Inside a small apartment on the outskirts of London, a woman is pacing her kitchen; her phone pressed tight against her ear. A few feet away, a baby coos in his high chair, playing with a pair of wooden blocks. The woman glances at him periodically as she talks to the person on the other end of the line. The call doesn’t go well; when she hangs up, she looks to be on the verge of tears. She puts the phone down on top of a well-wrinkled notice on the table. In big, bold letters, the notice proclaims that her failure to pay rent has sparked eviction proceedings. Her small family is on the brink of homelessness — and for all of her calls, pleas, and efforts, she has little recourse but to fall off the edge.
Our current approach to resolving homelessness prioritises; it puts out the metaphorical fires and doesn’t address smaller sparks until they turn into flames. This crisis-oriented strategy makes sense — after all, someone who is struggling to find shelter for their family has a more pressing need for aid than someone who still has a few weeks of guaranteed housing on their lease.
However, I would argue that while “firefighting” homelessness cases work in the short run, it isn’t a viable long-term solution. While we should continue to focus on helping those with a critical need for shelter, we also need to turn more of our attention towards the “sparks” — those like the mother above who may not be homeless yet, but are nevertheless on the verge of losing their housing. If we can help this at-risk population secure — or even better, maintain — a home before they lose their current accommodations, we stand a chance of preventing homelessness before it occurs and lessening rough sleeping overall.
The at-risk population is significant. In 2017, nearly 50% of all calls made to Shelter, the UK’s largest homelessness charity, were made by families on the verge of losing their homes. In only five years, the number of families living in temporary accommodation despite having steady jobs has skyrocketed to 33,000; a notable 73% increase from figures reported in 2013. Today, one in every 200 Briton are living without consistent housing — and according to statistics provided by Shelter, the number of homeless continues to increase by roughly 1,000 people every month.
We need to help people back from the brink of housing insecurity before they ever tumble over; otherwise, these numbers will likely continue to grow.
Causes for a Life on the Edge of Homelessness
Living paycheck to paycheck is a problem with which most people facing housing insecurity are painfully familiar. One concerning study found that 37% of working families in the UK would be unable to cover their rent and utility expenses for longer than a month if one partner lost their job. These families live at the whims of their financial situation; if they lose an income source, they have to scramble to either make up for the lack or find cheaper housing in the short span of a month.
Worse, though, are the pressures imposed by the housing market. According to Shelter, the inability to secure new housing after a short-term tenancy contract ends is the principal cause of homelessness in England, and a significant factor in Scotland and Wales. Rental prices in the UK have been on the rise in recent years — and because local housing allowance (LHA) rates have been frozen since 2016, the benefits that might have helped families secure new housing are no longer sufficient.
The mismatch between a family’s financial needs and their LHA — even if it is only a hundred pounds or so — can spell the difference between a family keeping their home or losing it. If they do lose housing, their struggle usually intensifies; with rents on the rise, landlords are disinclined to rent at lower-than-market prices and are often unwilling to take a chance on tenants who have been homeless before.
The long term fix to resolving homelessness lies in helping people maintain housing. Bob Blackman MP’s ‘Homeless Reduction Bill’ (2018) which both put a greater duty of care on local councils and which doubles the period in which housing insecure individuals can apply for aid from 28 days to 56 days is a step in the right direction.
However, our housing strategy is still too reactive; we solve crises as they occur, rather than preventing them from happening in the first place. If we truly want to enact a long-term solution for homelessness rather than a for-now fix, we need to take more preventative measures.