(Title Image: BBC Wales)
Yesterday, the Minister for Housing & Local Government, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West) updated AMs on measures to combat homelessness and rough sleeping.
Making a difference
The Welsh Government’s annual rough sleeper count found a decline in the numbers of people in that situation. Anti-homelessness legislation (Housing Act 2014) was also lauded as the reason behind the fact that between April 2015 and September 2018 just under 20,000 households threatened with homelessness avoided it.
The Minister accepted there was more to do:
The Minister reserved special praise for a community care hub in Wrexham, which offers rough sleepers access to housing, employment, GP, mental health and substance abuse services under one roof. She asked all local authorities and third sector organisations to work with the Welsh Government and learn best practice from each other.
A barometer for society
Shadow Housing Minister, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central), said how a society treats its less fortunate was often a barometer for civility. He broadly praised the Welsh Government’s work and was encouraged by the Wrexham model, he picked out a key flaw in the Housing Act:
“I have….repeatedly heard that a key deficiency of the 2014 Act is that local authorities are only required to assist those who actively seek assistance. Now, of course, many do go beyond that, but the requirement in the law is to respond to those who actively seek assistance, and local authorities can end their homelessness duties if an individual fails to co-operate with the local authority – again, it doesn’t say that they must, but they can. And, finally, nor do rough-sleepers in the legislation automatically acquire priority-need status.”
– Shadow Housing Minister, David Melding AM
The Minister accepted it was often difficult to get a rough-sleeper into proper accommodation and the process takes to long; that’s why she prefers the “Housing First” system where a person is placed into housing before receiving help in other aspects of their lives.
Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) didn’t support the rosy picture the Minister was painting. Many rough-sleepers will have been moved on by the police and been missed in rough sleeper counts, while homelessness and rough-sleeping rates are still higher now than in 2015. She expects further welfare reforms and universal credit roll-out to make the problem worse.
Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) spoke in favour of constructing more council houses, while Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) paid tribute to volunteers who work with the homeless and provide them with hot meals and emergency accommodation; Cardiff Council recently did this for 54 people in one night.
“It pains me that, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, rough-sleeping happens every single day, and it’s simply an unacceptable injustice that damages and destroys thousands of lives. And it isn’t just unique to the streets of Cardiff or London. It’s happening in towns right across the UK, including my own.”
– Jack Sargeant AM (Lab, Alyn & Deeside)
Caroline Jones AM (Ind, South Wales West) spoke of the plight of homeless veterans and ex-prisoners; many of whom were “treated like detritus to be moved from our streets without tackling the underlying causes”.
The homeless as human beings
“….I would like to seek your views on talking about homeless people as human beings, and not simply numbers and statistics. Has the Government plans to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824? We’re aware that the Vagrancy Act is still in force in parts in Wales, and it does criminalise people who are attempting to live on the streets and who are attempting to create survival strategies whilst living on the street.”
– Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent)
The Minister said the Act was being looked at and there are some policy areas the Welsh Government and Senedd have control over; she was willing to work with the UK Government to secure changes.
There were numerous calls for ending “priority need” and in response to a question from John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) the Minister said research on this was due back in April and there’ll be further announcements then.