What is the truth about homelessness in Wyre Forest? How many families end up homeless and how are they being helped?
In the next instalment of Wyrelife’s investigation into all aspects of homelessness, Wyre Forest’s senior officer with responsibility for housing, Kate Bailey, and the council’s Cabinet Member for Housing, Health and Well-Being, Councillor Chris Rogers, talk about the situation locally and the challenges ahead as new legislation comes into force.
The number of homeless families and individuals in Wyre Forest has almost doubled in seven years, according to national data.
A total of 169 households – many of them including young children – were deemed homeless in Wyre Forest last year, up from 96 in 2010.
Another 1,065 families and individuals were saved from homelessness due to emergency intervention from district council officers and support organisations and charities.
Now the pressure is on Wyre Forest District Council to reduce homelessness within three years to the lowest level possible – but they have been given “desperately inadequate” extra funds to support their efforts, said the council’s housing chief Kate Bailey.
From April, Wyre Forest District Council and its neighbours across Worcestershire will be charged with implementing the new Homelessness Reduction Act.
The Act demands that councils focus on preventing homelessness by supporting families and individuals at risk at an earlier stage and devise a personalised approach, including in some instances to those who are deemed intentionally homeless.
Kate Bailey, who leads the council’s homeless prevention initiatives as part of her role as head of strategic growth, said it was going to be “a challenge” to achieve the hoped-for outcomes.
Ahead of the new responsibilities coming into force, the council has been granted New Burdens funding totalling £90,000 over the next three years.
Said Kate: “It’s not even enough to fund one entire post and we’re anticipating a 20-40% rise in footfall through the doors (from people requesting help) – that’s 2,000 to 3,000 people extra.
“The extra funds are desperately inadequate in terms of what the scale of need is and what we are likely to be able to meet. Only time will tell if it is enough.”
“The government’s prediction is that homelessness will fall away within three years. They are anticipating levels of homelessness to go down and levels of prevention (those saved from homelessness) will go up.
“But Wales adopted the legislation in 2014 and they haven’t seen that happen – it’s happened to some extent but it hasn’t matched the targets.”
Across Worcestershire all councils have been given just £200,000 over three years to implement the act and support more people, more quickly.
Councillor Chris Rogers, who is Cabinet member with responsibility for Housing, Health and Well-being for Wyre Forest District Council, said the council was working closely with a range of agencies to prevent homelessness and support those in need.
WHAT IS MEANT BY “HOMELESSNESS”?
Rough sleeping is the most extreme form of homelessness. The vast majority of homeless people are families or single people who are not sleeping rough.
Some may be staying with relatives and friends on a temporary basis. Others live in temporary accommodation, such as bed and breakfast hotels, hostels, night shelters and refuges. For many, this can mean living in poor quality accommodation that is detrimental to their health and well-being. And in all cases, not having a permanent home causes stress and countless practical difficulties.
According to the homeless charity Shelter, an individual or family is homeless if they “do not have a legal right to occupy accommodation, or if their accommodation is unsuitable to live in.” This can cover a wide range of circumstances, including:
- having no accommodation at all
- having accommodation that is not reasonable to live in, even in the short-term (eg because of violence or health reasons)
- having a legal right to accommodation that you cannot access (eg if you have been evicted illegally)
- living in accommodation you have no legal right to occupy (eg living in a squat or staying with friends temporarily).
Local councils have a legal duty to provide advice and assistance to people who are legally defined as homeless or threatened with homelessness.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN AN INDIVIDUAL OR FAMILY SEEKS HELP IN WYRE FOREST?
The council works with social housing provider Wyre Forest Community Housing to oversee the district’s official housing register, which currently has a waiting list of around 3,000 households.
Each year around 200 of the total social housing stock of 6,000 homes are freed up to be offered to those on the housing register, along with another 200 places in sheltered or specialist accommodation.
The vast majority of those homes will be offered to people with the highest housing need – including those who meet the legal definition of homelessness.
“We all hear of people who complain that they have been on the list for years, or that some people are jumping the queue, and so on. To be honest, that is how it works and how it should work,” said Councillor Rogers.
“We have to rationalise access to homes to those who have the highest level of need.
“For example a parent might be desperate to move house to be nearer a particular school or relative. They may well have been on the housing register for years but they will never get to the top of the list.
“The question we have to ask is where do we draw the line between those who really need help, and those who can perhaps do more to help themselves?
“There are an awful lot of people who ask for help but don’t really need it; and equally those who are struggling but don’t seek help soon enough and wait for the bailiffs to be at their door, or a tenancy to end.
“We need to get those who we really can help to come forward sooner, long before they become homeless.”
In the three months from July to September 2017, Wyre Forest District Council supported 43 households who were homeless or on the verge of homelessness.
A very high number of them – 33 out of 43 – had children or a baby on the way.
Most did not move immediately into long term accommodation – often they would spend time in interim or emergency accommodation while a long term solution was sorted out – but all would quickly be given somewhere to live.
From November homeless (or soon to be homeless) families and individuals have access to bespoke temporary accommodation in New Street, Stourport.
It has 11 ensuite bedrooms and shared living spaces to provide a temporary home for families and individuals in dire straits, usually ahead of moving into a more permanent place.
Previously an empty Grade Two listed building, it was converted last year and supports the council’s overall homelessness and housing strategy.
A dedicated homeless support officer works with tenants to come up with long term solutions and also assist with benefits, job applications, housing search, schooling and physical and mental health issues.
“It has been a success, definitely,” said Councillor Rogers. “Providing B&B accommodation was a huge waste of money and often was no good for tenants; and in fact we were penalised for using B&Bs so it was costing us around £50,000 a year.
“Now people have a place to stay where they can work out what to do next, with lots of support.”
If you fear homelessness might be imminent, or you are struggling to meet your rent or mortgage commitments, you can get help from a wide range of organisations.
Wyre Forest Hub at Kidderminster Town Hall – speak to a housing officer to discuss your circumstances and see how they can help or visit the district council website for advice about your options.
Contact Wyre Forest Community Housing for general advice on 0800 169 5454. For emergency out of hours help please call 01562 850053.
Wyre Forest Axis youth hub, based at Kidderminster Youth House, provides help for young people up to 25 requiring practical and emotional support, including emergency accommodation www.axisyouthhub.org
Kidderminster Foodbank – visit the website here
Money Advice Service – An independent service, set up by the government to help people make the most of their money, giving free, unbiased money advice to everyone across the UK, online, over the phone and face to face. View the Money Advice Service website.
Wyre Forest Citizens Advice Bureau – view the website here.
Shelter – The housing and homelessness charity offers advice on a number of subjects including homelessness, finding a place to live, repossession, eviction and money & arrears. View the Shelter website
Rough Sleeping special investigation: How big is the problem of rough sleepers in Kidderminster, Stourport, Bewdley and surrounding villages? What is being done to support the district’s street homeless? How can you help someone begging or sleeping on the streets?
Do you want to join the discussion? Do you have a personal story to share about homelessness and social housing? Please email firstname.lastname@example.org – I’d love to hear from you.