a big difference to people.”

The Bill was brought through to the Commons via CLG committee member Bob Blackman MP and looks to place a duty on councils to ensure they prevent people from becoming homeless at the earliest opportunity.

However, he and his team at Crisis are under no illusions about the Bill: “It is not the answer to homelessness. It is not the solution and it is not going to end homelessness.

“That doesn’t happen until those big blocks of policy around truly affordable housing and around employment and the benefits system are sorted out. However this Bill will allow people to have less of a worse time when they are at their lowest point.”

Expanding on that, Sparkes says: “I think ultimately we don’t have any way in making sure the poorest in society have the ability to buy somewhere affordable and safe to live.

“That has to be a combination of supply and what we choose to build and a benefits system that enables people to afford it.

“There are only two ways in which this country has been able to house those people and one is investing in social housing and the other is providing a benefits system which bridges the gap between what someone can afford and what rents are available.

“We need a combination of those things now like never before.”

Crisis are embarking on some new models for housing homeless people. They have a good track record in this department, previously working with DCLG to create 10,000 tenancies and get more private landlords to take up tenancies with homeless people.

However, the funding dried up and they are now going it alone.

One of these projects involves social housing shares and they have recently worked with Newydd Housing Association in Wales to see how it may work in practice.

Sparkes outlines why they are doing this work: “With reducing investment in social housing, private landlords need to be part of the solution and our research showed that 82% of private landlords wouldn’t rent to homeless people.

“We think that is a lot about the misunderstanding of who homeless people are. I think if most landlords can see good long term tenancies, that is what they want.”

But Sparkes has had to endure housing policy when a child, when his parents deliberated over whether they could afford to buy their own council home.

“My personal experience dates back to my childhood and hearing debates about it between my parents. You actually saw changes in the community very rapidly as more people were buying and others couldn’t afford to get into a council house.”

Although not disagreeing with the premise of Right to Buy, he says: “At a time when homelessness is growing, one of the key things a homeless person needs is safe and affordable home. So a policy that depletes that stock is not good.”

At a time of such a shortfall in affordable homes, many are pointing towards shipping containers and modular homes to house homeless people.

However, Sparkes doesn’t think this is the right attitude to have.

“In the long run, what people need are safe, sustainable and affordable homes. I don’t think the problem is that we don’t know how to build homes. I think the problem is that we have not been willing to enable the very poorest people in society to afford homes.

“If you gave people a choice between the streets and a converted container, of course being off the streets is a good thing. Being on the streets is dangerous and so of course temporary accommodation has its place.

“I don’t see any reason why anyone should aspire a home made out of a storage container. There is no reason we shouldn’t all be allowed to aspire to a safe and affordable home.”

Finally, he steeps high praise on Marcus Jones, DCLG minister who has been “steadfast” in his commitments to ending homelessness.

But he says DCLG still have much more to do: “I think we need more effort and more determination to deliver a greater number of homes for those on the very lowest incomes.

“The other thing we need is to see Marcus and others influence people across government, because DCLG do not hold all of the answers.

“Particularly influencing across a department to their colleagues in DWP and make sure we have a benefits system that supports people effectively as they move into work and enables people to put down roots and enable people somewhere to live.”

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