What we learned about rough sleeping in Wales

(Title Image: National Assembly of Wales)

Communities Committee
Rough Sleeping (pdf)
Published: 20th April 2018

Chair’s Statement, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East):

“When we agreed to undertake this work, we did not foresee the harsh weather conditions that have hit many parts of Wales over the past few months. For those of us with a roof over our head, the snow and freezing temperatures may have been no more than an inconvenience. But for those who sleep rough, these treacherous conditions would have been a real threat to their safety and well-being, and in some cases to their lives.”

1. “Priority Need” for housing should be phased out

While the Housing Act 2014 was said to have had a positive impact in preventing new cases of homelessness, housing organisation felt it let down those who were already homeless – in particular, rough sleepers.

“Priority need” places you at the front of the queue for emergency assistance and includes pregnant women, homeless people with dependent children, people who’ve lost their homes in a disaster, the under-18s, domestic abuse victims, Armed Forces personnel and anyone else deemed “vulnerable” (i.e. health). Somewhat surprisingly, this doesn’t automatically include rough sleepers.

As a short-term measure, the Committee recommend rough- sleepers are deemed a priority need. Over the longer-term, “priority need” should be phased out and all homeless people should be treated equally – though only after work has been undertaken to make it a realistic option.

The Committee also recommended consideration is given to reinstating ex-prisoners as a priority need group if priority need isn’t phased out, though this was opposed by Committee member, Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy).

2. Cases of rough-sleeping have risen

The Welsh Government have monitored rough-sleeping rates since 2015. The latest assessment showed that in October 2017 there were 345 recorded rough-sleepers in Wales – an increase of 10% compared to 2016. In November 2017 this had fallen to 188 rough-sleepers, but this was 33% higher than in November 2016.

Local authorities were satisfied with the accuracy of Welsh Government data, though witnesses said this didn’t provide an accurate picture of the “flow” of people in need of support.

3. Despite the increase in rough-sleepers, many emergency beds are vacant

Emergency beds play an important role in addressing the problem and there was said to be some “excellent work” on the ground led by third sector organisations like The Salvation Army.

Despite this, many bodies who work with the homeless said there was a reluctance amongst some rough sleepers to take up the offer of an emergency bed, with concerns about the safety of the accommodation, drug use and anti-social behaviour. Couples and people with pets are also routinely excluded.

4. There’s no single cause of rough-sleeping

Witnesses told the Committee that some of the factors that might lead to rough-sleeping include unemployment, lack of affordable housing, welfare changes (only 2% of privately-rented housing is affordable under the local housing allowance rate), relationship breakdown, debt, mental & physical health problems, drug problems and a poor childhood.

More broadly, the causes could be grouped into two main categories: structural causes (availability and affordability of housing) and personal factors (health & personal experiences).

Some social landlords may not feel equipped to house those with very complex needs, leading to the proportion of social houses being let to the previously homeless being lower than both England and Scotland at 18%. It was also argued that one of the main problems was sustaining someone in housing, not necessarily finding it.

In light of concerns over welfare, the Committee recommended that the Welsh Government seek powers over the administration of universal credit in order to introduce more flexible payments (as in Scotland); again this was opposed by Janet Finch-Saunders AM.

5. Wales should pursue a “Housing First” policy

“Housing First” means instead of putting people in emergency accommodation, you focus on putting them in permanent housing first, essentially making housing a right. Pilots taking place around Wales which were recently expanded.

This won’t work, however, if the services needed to support those with complex needs aren’t there. If it is properly supported though, it’s estimated that for every £1 spent on a “Housing First” policy, the state saves £2.51.

6. Be cautious about clamping down on beggars

Aggressive beggars can potentially be fined up to £1,000 under the Vagrancy Act 1824, with persistent offenders at risk of imprisonment.

Witnesses said there was a need to separate “street behaviour” (like non-aggressive begging) from genuine anti-social behaviour. The Big Issue called for better police training so they can engage more effectively with rough-sleepers.

Despite headlines and social media posts suggesting the contrary, local authorities said their anti-vagrancy powers were rarely used. South Wales Police added that they don’t move people on for rough-sleeping as it wasn’t an offence; there would need to be an element of anti-social behaviour for officers to intervene. Body cameras are being used to ensure rough-sleepers are “treated with dignity and respect”.

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