The face of homelessness is changing. It is no longer the mythical old man in a trench coat with a brown paper bag. Whether it's through a lack of affordable housing, relationship breakdown or loss of a job, it can now very easily be any one of us.
Throughout Wales and the UK we are familiar with the extreme end of homelessness, the most visible, the roofless people, the people sleeping rough on the streets. But, we are ever increasingly seeing those who are simply struggling to keep a roof over their heads and maintain the property that they already have.
The vast majority of homeless people now exist out of sight in bed and breakfasts, squats, on the floors or sofas of friends and families or sleeping rough. These people often fall short of getting help from their local authority as stringent tests prove they have either made themselves intentionally homeless or they are just not considered to be in priority need. Local authorities only have a duty to help those who are vulnerable or in priority need. But, many say, proving that you are in priority need is often very difficult if you have a friend temporarily putting you up on a sofa. Something which inevitably will not last forever. A staggering seven out of every ten households who seek help are not considered for the main homelessness duty.
In England, Scotland and Wales only 'statutory homeless' people are entitled to housing. This means you:
- are 'eligible for public funds' (this will depend on your immigration status)
- have some sort of connection to the area covered by the local authority, known as a 'local connection'
- can to prove that you are 'unintentionally homeless' (that it is not your fault that you became homeless)
- can prove you are in "priority need"
According to charity Crisis, a relationship breakdown is thought to be the most common cause of homelessness for men. Kieran slept on the streets for a year after long hours and working away from home led to the breakdown of his marriage.
After his marriage broke down, Kieran decided that he had had enough. He spent the next few years travelling the world but, as the money eventually ran out he found himself back in Wales with no option but to sleep on other people's sofas. This then became a cleaning cupboard in Swansea Marina where he would sleep for the next year.
According to charity Crisis, for women, the most common causes of homelessness are physical or mental health problems and escaping a relationship.
Sharon, from Anglesey, found herself sofa surfing after running away from a relationship, leaving everything behind. A friend put her up on his sofa but, it wasn't the first time she had been homeless. She had been once before at the age of 15.
The invisibility of this type of homelessness meant that both Kieran and Sharon could be considered as intentionally homeless and not having enough of a "priority need" to be considered for help by the local authority.
But, this could be set to change. In Wales we are about to see a major shift in the government's approach to housing. A bill due out this summer aims to reduce levels of homelessness by focussing more on prevention rather than cure. Should the bill go ahead, Wales will be the first of the UK nations to adopt this approach of prevention.
The Welsh Government say that local authorities will have a bigger duty around preventing homelessness around providing a service to people who are threatened or who are at risk of homelessness as well as those who are at "priority need". The Bill extends the help that is available to people by improving services for those who are not in “priority need” and for those who are found to be intentionally homeless. Basically, it will mean more help for more people. The duties to prevent and relieve homelessness will substantially extend the entitlement of many applicants who under current legislation would only be entitled to advice and assistance.
The bill will focus on three main areas:
- improved standards and management in the private rented sector by the introduction of a mandatory registration and licensing scheme.
- reduced levels of homelessness by placing its prevention at the centre of local authority duties to help people at risk.
- fewer long term empty properties by encouraging owners to sell or rent them – thereby helping to increase housing supply.
This could help people like Sharon and many others who are unable to find a deposit or afford rent in the private sector.
Many find themselves only being able to afford flats which are run down. The Welsh Government also say they will look at improvements across the housing sector to ensure that people have access to a decent, affordable home. This includes introducing measures where tenants can have confidence that their landlords will meet certain basic standards, no matter how much they are paying in rent.
To see Kieran and Sharon's stories in full and hear those of many others tune in to:
Wales This Week The Hidden Homeless tonight at 8pm **on ITV Cymru Wales **
Click here for more on the Welsh Government Housing Bill
Or on the links below for more information on homelessness: