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How changes to the law can help end homelessness in Wales

Rhys Gwilym-Taylor, Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer

Among those who were homeless in 2018-19 nearly 1,700 households and individuals were not owed help to secure a new home by their council because of rules on ‘priority need’. This week the long-awaited priority need review was published into a part of Welsh law that the review says “continues to play a key role” in determining whether people who are homeless must be helped or not.

The review set out four options for Welsh Government to consider, from all-out abolition of priority need to maintaining the status quo. We can see immediately in the review a common theme - between the findings, the learning from Scotland’s abolition of priority need – that legal duties and protections and a more comprehensive safety net are essential in ending homelessness.

The review points to the significant human and financial costs of not helping people immediately when they are without a home, and that too many people facing homelessness are left without a positive outcome.

While the review was being written, extraordinary efforts were taking place across Wales to help people facing homelessness during the coronavirus outbreak. We have seen that a very important part of the response has been to extend legal protections – for private sector renters to stop them being evicted into homelessness during the outbreak; using devolved public health powers to disregard rules on ‘no recourse to public funds’ to give emergency help to people originally from outside the UK; and funding and guidance to councils to assume that more people at risk of homelessness during the pandemic are in priority need.

The Minister’s decision to issue guidance to local authorities on the assessment of vulnerability and application of priority need during the pandemic was very welcome. It recognised that at any time we all benefit when everyone has a safe place to stay. However, this is even more important when the alternative is being without a home and therefore more exposed to coronavirus.

Early indications from our conversations with local authorities and providers suggest that changes to the assessment of people’s vulnerability and the application of priority need have allowed for a greater focus on problem-solving and meeting people’s individual needs, rather than processing and assessing entitlements. It suggests that reducing the complexity and conditionality of our existing homelessness system could help deliver support to people facing homelessness.

While the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 has improved the support and assistance available to those at risk of or threatened with homelessness - preventing huge numbers of people from being pushed into homelessness - there remains a group of people who are left without a solution to their homelessness. Either by way of Priority Need, Local Connection, or Intentionality, our homelessness system adds conditionality and complexity on top of trauma.

Crisis’ plan to end homelessness report identified how, as part of a complete legal framework to help end homelessness, “a complete statutory safety net providing access to suitable settled accommodation must extend across all homeless people” meaning that the priority need test should be abolished. This legal improvement, combined with the government funding and support required for councils to deliver support differently, would ensure no one is turned away from the help they need to leave homelessness.

Reforms to priority need and creating a more comprehensive legal safety net will require a renewed focus and deeper approach to prevention, a commitment across public services to preventing homelessness, investment in services, and delivering the truly affordable housing needed to give us all a safe and secure place to call home. However, ending homelessness cannot be achieved without legislative change and greater legal protections as a starting point – including a universal rehousing duty.

Our collective response to the coronavirus shows that there is another way. As we look to the future of our response to homelessness after our experience of the coronavirus we should look to a stronger and more complete safety net of legal protections for all those for whom prevention and relief interventions by councils have not worked. There is a growing consensus for these changes, and the Welsh Government has accepted the need for these changes in principle in response to the Homelessness Action Group’s recommendations.

The priority need review has given us better insight into how we could phase out priority need in Wales. The emergency help during the coronavirus response has also proven that we can help many more people out of homelessness with the right support in place. Only by guaranteeing everyone the support needed to have a permanent home can we end homelessness in Wales for good.

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