Homelessness and COVID-19: a comparison of responses in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England
To better understand the different approaches of each UK nation during the pandemic, Nick Bartholdy and Faye Greaves from the Centre for Homelessness Impact present a detailed comparison of homelessness data and legislation both before and during COVID-19
Levels of homelessness: A total of 31,333 households were assessed as homeless in 2019/20, a 4% increase on the previous year. There was also a 6% year-on-year increase in the number of households in temporary accommodation (11,665) in March 2020.
The number of people experiencing street homelessness in Scotland increased by around 12% between 2015 and 2019, with considerable local variation. In 2019/20, 2,884 people who approached their council for help reported experiencing street homelessness within three months of submitting a homelessness application, an almost identical number to the previous year. This indicates a potential stabilisation of the street homeless population in Scotland.
Since the start of the pandemic, weekly and monthly administrative data has been collected on applications for homelessness assistance and use of temporary accommodation.1 This data suggests a 23% increase in households applying for homelessness assistance between April 2020 (2,288) and January 2021 (2,813). The number of households that were offered and accepted into temporary accommodation increased by 19% between April 2020 and June 2020 when numbers peaked at 3,446; however, these figures decreased by 13% in the last semester (from 3,446 in June 2020 to 3,011 in January 2021). The Scottish Government’s official homelessness statistics are due to be published on 23 March.
Pandemic response: Scotland did not have a specific policy for accommodating people sleeping out during COVID-19, largely because it did not need one. Actions to provide housing rapidly to people at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness in Scotland were already a policy expectation, as set out in its national plan for ending all types of homelessness.
Scotland’s policy focus during the pandemic has been on enhancing existing efforts, stopping returns to homelessness, and preventing future homelessness post-COVID. In June 2020, the Scottish Government’s Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group (HARSAG) recommended their homelessness strategy focus on four areas:
- response to the pandemic via ongoing access to self-contained accommodation and provision of support, advice and advocacy;
- ensuring no return to street homelessness via flexible supply of affordable housing and increased housing options;
- prevention of homelessness in the first instance; and
- focus on the Ending Homelessness Together action plan.
Scotland, like all other UK nations, has brought in a range of measures to protect renters from eviction as a result of the impact of COVID-19. In January 2021, the ban on evictions from rented accommodation was extended until 31 March 2021. This measure followed previous action to extend the notice periods that landlords must give their tenants (informing them of the intention to end their tenancies) to six months for those being evicted for arrears, and three months for those being evicted for anti-social behaviour.
Alongside this action, the Scottish Government established a £10million Tenant Hardship Loan Fund in December 2020, as part of the range of support and interventions to help tenants who are struggling with rent because of changes to their finances and/or employment during the pandemic. These interest-free loans cover a maximum of nine months’ rent.
Legislation: Unlike the rest of the UK, Scotland abolished priority need in 2012. This entitled all unintentionally homeless households to settled accommodation (as opposed to prioritising families with children, for example). Scotland also committed, via its Ending Homelessness Together strategy and action plan, to moving towards rapid rehousing by default, attempting to rehouse people quickly rather than moving them into temporary accommodation. Progress is ongoing as all local authorities are required to develop and implement ‘Rapid Rehousing Transition’ plans.
In May 2020, Scotland legislated to improve standards of temporary accommodation through an extension of the Unsuitable Accommodation Order 2020, setting a maximum of seven days during which any homeless household can be housed in unsuitable accommodation (e.g. hostels, B&Bs).
Levels of homelessness: Newly-released Department for Communities statistics show a 6% decrease in homelessness applications and a 3% decrease in households owed full rehousing duties in July-September 2020, compared with the same quarter a year earlier. There was also a 6% year-on-year decrease in those presenting as homeless in summer 2020. However, the Department for Communities states that the numbers of people in temporary accommodation greatly increased in 2020/21, and the number of placements into temporary accommodation roughly doubled. This is indicative of the disruption in the housing and homelessness systems caused by COVID-19.
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) has conducted point-in-time counts of people experiencing street homelessness since 2018. There was a 50% decrease in the number of people experiencing street homelessness between the counts in 2019 and 2020 (36 and 18 people, respectively). This decrease is in part due to efforts to accommodate people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. The vast majority of those experiencing street homelessness have a placement or an offer of a placement to enter temporary accommodation. While these numbers indicate that the prevalence of street homelessness is relatively low compared with other areas of the UK, data also remain sparse and of poorer quality in comparison to the other UK nations.
Pandemic response: As in the rest of the UK, an effort was made in Northern Ireland to find self-contained accommodation for all rough sleepers at the start of the pandemic. NIHE put in place emergency measures such as the sourcing of extra temporary accommodation to help achieve this.
During the pandemic, the Department for Communities worked with a sector-chaired, multi-agency group to implement the public health response in the homelessness sector. It temporarily unfroze Supporting People Reserves, whose funds support four thematic groups including those experiencing or at risk of homelessness in Northern Ireland. In May, a further £10 million was allocated to Supporting People and an additional £7 million was allocated to homelessness provision. The Housing Executive also adopted a coordinated response in the form of its Reset Plan to address the impacts of COVID-19 in terms of homelessness in Northern Ireland.
In August 2020, Northern Ireland committed to a lengthy extension to its commitment to minimise evictions from rented accommodation until 1 March 2021. It lengthened the notice period landlords must give their tenants (informing of their intention to bring an end to their tenancies) to 12 weeks and, in February 2021, extended the emergency period of this legislation to September 2021.
While courts reopened to eviction cases (referred to as ‘possessions’ in Northern Ireland) in September 2020, judges have committed to taking into account the NI Executive’s PRS Guidance, which sets out an expectation that evictions will be avoided wherever possible, and that landlords will seek to make an agreement with tenants if the pandemic has caused difficulty in paying rent. Social landlords have maintained a voluntary freeze on evictions since the start of the pandemic.
Legislation: Statutory responsibility for homelessness lies with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, rather than individual local authorities. Unlike the other three UK nations, Northern Ireland has not made any significant changes to its legal framework in recent years. Broadly, duties are limited to securing accommodation for applicants who meet specified criteria.
Levels of homelessness: Between April 2019 and March 2020, 31,320 people approached their local authority for help with housing problems – a figure consistent with the previous year. The estimated number of individuals experiencing street homelessness in Wales, on the other hand, increased by 17% between the counts taken in 2018 and 2019 (347 and 406 individuals respectively). However, a more recent snapshot saw a 14% decrease between October 2020 (112) and November 2020 (96). The large majority of people experiencing street homelessness in Wales are located in just four areas: Cardiff, Newport, Wrexham and Swansea.
Pandemic response: In March 2020, Wales allocated £10m toward the provision of self-contained accommodation so that those without a home could be protected, supported and isolated if necessary. During the pandemic, the Welsh Government has encouraged local authorities to provide accommodation to anyone who needs it, regardless of their immigration status. £40m capital funding has been allocated to increase both temporary and permanent accommodation to contribute toward Wales’ transformation of homelessness services.
It also published a feasibility study that explored what could be achieved within its devolved powers as part of an ‘exit plan’ to support those with no access to public funds beyond the pandemic. In May 2020, £20m funding was announced – topped up by a further £20m in August – to stop those in emergency shelter returning to street homelessness or unsuitable accommodation after the pandemic.
The Welsh Government’s ban on evictions from the private rented sector was set out alongside the measures set out by the UK Government for England. In July 2020, the Welsh Government temporarily increased notice periods from three to six months for certain tenancies; a six-month notice period now applies to notices served on or after 24 July 2020 until ‘at least’ 31 March 2021, except where tenants are being evicted on grounds of anti-social behaviour.
In October 2020, the Welsh Government set a precedent in the UK by launching a new £8m Tenancy Saver Loan scheme to help tenants struggling with rent arrears due to coronavirus. Scotland recently followed suit.
Legislation: The requirements of councils in Wales to provide assistance to people facing homelessness are set out in the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, which provided the template from which England developed the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. The only differences between the two are that Wales’s framework requires specific public bodies to cooperate with local housing authorities in their efforts to prevent and relieve homelessness at the individual level, should they request it. This duty to cooperate places more expectations on public bodies than does England’s duty to refer, which requires local authorities to refer households they consider homeless or at risk of homelessness within 56 days. Welsh public bodies therefore have a larger responsibility to contribute to homelessness prevention and relief.
In April 2020, the Welsh Government issued additional homelessness guidance to local authorities – making it clear that for the duration of the pandemic, those who are sleeping rough should be considered vulnerable, meaning councils have a duty to find accommodation for them.
Further supporting the legislative framework, in November 2020 the Minister for Housing and Local Government accepted in principle all of the recommendations of a report by the Homelessness Action Group. This report outlines the framework of policies, approaches and plans needed to end homelessness in Wales.
Levels of homelessness: In England, all types of homelessness steadily increased between 2010 and 2018. The adoption of a new legal framework in 2018 (the Homelessness Reduction Act) expanded duties and meant that more single people were eligible for support. There was a 4% increase in the number of homelessness applications between 2018/19 and 2019/20 (c. 292,690 and 305,680 respectively).
Snapshot data indicates a 168% increase in street homelessness between 2010 and 2017, from 1,768 to 4,751 individuals. MHCLG’s point-in-time count identified 2,688 people experiencing street homelessness on a single night in autumn 2020, a 37% reduction from 2019 and 43% down from the peak in 2017 (though still 52% higher than in 2010). Differences between MHCLG’s point-in-time data and those from other sources which track cases in real time (e.g. the CHAIN data for London) suggest the number of people in England who might be experiencing street homelessness in a year could be closer to 40,000.2
CHAIN’s latest data release, covering October-December 2020 in London, shows a 9% decrease year-on-year. Additionally, the capital’s street homeless population with drug, alcohol and/or mental health support needs was 50% lower year-on-year, indicating an important shift in the composition of its street homeless population.
Pandemic response: The UK Government’s response during the COVID-19 pandemic has played out against the backdrop of a manifesto pledge to end rough sleeping by the end of this parliamentary term in 2024. This builds upon the Rough Sleeping Strategy and Delivery Plan (2018).
Within days of the announcement of the first national lockdown on 23 March 2020, ‘Everyone In’ was introduced, directing all local authorities in England to provide self-contained accommodation to all street homeless people, and those living in accommodation that prevented social distancing and isolation (i.e. shared temporary assessment centres and shelters). The Next Steps Accommodation Programme followed these emergency steps to help reduce numbers returning to the streets after the pandemic, with £265m allocated for interim and longer-term accommodation and support. As of January 2021, more than 26,000 people had been moved into settled housing or supported accommodation; but over 11,000 still remained in emergency accommodation.
A raft of support measures have been introduced to support those living in rented accommodation (across both social and private sectors). These include a ban on most evictions until the end of March 2021 (as at the most recent extension), and an uplift in Local Housing Allowance rates to cover rental costs in the bottom 30% of the private rented market.
Legislation: Like all UK nations, the level of assistance provided via England’s statutory homelessness safety net is comparatively progressive in global terms. All households not excluded based on immigration status are entitled to some form of advice or assistance to resolve their housing problems. England, Wales and Northern Ireland (but not Scotland) still use ‘priority groups’ to prioritise households such as families with children when offering housing support.
A new legal framework (The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017) was introduced in 2018, further expanding the support available to people facing homelessness. In addition to extending the period in which someone is considered to be ‘at risk’ of homelessness from 28 to 56 days, it introduced a legal obligation to provide ‘meaningful’ assistance to help prevent people from becoming homeless, or to help to secure accommodation if homelessness cannot be prevented. These new duties apply regardless of priority need status. This new framework also placed a duty upon certain public bodies (e.g. job centres and prisons) to refer people to their local authority if they are thought to be at risk of homelessness.
1 Data collection was set up by SOLACE (Scottish Association of Local Authority Chief Executives) and the Scottish Government. Although the data are administrative (i.e., not official statistics), they can be used to provide an a more up-to-date indication of homelessness activity in Scotland
2 A comparison of London’s share of MHCLG’s street homelessness estimate – 714 street homeless (27% of the total) – with the CHAIN data for all street homeless observed in London over the year 2019/20 (10,726) suggests the number of people experiencing at least one night of rough sleeping may be 15 times higher than the snapshot data. Even if we only consider the CHAIN data for the last quarter in London (Oct-Dec 2020: 3,307), it still suggests the number of people experiencing street homelessness was 4.6 times higher than the number reported in the snapshot. This suggests the overall number of people sleeping rough on at least one night in England in the most recent full year could be as high as 40,000.
A note on interpreting homelessness statistics
Data on street homelessness are difficult to compare across nations due to differences in definitions and methods of measurement. The most common data collection method for street homelessness (a count-in-time) also means that official statistics do not include everyone experiencing street homelessness on any given night of the year, but represent a count on a single date in autumn which local authorities deem to be a ‘typical night’.
England, Wales and Northern Ireland use point-in-time (PiT) counts which are either physical counts of individuals seen sleeping on the street, or estimates by local agencies. Scotland does not carry out counts; rather, data on street homelessness are collected when individuals apply for homelessness assistance. This data collection method has the advantage of continuing throughout the year, but misses people who may not go to their council for help. In England both methods are used, but the government target to end rough sleeping is based on PiT counts.
The broadest measure of people in housing need is applications, which represents the number of households applying for homelessness assistance. Other important homelessness measures include the numbers living in temporary accommodation (e.g. hostels, B&Bs) and those experiencing street homelessness. Those experiencing ‘hidden homelessness’ (e.g. sofa surfing) are less likely to be captured by the official statistics, but there are some estimates of prevalence (e.g. the Crisis Homelessness Monitor).
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