Prevention better than cure
Homelessness remains unacceptably high in Northern Ireland and Nicola McCrudden CIH director for NI & ROI says it’s time to review the legislation
We have an ongoing homelessness problem in NI and there are fears that it could get worse. Despite having a sound strategy in place, homelessness levels remain unacceptably high. The lack of availability of social housing is focusing minds more on homelessness prevention. There are sound social, moral and financial reasons for doing so. Keeping people in their homes for longer not only prevents the trauma associated with losing a home, but also reduces the need and cost for homeless support and rehousing services. The reasons for homelessness may be multiple but the causes are individual. Therefore solutions must be tailored to personal circumstances. Where the preferred option is to remain in the home then timely advice and support must be readily available to those who need it.
Since 2011 the NI Housing Executive has had a general duty to provide advice and assistance on homelessness and its prevention. The type of assistance on offer ranges from personal housing plans to advice on housing options. In reality most people only seek help when faced with a crisis. An assessment under homelessness law (introduced in 1988) is only carried out when someone is homeless or threatened with homelessness within 28 days. The level of statutory help varies depending on circumstances. Priority is given to people with dependents or those considered vulnerable, provided they are not intentionally homeless. The reverse side of this system is that others are ruled out from support, mostly single people. It makes me question whether these legal protections are sufficient in today’s society. I would argue that they are not. We have consistently high levels of homelessness. In 2014-15 a total of 19,621 households sought homeless assistance, an increase of 4% on the previous year. Around half of all homeless applicants qualify as ‘full duty’ meaning they are entitled to help with rehousing.
Without question homelessness law in Northern Ireland is complex and inadequate. Scotland has radically overhauled its legislation abolishing priority need and introducing a duty to assess the support needs of everyone who is homeless or at risk. Likewise the complexity of homelessness law and inconsistent nature of homeless services prompted the Welsh government to also take a more radical approach. This resulted in the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 which places a legal duty on local authorities to help prevent homelessness and find accommodation for everyone who seeks assistance. This includes early intervention, within 56 days of threatened homelessness, to prevent people’s situations escalating out of hand and allowing local authorities to offer private rented accommodation. The rationale was to bring prevention work within the legal framework, attach some legal rights, ensure some minimum standards and record all of that important activity - and it is working. Twelve months on, official data evidences that the new legislation - along with closer partnership working arrangements - has helped to prevent 70 per cent (3,400) of at risk households from becoming homelessness.
Clearly with this evidence the Northern Ireland Executive should be conducting a review its homeless law. We have a desperate housing shortage locally meaning that twenty per cent of local households are renting privately, with very little security. So there is an even greater need to focus policy attention and resources on promoting joined up, professional approach to homelessness prevention. Measures should include advice on tenancy sustainment and a user friendly system to resolve common disputes between landlords and tenants.
There is already excellent work being done on homeless prevention and relief, in both the statutory and voluntary sectors locally, but we are not quite there yet. However with political will, supportive legislation and co-operative working practices I am confident the journey to end homelessness can truly begin.