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May 14, 2021

What the movement for data and evidence in homelessness could mean for local councils

Centre for Homelessness Impact

End It With Evidence ambassador and Labour MP, Stephen Timms, explores the value of adopting an evidence-based approach to policy in his London constituency.

My East Ham constituency in London is at the very sharp end of the housing crisis.  Rents are unaffordable on the wages of many working families in the area. East Ham has the highest rate of household overcrowding in the country, and 27,000 people are on our social housing waiting list. I tell people at my constituency surgeries it might be 15 years or more before they are allocated social housing. Before the pandemic, Newham had the third highest rate of street homelessness in London. We need to address these challenges with evidence and research.  

This particularly strikes me when talking to families in temporary accommodation. Local authorities have a duty to provide temporary accommodation for families who become homeless. In Newham that is 5,500 families with children — more than the entire North of England combined.  Our local authority manages to procure this accommodation in an incredibly challenging market. It can be a lifeline for families.  

But temporary accommodation can be poor quality and is often damp and overcrowded. Having to move at 24 hours’ notice can be distressing and disruptive, especially for children. Out-of-area placements are particularly problematic, and can move already vulnerable families away from work, schools and support networks.

Temporary accommodation is also very expensive. Local authorities in England spend an average of £12,500 per person a year - that’s £240 a week per person on temporary accommodation. Spending by local authorities on temporary accommodation has risen by 55% in the last five years. 

Is this the best way to support homeless families? The truth is, we simply don’t know. A lack of rigorous research of policy interventions to end homelessness has left large gaps in the evidence base. Large sums are being spent on temporary accommodation, with a poor evidence base and a shoestring of strategy.  

The Centre for Homelessness Impact has shown that Councils can make large cost savings with alternative approaches, such as supporting people to live in private rented housing. It used its Housing Costs Calculator to estimate the cost of private rented sector accommodation with additional support and found that moving a quarter of households in temporary accommodation to supported housing in the private rented sector in the 15 local authorities with the highest rates of temporary accommodation could save £500 million over five years. That’s including additional costs such as voids, rent collection, moving in, incentives paid to landlords and bespoke support.

This is one of the types of alternative housing interventions that would benefit from a trial to see if these savings — and the benefits to the families — accrued as expected. By testing out variations, we could see what works most effectively.

The Centre for Homelessness Impact wants to encourage this type of research-informed policymaking to become standard in the housing sector. We need a more effective, and cost-effective, approach to meeting the needs of people experiencing homelessness.  

What we know and don’t know about the effectiveness of different interventions to help tackle these issues is where our attention should be focused and that’s why the End it with Evidence campaign is so useful.

This approach will be valuable for bigger picture questions too: I chair the Work and Pensions Select Committee and have long wondered how we can switch some of the vast sums spent in the benefits system on housing support into building affordable homes. We need evidence.  

We also need more evidence on household overcrowding. There is a very strong basis of evidence and research around the physical and mental health impacts of overcrowding on children, but this needs to be drawn through by Government to address the problem in practice.

That’s why I support the Centre for Homelessness Impact’s End It With Evidence campaign. It is vital we continue to improve our understanding of what works in tackling homelessness and housing insecurity.

* The Rt Hon Stephen Timms is MP for East Ham and Chair of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee.

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