Welfare Reform and Homelessness (including the Homelessness Reduction Act)
The report provides information about the impact of Welfare Reform on housing services and homelessness in the borough, feedback on the impact of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 as well as an overview of how challenges and outstanding risk have been managed.
Laurence Coaker (Head of Housing Needs) introduced the report which informed members of the impact of the Welfare Reform on housing services and homelessness in Brent as well as an overview of the challenges and outstanding risk for the borough.
The discussion which followed focused on some of the main changes in the Welfare Reform, namely the Local Housing Allowance (LHA), the introduction of the Overall Benefit Cap (OBC) and the replacement of six benefits with Universal Credit (UC). Firstly, the Committee was informed that introduction of Universal Credit was likely to be the most challenging change. The roll out of Universal Credit was on track as planned but the full migration was not expected to be completed before late 2020. A number of enquiries had been received regarding the impact of the new benefit but it was no specific analysis on its full impact on claimants in Brent could be given at this stage.
A question arose on the impact of the Welfare Reform on Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP). Officers explained that the allocation for the next financial year is not yet known but assured Members that despite ongoing cuts the DHP budget was not going to disappear. However, Committee’s attention was drawn towards growing concerns about the information given to claimants by the Department for Work and Pensions on the impact on other benefits. Subsequently, pressure was put on the Council to ensure claimants were not disadvantaged as part of the roll out process and that the situation was adequately monitored. Concerns were also expressed in terms of the number of private sector tenants, many of who were not known to the Council yet were likely to be worst impacted by UC. A robust service existed for those residents who wanted to change contribution bands, including one to one interviews and the use of a house affordability tool. Residents were given options to choose from, although larger properties were mostly available only outside of Brent. In addition, officers advised that a cooperation with RPs was crucial and assured Members that appropriate communication channels such as the Welfare Reform Forum were in place to bring such matters to their attention.
Members were mindful of the impact on tenants working on zero-hour contracts or those who were self-employed as they were seen as more vulnerable and likely to fall behind with payments and questioned whether the Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) could be used to help them. Laurence Coaker explained that each case was looked on an individual basis but pointed out that this was not the main purpose of the DHP. Instead the DHP was intended as an interim measure, for up to 12 week’s period and was not applicable in zero-hour contract circumstances as there was no guarantee when the resident would be back to work. Affected residents were being referred to the Council’s employment and skills service in order to seek more income stability.
In terms of the implications of reductions on housing related support, Laurence Coaker stated that the Council was under pressure to make further savings. Reviews however had shown that there was capacity to do that as certain services such as the floating support service were not fully utilised. This was further informed by the recently conducted Housing Related Support Budget Review had shown that cuts would be feasible without further impact.
Answering questions on the Overall Benefit Cap and what mechanism was in place to ensure people get the support they were entitled to, Laurence Coaker explained that the Council was committed to supporting people into work but stated that the service was largely reactive. However, with the homelessness category operating at 98% capacity and lack of voids, officers warned that many capped claimants were under risk of becoming homeless.
Discussion moved on to the issue of rough sleepers and what the council was doing to alleviate their situation. In acknowledging the existing problem, Cllr Southwood stated that the Council worked with a number of charities such as St Mungo’s and Crisis on this, with majority of hotspots concentrated in the south of the borough. A regular count of the rough sleepers in the Borough was being commissioned from St Mungo’s every two months, with reported figures consistently below 30 (19 according to last count in November 2018). A number of solutions existed in tackling rough sleepers. Firstly, Members’ attention was also drawn to the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP), which triggered alerts sent to the Head of housing Needs. As a result an outreach team would go to known sites and collect rough sleepers and put them into shelters. A community based shelter had been set up, floating between different faith organisations and open throughout winter and until mid-April. Only one SWEP centre was available in Brent, near Pound lane in Harlesden, with an overflow facility available if necessary. Housing First Model was another solution to help entrenched rough sleepers, with a clear pathway identified to get them back in check as part of the process.
Success rates in getting people off the street varied depending on the type of rough sleeper so a range of models had to be used accordingly. Mental health and alcohol related issues as well as female and migrant rough sleepers were amongst the most challenging ones. Officers admitted that these posed a significant challenge on service provision, due to the increase vulnerability, lack of funds or reluctance to stay in shelter accommodation of such people. As part of the Council response, the Committee was informed of the existence of the Willesden Green Scheme, several hubs, dormitory style shelters and rapid assessment centre as well as the allocation of a designated resource to try and address at least in part some of these problem.
In terms of the Homeless Reduction Act officers explained that thiswas a “bolt-on” legislation, which had introduced new duties for prevention and relief of homelessness. Since the Act was introduced there had been approximately 55% increase in demand in services, with the relief duty of local authorities largely focused on helping rather than accommodating. Under the Act prevention and relief duties were priority blind and required unconditional help regardless of whether the homeless was genuine or intentional It was reported that the number of single homeless people who had approached the council had increased and there had been an overall increase in vulnerability. Those who were not in priority need could benefit from the Single Homeless Prevention Service (SHPS). The increase in demand was likely due to the fact that people were approaching the Council’s services at a much later stage, after they had already become homeless. With only 14% of Council stock intended for single people, the committee discussed other possible solutions to tackle single people homelessness including utilising the Council’s privately owned company – invest 4 Brent (i4B) - and considering other affordable housing options such as modular housing. However, the latter brought issues of their own, namely shortage of space and longevity of dwellings, many of which came with only a 60 year guarantee. In conclusion of this point, the Committee noted the importance of a balanced approach – one which addresses both the affordability gap but also which focuses on prevention measures and wider engagement.
Finally, the Committee spotlighted on the Welfare Reform Strategy and role of Credit Unions and questioned whether they were doing enough in Brent. Members welcomed the work that had been done between the Council and CUBE in alleviating debt but stated that further engagement was needed between residents and credit unions. Members were also mindful of the fact that most traditional banks were likely to lend money only to people with good credit history as they were less likely to default. However, officers acknowledged that more work needed to promote the work of credit unions and look at range of options. The Welfare Reform Strategy was also in need of updating and work was already under way on a revised draft. Officers welcomed the possibility of a pre-scrutiny of the draft strategy when it’s completed
- That the contents of the Welfare Reform and Homelessness report be noted.
- That the Head of Housing Needs shares with Members data on supported housing.
- That the Head of Housing Needs provides data on domestic violence and its impact on homelessness and shares this information with Members.
iv. That the draft Tackling Financial Exclusion be shared with the Committee.