How the cost of living has affected people facing homelessness this year
Everyone needs a home of their own to live a healthy life in which they can realise their potential. But this year the cost of living in a home in Britain has soared: gas and electricity bills this winter are double the price they were last winter, and rents reached record highs this autumn.
This is effecting many of us – but for people with the least money and those of us who are further disadvantaged by poor physical or mental health, a lack of support networks or immigration status, the consequences are potentially devastating. Our new research finds that nearly one million households on low incomes in Britain fear they will be evicted from their homes this winter, and millions more are expecting to skip meals so that they can keep up with their housing payments.
This autumn, the Crisis research team interviewed 40 people who had experienced or been at risk of homelessness this year. Everyone had very little or no income, and were forced into homelessness when the pressure on their finances collided with other events, including health issues, bereavement, loss of work, and domestic abuse. Added to this, the weak protections in place for private renters in England and Wales meant that some people became homeless because of a ‘no-fault’ eviction notice or because, with their income remaining stable, a rent increase meant they couldn’t pay to live in their current home anymore.
For people becoming homeless the cost of affording a new home was either too high in the private rented sector or felt out of reach because of the enormous length of waiting lists for social housing. We heard from people whose housing benefit did not cover the actual cost of renting a new home, and who had no means to afford a deposit or rent in advance without borrowing money. In many cases borrowing money wasn’t an option anyway, for those already in debt, with no family or friends who could lend money, or who were getting poor support from a local authority.
The huge shortage of affordable housing across many areas in Britain means that levels of the worst forms of homelessness were already high before the cost of living crisis, and many households were trapped in temporary accommodation. Whilst there was some positive work during the pandemic to prevent homelessness getting worse, we are seeing rough sleeping going up again in England and there have been rises in temporary accommodation use across the whole of Great Britain. I interviewed people who had been homeless or living in poverty for a few years already by 2022. As one person described: “people have got short-term memory loss… People like me have been struggling for a really long time.”
Living in temporary accommodation led to particular hardships. In many cases, poor living conditions meant people had to pay more for their food because they didn’t have proper (or any) kitchen facilities, forcing them to pay for takeaway or microwave meals. Some people found themselves unexpectedly paying more money for travel, for example if they were far from their children’s school, or for laundry depending on what facilities were available. People staying in temporary accommodation, as well as people at risk of homelessness who were renting, were often prepaying for energy, which both cost more, and left them at risk of going without heating or electricity if they ran out of money to put on their meter.
The devastation of homelessness and the additional pressure of the cost of living had an enormous impact on people’s wellbeing. People were skipping meals and avoiding using heating when they needed it. This is awful enough – and so it was even harder to hear that some couldn’t visit family or friends because they didn’t want to spend money on travel, food or drink. In a few cases this meant that people weren’t seeing parents or children – with one person saying that the cost of living made him feel like a ‘hermit’ because he couldn’t see other people.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. There are many ways homelessness can be prevented across England, Scotland and Wales. The UK government must invest in Local Housing Allowance, which determines levels of housing benefit, and is based on outdated rent levels, so that it covers the bottom third of rents in a local area. As well as preventing evictions, it will stop people from having to choose between entering into debt or going without food so that they can make up the shortfall between benefits and housing costs.
We also need more homes. Thousands of people are stuck in temporary accommodation because their council doesn’t have enough social housing for people who need it. The Welsh and Scottish governments must deliver on their current targets for building social housing, and the most recent evidence suggests 90,000 social rented homes need to be built each year in England for the next 15 years.
But what really stands out to me from the interviews we did is that the cost of housing and of meeting your most basic needs while living there need to be affordable enough for it to be more than a roof over your head, and truly feel like a home. If thousands of people have no choice but to be live like hermits when they do find a home, then we will all be much the worse for it.
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