Speech to Wandsworth Council
Wandsworth faces a growing homelessness crisis. Last year 613 homeless households were in council temporary accommodation, that had risen to 791 at the start of this year and is predicted to reach 916 by the end of the year.
Local rents went up an average of 14 per cent last year. With pay freezes and housing benefit cuts, many local families can’t keep up.
All it takes is an illness or relationship break-up for families to get trapped in a downward spiral of debt. For too many local people this ends with homelessness.
The main cause of the crisis is eviction by private landlords. This led to 13pc of homeless cases in 2010 but had risen to 53pc by last year.
The homelessness crisis hits families hardest. In 2010, only five homelessness families qualified for four-bed homes, last year it was 68 families. This week’s Wandsworth Guardian has a report on local homeless families who will be moved outside the borough.
More and more homeless families have to be housed in temporary accommodation, in particular dingy Bed & Breakfasts.
I’ve seen how homelessness affects children in Putney, Battersea and Tooting. School runs that take two hours. Fights within families sharing one cramped room. The symptoms of depression.
Things are getting worse. The government has written to warn Wandsworth that families should not be kept in B&Bs beyond the legal maximum of six weeks. The council admits 147 separate families were accommodated in B&B accommodation for longer than six weeks in 2013/14.
The lack of decent accommodation makes people less likely to accept council help. A woman rang me this week to say she is reluctant to leave the home where she is currently at risk of domestic violence. The council offered out-of-borough B&B accommodation but she believes this will be unbearable for her autistic son.
I have put forward a motion for debate at Wandsworth Council on Wednesday, July 16, to request a serious response to this crisis. I hope councillors from both parties can support it.
There are three important steps Wandsworth could take straight away: work with landlords to prevent evictions where possible; support local families through existing council budgets; and use the housing department’s deep resources to invest in better temporary accommodation.
1. Work with landlords to prevent evictions. I spoke to a landlord this week who had rung the council to say she wanted to work with them to keep a family on housing benefit as tenants in her property but they were no help. The council can do more to stop the evictions that cause homelessness.
2. Support local families through existing council budgets. The Social Fund helped families in moments of crisis. When it was scrapped, the government instead gave Wandsworth £930,000 to spend. Only a quarter of this money was given to local families; the rest was kept back for other spending by the council. Unbelievably, Wandsworth also handed back Discretionary Housing Payment money to the government, funds that were specifically to help families struggling with housing costs.
3. Use the housing department’s deep resources to invest in better temporary accommodation. The council has the financial strength to do much more to tackle the problem. Last year, as the homeless crisis grew, more than £10m was put into housing department reserves, to take them well past £200m. Wandsworth has a £1.8bn projected surplus on its council rents account. The value of the council’s property empire went up £600m last year.
Housing money is ring-fenced. This means Wandsworth can scale up its response to the homelessness crisis without costing council tax payers a penny. In fact, we will save money in the long-run by keeping children in school and parents in work.
Wandsworth’s housing department has the expertise and the resources to get a grip on this issue. It should act now to reduce the number of families growing up in temporary accommodation and stop the homelessness crisis.