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Guest blog: Joint action needed to tackle homelessness in Northern Ireland

Colum Eastwood, MLA, Leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party

11.11.2016 293 XX

The findings of the Crisis Homeless Monitor Northern Ireland are a damning indictment of our approach to homelessness. With over 11,000 households classified as statutorily homeless in Northern Ireland (including around 3,400 mostly older people because their accommodation was deemed ‘not reasonable’) not to mention the tens of thousands of concealed homeless – we should recognise these figures for what they are, a scandal.

Why in 2016, in the 5th largest economy in the world, is this the case? Perhaps we simply see the statistics and don’t reflect on the fact that these represent thousands of men, women and children who are no different to us other than they don’t have the security and stability that a home can provide. We appear to have become accepting of homelessness as a normal part of modern society; a seemingly intractable problem for which, in trying to find a solution, we are running just to stand still.

But we shouldn’t accept it as the norm and we should do all we can collectively to address it.

But what is it we need to do?

The move to a national homelessness prevention model of ‘Housing Solutions and Support’ will help to address homelessness at a much earlier stage but there are other areas that need attention.

On the face of it, the outcomes-based approach to the new Programme for Government (PfG) should be central to reducing homelessness.  The two key indicators in the PfG related to housing are: the number of households in housing stress; and the gap between the number of houses we need, and the number of houses we have. Indeed, a key aim of the Department for Communities in association with its statutory partners is to build an additional 9600 social homes by 2021.  However, that is still only 1900 homes per year over the 5 year mandate.  We need to build more.

Key to that of course will be funding. Notwithstanding the decision to reclassify housing associations as public bodies and the aim to address this through legislation, can housing associations rise to the challenge and build even more homes than they do currently? Importantly, will Housing Associations get access to the land that they need to deliver these homes?

Another key question relates to the future of the Housing Executive. With 88,000 properties the potential to raise money, in order to build homes and roll out a greatly enhanced and much-needed maintenance programme, is huge but although it has the legal power to borrow it requires approval from the Department of Finance and ultimately HM Treasury to do so. The Executive managed to convince the Treasury to devolve Corporation Tax which at one time was seen as unachievable.  Can it do the same with the Housing Executive’s ability to borrow? Is there the political will to even try to do this?

However, homelessness is not just about providing shelter.  It is a multi-faceted and complex policy area.

As noted in the Monitor, the Homelessness Strategy for Northern Ireland 2012-2017 commanded consensus but it is clear that consensus without commitment and appropriate implementation is just wishful thinking and this undermined the strategy. Key departments of the Executive simply did not step up to the plate, particularly the Department of Health, as noted in the report. That cannot be allowed to continue.

What role does the Committee for Communities have to play?

In order to assist with this the Committee for Communities has agreed that homelessness will be one of its key strategic priorities over the remainder of the mandate. We intend to work with our stakeholders including, importantly, service users, in the homelessness community; accessing their skills and experience, to consider how we can establish and implement a multi-disciplinary and multi-departmental approach to homelessness.  We want this to be the basis of the new homelessness strategy in order to address chronic homelessness and prevent more people becoming homeless.

With this in mind there will have to be a wider partnership approach – between Executive departments, statutory agencies, tenants and the third and private sectors – in order to increase housing supply and provide the necessary support to maintain people, once housed, in their homes.

It is also important to consider that while we have managed to stave off, for some, the worst impact of welfare reform, the mitigation measures are time-limited.  For those in receipt of housing benefit who have dependents the ‘bedroom tax’ will have no impact – until March 2020. But what will happen after that?

There are concerns that in the medium term as the funding for the mitigation measures runs out welfare reforms will begin to hit home and hit hard. Without appropriate action, rent affordability could become a real problem for people on low incomes and that could increase the potential for rent arrears and ultimately homelessness.  We must consider sooner rather than later how we are to deal with that. Again, the Committee will engage with stakeholders about the longer term affordability of housing here for people on low incomes to try to identify what we need to do in order to mitigate against these risks.

During the protracted negotiations on welfare reform in Northern Ireland the need to protect ‘the most vulnerable in society’ was repeated like a mantra. There are few more vulnerable than homeless people. In order to address homelessness I feel that:

  • We need to have a vision of a country free of homelessness, the belief it can be achieved and the political will to make it a reality.
  • We need to put in place the necessary funding to deliver this vision.
  • We need to establish a multidisciplinary and multi-departmental approach to achieve this.

If we do this, then perhaps the next Homelessness Monitor will not make for such uncomfortable reading.

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