22 May 2023

A home is more than a roof over our heads: Why having a home must be a necessity, not a luxury, if we're to end homelessness for good

Ralph Waldo Emerson

A house is made of walls and beams. A home is made of hopes and dreams

There can be no doubt that our housing system is broken for millions of households on the lowest incomes across huge swathes of Great Britain. At the sharpest end of this crisis, the UK Housing Review 2023 showed that at least 112,000 families and individuals across Great Britain have their lives on hold while living in temporary accommodation where many are forced to endure higher costs, as well as cramped, unsuitable conditions for anything between two and five years. The best available modelling estimates that that if things carry on as they are, 300,000 households could be forced into the worst forms of homelessness in 2023, including sleeping on the streets, sofa surfing and living in temporary accommodation such as hostels and B&Bs. This would be a third higher than 2020 levels.

We know there is nothing inevitable about these trends. With the right policy choices, we could see a very different future - one where homelessness is ended for good. But it's impossible to achieve this without homes and we're at risk of succumbing to a warped housing hierarchy, where having a home is considered a luxury, available only to those who can afford it.

A home is more than physical shelter

When we consider what's needed to address the homelessness emergency, I worry that provision of 'housing' or ‘accommodation’ is expected to be enough, despite the evidence telling us that this just isn't true. The heart-breaking findings of a recent study by the Museum of Homelessness revealed that of the 1,313 people who died while homeless in the UK in 2022, 83 per cent were living in some form of accommodation. Putting a roof over someone’s head is far from enough. What we all need is a home.

Temporary measures aren't good enough either. Thousands of families with children who are trapped in temporary accommodation across England are facing unacceptable hardship, with many forced to put up with feeling unsafe, poor conditions such as mould and damp, and lack of basic facilities for things like cooking, washing and heating. These experiences will leave a legacy of trauma for years to come but the latest figures reveal that trends are going in entirely the wrong direction. For the first time in nearly 20 years, the number of households living in temporary accommodation in England has exceeded 100,000 and the number of families with children languishing in B&Bs has more than doubled in the year to December 2022.

It's worth reflecting on how someone doesn't need to be technically homeless to be without a home. There are huge numbers of individuals and families putting up with substandard conditions because they're unable to afford somewhere they can truly call home.

Recent research by the National Housing Federation revealed that two million children are suffering in overcrowded homes with no personal space because their families cannot access a suitable and affordable home. Crisis’ cost of living research found that hundreds of thousands of people, predominantly private renters, who tried to move in the last year have been forced to accept a property that was either unsuitable or in poor condition including living with damp, mould or in overcrowded accommodation, because it was all they could afford. And the UK Housing Review highlights that, despite a decrease in the prevalence of damp over a 15-year period, those living in the private rented sector (PRS) remain the worst hit, with 10.7 per cent of properties affected compared with social rented (4.5 per cent) and owner-occupied housing (1.7 per cent).

Conditions in social rented housing have also rightly been subject to closer scrutiny recently following the tragic and entirely preventable death of two-year old Awaab Ishak, in December 2020, from a respiratory condition caused by "extensive" mould in what should have been a place of safety.

To look at the importance of home from another angle we can consider the thousands of households that remain trapped in unsafe buildings in the wake of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. Research from CaCHE has highlighted the profound impacts on those affected. While they may have roofs over their heads, residents are experiencing stress, anxiety, depression and in some cases feeling suicidal because of the combined effects of feeling unsafe and having to face the financial implications of funding remediation work.

Crisis’ principles for providing homes

Inspired by past CIH president Professor Jo Richardson's Homeful research, which emphasises the preconditions for a physical structure to become someone's home, at Crisis we've developed our own principles for providing homes, that will guide our direct action to support more people to leave homelessness behind for good. Our principles stem from the following four key features:

  • Quality - A home should provide an environment where the people living there can make a home, feel safe and secure. A place where their privacy and dignity are protected
  • Affordability - Rent and utility costs must be affordable so that people can enjoy their homes without worrying about the essentials
  • Accessibility - A home will be within a reasonable walking distance of important local amenities and public transport links and people with mobility issues will be able to access and move around their home with ease
  • Settled - People will have confidence that they can live in their home for as long as they need and want to, providing them with opportunities to establish a connection and contribute to their community.

Home is unaffordable for too many low income households

Options to secure somewhere conducive to feeling at home are severely limited for people on the lowest incomes, whether in work or not, because they simply can't afford it. The number of people on social housing waiting lists has reached almost 1.2 million, yet we continue to lose more social rented homes each year than are delivered through new supply. The UK Housing Review highlights that in the last decade there has been a net loss of 218,000 homes to let at social rent levels as a result of a combination of sales through right to buy, conversions of tenancies to the more expensive Affordable Rent and demolitions.

Competition in the PRS is rife because lower income renters who are unable to access social housing, are pushed into the private sector where they are forced to compete with wealthier renters who can't afford a mortgage. The government's refusal to budge on the completely unjustifiable, ongoing freeze to Local Housing Allowance rates means the PRS is entirely ill-equipped to meet the needs of those caught up in the resulting spill-over. Our analysis found that 1.7 million renters in England rely on housing benefit to help pay their rent (more than one in three private renters), while just one in ten one-bedroom properties are affordable based on how much people are entitled to. What other options do people have to avoid the horrors of experiencing homelessness other than to live in poor and unsuitable conditions. Either way they are forced to accept the absence of home.

If we want to end homelessness for good, we must place the provision of homes at the centre of our efforts. If we're not worried about the place where we live - if it's affordable, safe, secure, accessible, and reliably ours for as long as we need and want it - our potential has more space to shine. Home provides us with an essential foundation upon which we can live a decent life and meet our true potential. No one should have to compromise on this.

Written by Faye Greaves

Faye is housing programme manager at Crisis, and was a contributing author to the 2023 UK Housing Review.