Part of the series Wales’ next step

“The previous homelessness system was not appropriate or fair, and the bold actions taken during this crisis demonstrate this clearly. There must be no going back to the old system. The crisis must be the catalyst to finally solve homelessness.”

In Cardiff, a city which has embarrassingly become synonymous with homelessness, coronavirus has effectively ended rough sleeping.

A month ago, the spectre of the virus represented a nightmare scenario for the city’s homelessness services.

A significant number of rough sleepers were at particular risk from coronavirus because they have compromised immune systems. If the virus caught hold among the homeless population — whether cramped together in hostels or sleeping rough — it would cut through them like a knife through butter, representing the possibility of replicating the tragic clusters we are currently witnessing in care homes. The homeless population is also young (i.e., the group that gets priority with ventilators), and a mass outbreak among them risked adding a huge strain to the local health service.

The way emergency homelessness provision in the city has historically been set-up made mass contagion among the homeless a real possibility. The long standing solution of ‘floorspace’ (whereby those who present as homeless are offered a floor to sleep on in the council buildings) was now clearly inappropriate during the crisis, because the crowded conditions meant that social distancing and self-isolation were impossible. Similarly, emergency night shelters which previously accommodated two or three rough sleepers per room were also now obviously inappropriate for the same reason.

Previously, the emergency night shelters also required residents to vacate for 12 hours a day, leading them to naturally flock to and congregate in the city centre in large groups for solidarity and to access services such as food provision. This daily migration and congregations presented another huge risk during the Covid pandemic.

The impact of the crisis

On March 20th, the Welsh Government, whose approach to tackling homelessness has to date been maddeningly timid, announced a £10 million fund to help move people off the street by financing hotel and BnB accommodation. Cardiff Council homelessness services quickly availed themselves of this money, using it to take over large hotels and hostels, and began rapidly moving rough sleepers into the new accommodation.

Within a week, the rough sleeper population, which numbered approximately 100 (out of a much larger homeless population) was cut down to single figures. Today, only a few people remain on the street. Hostels which previously had two or three to a room are now single person rooms. Rather than having to vacate for 12 hours at a time, residents are allowed to stay on site 24 hours a day. Housing duties no longer ‘run out’ or ‘end’. The Welsh Government have also decreed that during this crisis, all rough sleepers will now automatically be categorised as ‘priority need’, which classes them as vulnerable and guarantees an automatic offer of temporary accommodation. This category was previously reserved only for the most vulnerable people, and in practice was very rarely used. Evictions from hostels have also been banned during this period.

The ‘local connection’ law, which previously prevented so many people accessing accommodation, has been waived. No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) conditions, which bar some migrants from accessing public services such as housing and are part of the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, have been suspended in Wales and councils have been told to house everyone who needs it. Methadone scripts have been expedited, (and people are not being taken off their scripts); and all residents in all hostels are provided with three meals a day.

Not only have these measures largely solved rough sleeping in one fell swoop, those living in the new temporary accommodation say that the overall experience of having your own room, hot meals, and not being woken up to have to leave the hostel all day, are also hugely important morale and confidence boosters for people who are used to being let down and treated without dignity.

Of course, many issues still remain: people are still being made homeless upon release from prison, for example, and the hotels which have been taken over will soon become full. Moreover, the initial guidance on managing the virus within residential settings and the logistical effort involved in moving people off the street highlighted the stupidity of having so many different homelessness charities involved in provision on top of the public sector— it is extremely difficult to communicate and then implement emergency measures across multiple providers.

Nonetheless, the experience of the last month shows that rapid rehousing of rough sleepers into appropriate emergency accommodation is eminently achievable if the political will is there. Like so many other things during this crisis, it has emerged that the money to do something like this was there all along. Previously, despite the usual gestures and rhetoric from the Welsh Government and council higher-ups, ultimately they didn’t care enough about rough sleeping to do anything genuinely radical. Rough sleeping was essentially accepted, and rather than take the obvious steps to solve it, they were happy to tinker round the edges, simply because the real solution was, in their eyes, too expensive.

There are also obvious lessons here for governance and policy implementation more generally. Wales is a country where nothing happens quickly. Obvious, simple and internationally proven solutions for problems that could be implemented in weeks instead turn into endless task and finish groups, committees, inquiries and pilot studies that are dragged out over years, even decades. Experts give evidence and make recommendations which are repeatedly ignored or watered down. ‘Radical’ strategy documents will be authored and then forgotten about. Rather than implement policy, we instead appoint toothless ‘commissioners’ so we can proclaim to the world how radical we are without ever actually changing anything. Even when the Welsh Government finally decides on a policy, this is never accompanied by guidance or extra money for local authorities, meaning that initiatives rarely get implemented anyway. Nowhere has this culture of bureaucratisation and an institutional lack of urgency been clearer than in the painfully slow and conservative roll out of the ‘housing first’ scheme in Wales.

The experience of solving rough sleeping in a city within a week should now act as a model for quick, efficient governance and leadership: identify a solution, fund it properly, order local authorities to act immediately, override bureaucratic procedures.

The biggest sleight of hand within the debate over homelessness over the last decade has been the uncoupling of homelessness (and rough sleeping in particular) from the structural, societal issue of a lack of appropriate housing and shelter. The narrative instead has insidiously moved onto issues of individual weaknesses— people were apparently homeless not because of a lack of shelter, but because of addictions, poor behaviour, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and so on. So we look at building ‘resilience’, ‘boundaries’ and ‘confidence’ in people instead of building affordable housing.

This narrative easily evolves into that which is peddled by certain councillors in Cardiff, that actually people who are on the street do have an offer of shelter (floorspace), and therefore have ‘no reason to be sleeping rough’. The subtext, as always, is that people are on the street because of some personal failing, or a choice, rather than the lack of appropriate, suitable emergency accommodation.

People are homeless because there aren’t enough houses (or rather there aren’t enough affordable houses), and people sleep rough because the emergency, temporary accommodation on offer is not suitable. The last month shows that when rough sleepers — seen to be the most ‘entrenched’ (read, ‘difficult’) of the homeless population— are offered acceptable, dignified accommodation (with no petty eviction rules) they will take it and not sleep rough, it’s that simple.

Although the above changes represent a huge success story, there is now the huge, worrying issue of what will happen to the people currently in temporary accommodation once the crisis is over (with funding in England already being pulled back). Hopefully, it will be political suicide to mass evict the people who have been moved into hotels and BnBs during this crisis. But, this is Cardiff Council we are talking about, so we can take nothing for granted. Given the state of the housing sector, many of the people who have been moved into emergency accommodation may be moved into the ruthless world of the Private Rented Sector (PRS), which would lead to mass evictions a few months down the line.

Beyond the homeless people that have been moved into emergency accommodation during the crisis, there is also now a real risk that after the temporary ban on evictions is lifted, we will see a wave of evictions of tenants currently in the PRS, something which could overwhelm homelessness services.

This cannot be allowed to happen. The previous homelessness system in the city was not appropriate or fair, and the bold actions taken during this crisis demonstrate this clearly. There must be no going back to the old system. The crisis must be the catalyst to finally solve homelessness. It depends on people — us, the left (in all its iterations), and homelessness advocacy groups, organised tenants groups — loudly putting pressure on local authorities and the Welsh Government and demanding that there is no return to mass rough sleeping.

What is to be done

Undod will soon be publishing further articles on housing and homelessness, but here is what needs to be done in the short and medium term.

Firstly, the Housing Act Wales (2014) needs to be immediately amended. The existing system of ‘priority need’ needs to be scrapped. The system prior to the crisis implicitly accepted homelessness, meaning that anyone presenting as homeless who did not fall into extremely vulnerable categories would not be offered emergency accommodation. This restrictive, barbaric caveat led to hundreds of vulnerable people a day being handed template letters saying that while the local authority recognised they were homeless, they nonetheless did not consider them vulnerable enough to access interim accommodation. The person would then be left with an offer of floorspace and a list of private landlords to contact. Moreover, section 74 of the act allows local authorities to end their duty to help people for often spurious reasons such as ‘refusing an offer of accommodation’ or a person’s housing duty simply running out because they had not been housed within 56 days. These inexplicable and damaging sections of the act need to be repealed.

Homelessness is morally unacceptable, and everyone who is homeless is by default extremely vulnerable. The law should be changed immediately to reflect this, rather than have a sliding scale of vulnerability. Anyone presenting as homeless should be guaranteed suitable emergency accommodation as a short term solution.

More and better emergency accommodation can solve rough sleeping, but it is just one facet of homelessness, and emergency accommodation is just that — it is a short term solution, a sticking plaster over a bullet wound. People cannot stay in emergency accommodation forever, no matter how good it is. People need to be able to use it and then move into their own, permanent place, away from homelessness forever. Better yet, of course, people should never become homeless in the first place!

But like so many policies enacted by the Welsh Government, the logic for creating and enforcing the system of ‘priority need’, although obscured by ‘radical’ rhetoric, is ultimately based in the last instance on lack of supply. The issue of emergency accommodation for rough sleepers, like all issues surrounding homelessness, therefore eventually leads back to the elephant in the room: there are simply not enough affordable houses in Wales.

There are thousands upon thousands of desperate people on huge waiting lists for social housing, but there just isn’t enough to go around, so you have to ration it by introducing things like priority categories and encourage the rest to find their own private accommodation.

Until the housing crisis is solved, until the Welsh Government breaks from their massive over-reliance on the unscrupulous, dog eat dog world of the private rented sector, people will continue to become homeless. Unless more genuinely affordable social houses are built and empty properties repurposed, homelessness and precarious renting will be the norm. Wales needs at least 14,000 houses per year to keep up with demand, but the Welsh Government has only managed 13,000 since 2016, many of which have been unaffordable, ‘help to buy’ houses. To end homelessness in all its forms, a mass house building campaign is urgently needed. This will break the increasing reliance on the PRS to solve homelessness and will have positive knock on effects across Welsh society as the stranglehold that landlords and big housebuilders have over the sector will be broken.

There are over 27,000 empty private houses and 1400 empty social houses across Wales. As a short term anti-homelessness solution, repurposing existing empty houses and appropriate vacant non-residential properties is quicker than building social housing. In Cardiff, there are over 3000 empty properties, without counting the half empty student blocks which litter the city. These need to be quickly repurposed for homelessness services to use for emergency solutions with immediate effect.

Next, we should remind people that evictions are barbaric and unacceptable all the time, not just during a pandemic. If evictions from the Private Rented Sector (PRS) and social housing are banned, the constant flow of new homeless people will gradually slow to a halt: there is no point implementing a rapid rehousing scheme without stopping evictions as you will soon run out of emergency accommodation and be left once again with floorspace. This must be implemented consistently across Wales for it to have an effect.

In light of the success of the rapid rehousing experiment in Cardiff, we demand:

Evictions to be banned from all providers of housing.

Immediate rent freezes for tenants during the COVID-19 crisis, followed by a rent cap across Wales once the crisis is stabilised.

Every local authority in Wales to be ordered to immediately take over all vacant properties—whether residential or commercial —and turn them into social housing stock, a proportion of which to be dedicated to homelessness services and earmarked as emergency, temporary accommodation.

Following the increase in accommodation, a rapid rehousing model adopted by all local authorities, whereby anyone experiencing homelessness is guaranteed their own room. An end to the floorspace model.

An immediate end to the priority need system.

Scrap section 74 of the Housing Act Wales (2014) which allows local authorities to (often punitively) end their duty of help to people who are still known to be homeless: if someone is homeless the duty should remain open indefinitely until they are housed.

A permanent end to the implementation of No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) conditions in Wales, so that everyone in Wales who needs to is able to access housing and homelessness services.

All homelessness charities to be nationalised and brought into council provision. In the interim period, a demand that all third sector providers involved in the housing and homelessness sector be forced to recognise trade unions.

An overhaul of drug and alcohol services, including the nationalisation of all drug and alcohol services, simpler and faster processes for the provision of methadone, and the provision of safe injecting facilities and drug testing in line with a harm reduction model.

GIF by Tad Davies

The content of these articles does not necessarily convey the standpoints of Undod as a movement. We have chosen to publish a variety of items by people who support our principles as a movement in order to inspire and spur conversation.