Homelessness and the Housing Crisis –
by John Griffiths MS
Homelessness continues to be one of the most pernicious symptoms of the housing crisis in Wales and across the UK. It feels indefensible that at a UK level in one of the wealthiest economies in the world, there are so many people that go to sleep without a safe, secure or even any roof over their head at night. While it is often said that homelessness can happen to anyone, the reality is that it is a class issue. If you are born poor or working class, you are much more likely to be at risk of becoming homeless as an adult.
Street homelessness is the most visible and extreme part of the crisis, especially in our major cities. I represent Newport East and last 31st October, Newport was second only to Cardiff in Wales in reporting the highest numbers of people sleeping rough. In that snapshot in time, twenty two people slept on the streets that night. The Covid pandemic did, however, show what is possible with will, resources and urgency to support people off the streets. When the first lockdown of March 2020 happened, the almost overnight disappearance of rough sleeping in Newport was striking, as the Welsh Government and Local authorities acted fast to protect and house all rough sleepers early on in the pandemic.
As many homelessness charities rightly point out though, temporary accommodation is no long term solution. It has its place, but is so often inadequate and stretches the very meaning of temporary to its limits when people find themselves in such temporary accommodation for extended periods, sometimes even years. This state of limbo makes it almost impossible to plan, to envisage a future and bring it to fruition by being able to enjoy being settled and having a place to call home. This is something many of us take for granted.
Temporary and precarious housing also represents “hidden” forms of homelessness that many Senedd Members encounter in the casework we deal with. Families, for example, are often at risk of homelessness when at the sharp end of an insecure, unsafe or unsustainable housing situation. For families on low incomes whose rents have become unaffordable, the experience of a life changing or unexpected event such as the loss of a job, unexpected cost or bereavement can and does plunge them into crisis. Lack of affordable rents and housing also forces families to stay in homes that simply don’t meet their basic needs with little alternative options available to them.
The lack of affordable rents — symptomatic of our dysfunctional housing market- is a problem that is squeezing more and more families. Research by the Bevan Foundation last year found that even the safety net to support people with housing costs is under strain and doesn’t always meet needs. In ten local authorities in Wales, including my own, it found that less than five per cent of the privately rented homes on the market were fully covered by Housing Benefit or the housing element of Universal Credit. Add to this the cost of living crisis, the impending lifting of the energy price cap and wages that are not keeping pace with living costs, and it seems inevitable that more families will face crisis, including housing crisis.
In what feels like a grim outlook, there is however reason to be optimistic about the potential to tackle and prevent homelessness and the housing crisis in Wales, which must go hand in hand with a wider ambition for affordable, decent housing for all. The appetite to take on the issue of second homes and homelessness is already clear in the new Senedd and in the priorities chosen by the Senedd’s Housing and Local Government Committee, which is currently taking evidence on both. The Welsh Government’s desire to encourage council house building and ensure a supply of modern environmentally friendly housing through building 20,000 new homes over the course of the Senedd term will also help address sustainable housing supply.
The enactment of the provisions of the Renting Homes Act will be one of the biggest changes to housing law in Wales and will place tenants on a much firmer footing. Enacting this 2016 legislation this summer will mean that from day one, contract holders will have a minimum of one year’s security of tenure, meaning tenants in Wales will have some of the best protections and security in the UK. It will also protect them against retaliatory evictions.
Taken together, these represent golden opportunities to help address a housing and homelessness crisis that had persisted for too long.
John Griffiths MS — Newport East