Council Cuts Attack the Homeless

All facts and quotes cited in this article have been obtained from the Leicester City Council’s September 2012 Homelessness Review. The consultation process is ongoing and ends on February 18, 2013.

At the Homelessness Summit, in November 2011, it was announced that there were just over 50 rough sleepers in Leicester, the highest figure outside of London. The City Mayor pledged to make this a priority and promised a review of homelessness services and the development of a new Homelessness Strategy. 2012 Review of Homelessness Services.

As a result of the Homelessness Act (2002) Leicester City Council is obliged to reassess their Homelessness Strategy every five years. Something which, to the dismay of the newly formed protest group Streetlife, the Labour-dominated Council are in the process of doing to disastrous effect. The current review was published in September 2012, and this sprawling 123 page review is a mass of rhetoric, pie-charts and graphs, [1] which mask the brutal cuts that Labour councillors are in the process of enforcing upon council-funded organizations whose very remit is to help the homeless. As the Council acknowledge:“The review was undertaken during a rapid period of change, including significant reductions in local government funding and major welfare and social housing reform. We know that these changes will impact on the most vulnerable people in our community and this will bring additional pressures on services for people who are facing homelessness.”

The Con-Dem’s ongoing attack on the most vulnerable in society, and their cynical strategy for ‘preventing’ homelessness are outlined in their report Laying the Foundations, A Housing Strategy for England (2011). Following on from this came another self-serving policy paper, Vision to End Rough Sleeping: ‘No Second Night Out’ (2011). And flowing neatly on from the Labour Party’s desire to dismantle tax-payer funded welfare provision, the 2012 Leicester Homeless Review disingenuously argues that the Government’s “Decentralisation, Big Society and Open Public Services initiatives promote people taking more responsibility for their life choices, rather than being passive recipients of state services.” No mention is of course made of corporate responsibility for destroying our economy. Only a relentless pursuit of profit carries any weight in the world to which our Labour leaders now belong — not to forget government handouts. It is socialism for the rich and capitalism for the rest of us.

Massive cuts to the Councils’ Homeless Services Budget have already been agreed upon in the higher circles of the Labour Council, almost a 25% reduction from the 2012/13 financial year budget. Additional proposed cuts on top of these (yes on top) mean that this budget will, according to the Council’s review, likely be reduced from £6.6 million to less than £5.1 million; and to just £4.4 the following year. Here it is important to remember that these are only provisional figures, and given that only around 20% of the Government’s proposed cuts have been implemented, further cuts are imminent. This is reflected by the Council’s own under-stated admission that: “The position in future years is not known at this stage and further reductions may be required.”

With the Labour Council passing on the Government’s brutal cuts, the national Government will try its best to quell popular discontent by throwing a few crumbs back in the form of “extra” grants, which by no means make up for the short-fall faced by local Councils. One example is the ‘Homelessness Grant’ which had just been reduced; and another is the Homelessness Transition Fund which the Government set up “to help address rough sleeping and to prevent single homelessness.” Take for example a £10,000 grant recently obtained by Excluded Ltd, or the Homeless Leicester Partnership projects receipt of a £200,000 grant — which made it just one of the lucky 22 projects around the country getting a slice of already meagre £3.6 million available from the Homeless Transition Fund.

Unfortunately, instead of opposing such unnecessary attacks on societies most vulnerable citizens, the Leicester Labour Council plead that their hands are tied. We had to bail out the bankers we are told, and needless to say, the cuts have to be made. This is a vicious lie: the council can resist the attacks, but they would prefer not to — what on earth do they think the Labour council did in Liverpool during the 1980s? This massive lie, however, is not surprising given that the Labour Party are committed to the same cuts agenda as the Conservatives, albeit proceeding at a slightly slower pace. Therefore as a natural corollary of Labour’s kowtowing to their corporate benefactors, the Council see the ongoing attacks on public services as a “positive opportunity to modernise our homeless services”; i.e. to allow homeless services to be taken over (“opened out”) to “providers from the third sector, social enterprises and the private sector…”

We are told by the Council that it is not democratic decision-making that is “driving the review of public sector services” but “the current financial environment”; by which they mean, it is the bankers who are “dictating that staying as we are is not an option.” There are “clear indicators that something is not working” with the current system of dealing with homelessness, they add, with many front-line staff frustrated by “a lack of resources…” Yet the Council’s failure to recognize that the major something not working is the democratic process itself. Rather than looking for political solutions that strive to create a fairer more equitable socialist economy — one that provides full employment and cheap housing for all — the Council, echoing the reactionary Government, scapegoat the very policy of helping the poor as being the root cause of any ongoing problems vis-a-vis homelessness. Moreover, ever keen to pass over their responsibility for cutting public services, the Council duly observes how one of their “proposals to meet this challenge is to cease the main homelessness duty through the use of private sector rented accommodation.”

Given recent figures, the Council’s review predicts that by the end of 2012/13 their Housing Options Service will have dealt with over 2,350 households facing homelessness, that is, almost 20% more than the number dealt with in 2010/11. This is a serious issue that demands serious solutions: like perhaps the building of new affordable homes, or the nationalization of the many private rental properties currently sitting vacant. The extent of the latter problem is actually illustrated elsewhere in the review, as more than a quarter are of the 22,400 privately rented properties in Leicester are presently empty — “with 25% being empty for at least 18 months.” That’s right, approximately 1,400 private rental properties have been empty for at least 18 months! [2] In a desperate social climate of increasing unemployment and poverty, where there is already a massive waiting list for council housing — a problem exacerbated by the ongoing sale of council houses — it is obvious to all (with the exception of the Council) that handing over further control of the housing market to the private sector is far from sane. This is especially true if the goal is to improve the democratic distribution of houses to those who need them most. Sadly, as we will now find out, building council houses is not a priority for the Labour Council.

By Labour’s own limited ambitions (made in 2008), they set themselves the immensely achievable target of building 1,280 new homes each year in Leicester, of which 790 were suggested to be affordable housing units. But due to funding cuts, even these low targets have not been met. In fact, only 601 affordable housing units have being constructed since 2008, and the Council predicts “that no more than 300 houses will be completed between 2012 -2015.” They are admitting that only 150 affordable units have been built a year, and that they aim to reduce this to just 100 a year from now on. Ironically they are full aware that: “Preventing and addressing homelessness is complex and requires a myriad of tools to ensure positive outcomes are achieved.” So while it is a complex problem, there is one obvious solution, and that is to ensure that you build enough houses for people to live in. Instead of proposing such obvious solutions, which would demand a political change of heart of the Labour Council (to one where they represent their constituents needs irrespective of the demands of big business), they merely regurgitate Government propaganda about the need to “move to a culture of enablement which supports people to move from crisis to independent living.” As the review falsely states elsewhere:

We need to consider the role of the various hostels across the city. Hostels should not be used as a long-term accommodation option, as they can create dependency and institutionalisation. … Many of our hostels operate a culture of ‘crisis and rescue’, rather than enablement, with people staying up to a year and beyond. … [T]his has helped created a bottle-neck in moving people on to independent living.

But is this attack on hostels actually born out by the ever-confusing facts and figures outlined in the Council’s own review? The answer it seems is no, although that depends on your definition of long-term. This is because according to their snapshot look at what happened to the 582 hostel residents on April 1, 2012, “67% had been in the service for a period of between 28 days to 1 year”; while only “1.5% of clients had been in the service for over two years.” Clearly more detailed data needs to be collected (and could easily have been if the Council had asked the right question) in order to actually prove the case that hostels are being used for long-term accommodation. This is because for all we know the majority of the people lumped into the 67% figure (which is actually 56% when considering the years averages) [3] may have only stayed in the hostel for just a month or two… hardly long-stay.

Moreover, it would hardly be surprising if hostels were being used (as a last resort) for long-term accommodation in lieu of the Council’s decision to abandon their commitment to build affordable housing. These numbers therefore should not be used as an indictment on hostels, but on the Council themselves. As an after-note, it is perhaps important to note that in the draft report, Leicester’s Homelessness Strategy & Delivery Proposals, 2013-2018, the data presented shows that most homeless people actually use hostels on a short-time basis, as: “From October 2011 to March 2012 the average length of stay for single people in Council hostels was 47 days…”

On a simple cost-benefit basis, let alone on a moral one, there are more than enough reasons to provide affordable good quality housing for all of Leicester’s citizens. To take just one example, housing issues are clearly related to an individuals likelihood to be prosecuted for criminal offences. “50% of Leicestershire offenders, entering prison, have been assessed as having housing problems, prior to sentencing, and 30% of those leaving prison, had no fixed address to return to.” A tragic problem that could be remedied if there was the political will to do so. But instead of providing adequate housing and social support for the homeless, the Council in a floored attempt to justify making their cuts, argue that while Day Centres provide a valuable meeting place for “people at risk of isolation” they conclude that “it is questionable whether [such activities] should be funded through homelessness resources.” Where else the money to fund such much-needed bodies like the Centre Project and the Dawn Centre’s Y Advice and Support Service (YASC) might come from is anyone’s guess.

There is no doubt that there are serious problems with the quality of the under-funded services currently provided to the homeless, and improvements can certainly be made given the political will to oppose all cuts. Cutting service provision is only a recipe for mayhem; while handing over council housing to the private sector will never cut costs, and can only lead to further profiteering by the rich at the public’s expense. Increasing expenditure on floating support for the vulnerable is of course a good idea. But doing so to the exclusion of other vital services, like the Council’s current propositions to close hostels and waste precious resources on “incentivis[ing]” the involvement of private landlords, are ludicrous and almost beyond belief. [4] Join the recently formed Streetlife in their fight against the implementation of such nonsensical policies, and then join Leicestershire Against the Cuts to make sure that this toxic contagion spreads no further,

The first Leicester City Council homelessness review took place in 1999, and the following one was published in 2008.  The current consultation process is ongoing and ends on February 18, 2013.

NOTES
[1] In a classic case of doublespeak the report notes: “Between January 2011 and January 2012, there was a 157% increase in rough sleeping. However, there was a 35% decrease between March 2011 and March 2012 and the rough sleeper count reduced to 25 by June 2012.”

The point of this statement is impossible to ascertain. However, although not put into words in the report, a quick glance at the accompanying line diagram demonstrates a massive spike in the number of rough sleepers from the start of 2011 compared to those recorded over the previous six years. During these previous six years most months saw less than 15 reported rough sleepers (with a peak of 26 in one month), while after 2011 nearly all months saw more than 30 rough sleepers being recorded (with a peak of 46 in one month).

[2] “There are approximately 126,200 dwellings in the city, 74% are privately owned and 26% are social housing.” Social housing compromises 22,300 properties which are owned by the Council, and a further 10,700 which are Registered Social Landlord properties. (22,400 properties in Leicester are private rented, and the remaining 70,700 properties are owner occupied.)

[3] It is strange that the Council chose to cite this figure of 67% when a lower figure is obtained by taking the average usage figures which can be obtained from a graph on the following page, showing the length of stay by client group for the whole of 2011/12. Data obtained from this graph shows that 56% not 67% had been in the service for a period of between 28 days to 1 year. Moreover it seems strange that they appear so concerned about the “106 people [6% of the total], with non-specialist support needs, who remained in the service for over a year. year. We need to be working more proactively to move people on to more appropriate accommodation.”

[4] The Council writes: “We need to focus a higher proportion of resources on prevention and floating support, which provides support to people where they live, to reduce the risk of homelessness.” Later they conclude: “Further work will also be undertaken to incentivise private landlords to get involved in the Leicester Let Scheme (for families) and the Rent Deposit Guarantee Schemes (for single people).” Coercion, not support, is the order of the day and “Hostels will become places for change and will require clients to actively engage in their road to independent living.” On the issue of hostels they propose: “We will reduce hostel provision and re-configure existing services which will include using the Dawn Centre in its original role as an Assessment Centre and short-stay hostel. A catering service will continue to be provided to help stabilise clients moving into the Dawn Centre.”

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