Opinion – Legislation will help people, but not the system struggling to support them

Post written by Amy Lee Pierce, Head of Communications and Public Affairs

12 Oct 2023

First published on WalesOnline

This week we marked World Homelessness Day, and Wales is facing an increasingly challenging housing and homelessness situation

The pressures on people and services are unsustainable and radical system change is needed.

The high numbers of people presenting as homeless have placed enormous pressure on temporary accommodation and left thousands of people facing long or indefinite waits for a permanent home.

At the last count 10,931 people were living in temporary, often unsuitable, accommodation – many with little or no access to cooking and laundry facilities – and these numbers get higher each month.

More than 174 people are currently sleeping rough throughout Wales, an increase of 68% since 2021.

The sad reality is that more new people are presenting as homeless to the system, than are being successfully resettled into long-term homes.

The housing supply simply does not exist, and the system is backlogged.

Those working on the frontline in charities and local authorities, to support people experiencing homelessness are struggling.

They are under a tremendous amount of pressure, have worked in impossibly difficult circumstances during the pandemic and are, in many cases, now out of options to give people.

In this bleak context, The Wallich absolutely welcomes the recommendations of the Expert Review Panel, which was set up to assist in reviewing homelessness legislation after the 2021 Welsh Government Ending Homelessness High Level Action Plan to ensure homelessness in Wales is ‘rare, brief and unrepeated.’

Legislation change alone will not solve the issues the sector is facing but it will remove arbitrary barriers that perpetuate homelessness and make life harder for people experiencing it.

In particular, we welcome the scrapping of priority need and intentionality tests, which we have been calling for over a number of years.

We believe everyone experiencing homelessness should be a priority, and that no-one intentionally becomes homeless without a reason.

The subjective nature of the tests and the unequal application of the criteria across Wales meant many vulnerable people were turned away.

People still faced sleeping rough as their only option – and too many lives were harmed by not receiving the support they needed.

These ‘tests’ were scrapped during the pandemic as the ‘no-one left out’ approach was initiated. We are pleased that this change will soon be permanent.

We would however have liked to have seen the report go further to recommend that the local connection test is also scrapped.

Section 80 of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 empowers local housing authorities to turn away homeless applicants who do not have a ‘local connection’ with their area.

A local connection can include having been a resident in the area, being employed or having family associations within the area, as well as other (often misinterpreted) ‘special circumstances.’

There is lots of evidence in the Expert Review Panel report that explains why this test is a barrier – especially for particular groups like those leaving prison, those fleeing domestic violence and those recovering from substance use.

The recommendation by the panel to add greater safeguards for specific at-risk groups in relation to local connection is at least a step in the right direction.

We are also pleased that the panel has made recommendations for wider system change and greater collaboration between public services. Homelessness is rarely just a housing issue and will not be solved by housing alone.

What we need to see urgently, in tandem with this ground-breaking legislative change, and an increase in the housing supply, is the funding to ensure there are enough services and specially trained support staff to enable people to get the help they need, when they need it.

The sector saw a real terms funding cut in the latest budget, and the current commissioning process encourages a race to the bottom on price.

It means that providers like The Wallich, which endeavour to deliver high-quality, professional support services, can struggle to attract and retain staff whilst running at a low enough cost to win tenders.

Delivering quality support for our clients is undoubtedly a demanding job, as staff are required to have advanced knowledge and skills not only in housing, but also in trauma-informed care and even how to respond to health crises.

Whilst alternately feeling like a social worker, a therapist or even a paramedic, staff pay rarely reflects such responsibilities, leaving support staff feeling demoralised and undervalued.

The new legislation will absolutely ensure those facing homelessness will be entitled to the help they need, but time will tell whether the system designed to help them will be able to meet the demand.

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