Research has uncovered the shocking toll being homeless has on the health of this most vulnerable and growing community. The results, which included responses from those living in temporary accommodation or sleeping rough, revealed 89% of homeless people completing the survey experienced worsening mental health due to their lack of secure good quality housing.
The results gathered in Newham, London, were presented at a meeting held in Manchester by Greater Manchester Housing Action. The authors of the research, Dr Kate Hardy, University of Leeds, and Dr Tom Gillespie, University of Manchester, also uncovered a high rate of out of borough placements of homeless people from London, and presented information that suggests these placements, widely perceived as detrimental to family life and community, are on the increase in Greater Manchester.
Dr Jonathan Silver also presented research into the property investment boom in buy-to-let flats in Manchester. His work revealed widespread use of tax dodging offshore companies, unethical international investment and repeated failures to provide affordable housing, which was previously reported in The Meteor.
Homelessness impacts mental and physical health
The link between high levels of poor mental health and non existent or bad housing conditions is relatively well known, but Hardy was surprised by the high number reporting mental health issues, as the question was an open one about health, saying:
“Nearly 90% [89%] mentioned worsening mental health as a result of their housing situation. All we asked is ‘is it impacting on your health’, we didn’t mention mental health… 9% also mentioned suicidal thoughts in that open question”.
Of those reporting worsening mental health 66% stated worsening depression and 25% were suffering from insomnia. The 9% of homeless people mentioning suicidal thoughts in the Newham survey is higher than that found in the general public at 5.4%. These findings are supported by research which find homeless people are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, and a 2014 survey carried out by Homeless link, based on 2,590 responses, which showed that 80% of respondents reported a mental health issue.
Poor housing is strongly linked to poor health. A systematic review looking into housing improvement and health found improvements were particularly beneficial to mental health but also physical health.
While mental health was the most common issue raised in Newham, many also reported physical health conditions including diabetes, arthritis and heart conditions. Of those interviewed 52% had an issue with disability or health themselves or were looking after dependents that did.
One of the respondents was Bruno, 57, a cleaner recently bereaved from his partner and living in a bed and breakfast with his two children; one with mental health issues. Bruno’s statement combines the insidious nature of poor physical health, poor housing and its effect on mental health:
“I have arthritis. I can’t soak as I can’t use the bathroom. I’m diabetic, I need to be able to go to the bathroom when I need to. There are 8 or 9 people in the house – I have to use a bucket in my room… I feel like I’m turning mad.”
Action research: the needs of the campaign come first
Gillespie and Hardy embarked on this research inspired by the Focus E15 campaign group, which formed when Newham Council cut funding to a local homeless hostel where many young mothers were staying. With eviction notices in hand the mothers approached the council for help, who told them that due to lack of housing and cuts to housing benefit they would have to accept accommodation as far away as Birmingham and Manchester – separating them from their families and local support networks.
The research project’s design was driven by the experience and needs of the Focus E15 campaign group, Hardy said:
“It’s also really important… to put activists knowledge and priorities at the centre of research design by academics… because it makes better research, but also in order to make it useful those priorities should really go first… researchers should be useful to campaigns rather than the other way round.”
The results compiled from 64 structured interviews with participants who had approached Newham Council over housing or homelessness issues over the last year, were published in a report called ‘Homelessness, health and housing: participatory action research in East London’, in December 2016.
Out of borough placements: housing people away from home
Over half of respondents (58%) had been offered housing outside the borough or told to look for it themselves, by Newham Council. Forty four percent of respondents had been offered, or suggested to look for, accommodation outside of London with no relevant evidence of a lack of housing inside London being provided. Despite a Supreme Court ruling in 2015 saying councils must provide this evidence.
Out of borough placements have been increasing steadily between 2010 and 2015 due to rising rents, the benefits cap and the introduction of the Localism Act 2011, which allowed councils to drastically cut their housing lists and discharge their duty of care to those left on the list by the offer of a social or private rented sector tenancy, of at least 12 months, which can be out of borough.
From the sample 20% said they were offered housing outside of the borough between 2005-8, before the financial crisis, coalition government, cuts to housing benefit and the Localism Act 2011. Gillespie says:
“… often the Newham Labour council when they are being criticised for doing something like this, they just blame the Torys and say ‘it is not our fault, the bad Torys are making us do this’. But this data suggests this process was already underway during a Labour government.”
A report by Vice illustrated the escalating scale of the problem, using data gathered by freedom of information requests from 15 out of 32 London councils (many did not respond to the requests). In 2010/11 the number of homeless households moved out of London was 10, this had raised to 364 by 2014/15 (see image above). The numbers moved between London boroughs was even higher, with 928 in 2010/11, rising to 2,332 in 2014/15. The latest figures show that the number of homeless households in temporary accommodation beyond their home borough, in England, increased from 13% in March 2011 to 28% in March 2017.
Substandard private rented sector accommodation
Gillespie described how people responding to the survey were often living in terrible housing conditions: overcrowding, damp, rats and dangers to children such as faulty windows. These conditions were common in temporary accommodation, but also in the private rented sector out of borough placements. Gillespie said:
“So the idea is that, okay, it’s not ideal being displaced but if you do accept the house out of borough, then at least it would be a good house. But no, people were being moved out of London and still living in terrible conditions in the private rented sector.”
The lack of social housing, which has to comply to the Decent Homes Standard (DHS), means more and more people are forced to live in substandard private rented accommodation that does not have to comply with the DHS. As a result of this failure to regulate standards the private rented sector (PRS) has the highest proportion of non-decent homes at 29%, while the social rented sector has the lowest at 14%.
The opportunity to improve conditions in the PRS was squandered by Conservative MPs in 2016 when they voted against new legislation requiring PRS landlords to ensure properties are fit for human habitation. The vote to keep unsafe housing becomes particularly troubling when it is known that at the time almost a third of MPs were landlords. The Conservative party had the highest number at 128 (39%), with just 2% of the general population estimated to be renting out homes.
Is Greater Manchester following the lead of London?
‘Out of borough placements’, ‘geographical displacement’, ‘gentrification’, ‘social cleansing’, ‘poverty exile’ – there are many names for this phenomena, which is increasingly being inflicted on poor communities, not just in London but across the UK as well.
The latest government snapshot figures place 21,910 households in out of area accommodation at the end of December 2016. While Londoners accounted for 19,860 of these placements 2050 came from elsewhere in England. The figures for the rest of England are up one third since 2015 and a threefold rise since 2013.
At least 125 families from Manchester have been housed long-term beyond the city limits since April 2016, mainly in Rochdale and Oldham, due to the cheaper housing available. Previously the council had been able to lease terraced houses for homeless families in Manchester awaiting social housing. But rising rental prices, particularly in South Manchester, means its options to do so decreased, despite offering landlords more than the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates for private landlords providing accommodation. Paul Andrews, executive member for adult health and wellbeing at Manchester City Council, said in The Guardian:
“The number of people needing accommodation continues to rise and this, combined with fewer properties on the open market and not enough social housing, will mean we still need to look outside Manchester and into the city [Greater Manchester] region”.
Social security changes and homelessness
Of those responding to the Newham survey 91% received income assistance. Almost half (49%) of the respondents said changes to their social security, and the conditionality attached to the changes, had adversely affected their housing situation. Bruno, the diabetes and arthritis sufferer, first became homeless when his housing benefits were stopped. Ahmed, a 26 year old British-Asian, was also affected by his social security payments being sanctioned:
“I got sanctioned last year. I missed an appointment because of a funeral. I started to get into rent arrears because of that. With council tax, I had to put it on a credit card. At that stage I nearly got evicted, due to that one sanction. The service charge and interest were massive. There was a two week period where I had literally nothing. It was difficult, I was trying to budget, but once sanctioned it was too much, really hard”.
Ahmed was eventually evicted and placed in a homeless hostel by Newham Council. At the time of publication of the report he faced eviction from the hostel by Newham Council, and the prospect of becoming street homeless once more. Ahmed’s case is not an isolated one. A study by Crisis showed that 21% of people sanctioned in a year become homeless as a result.
A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) released this month detailed the rise in all forms of homelessness and identified the capping of the Local Housing Allowance as one of the factors driving the increase. It documented 77,240 households in temporary accommodation in March 2017, in England, a 60% rise since March 2011. This costs the public sector just over £1 billion a year. Over half – £638 million – goes towards paying for temporary accommodation by housing benefit. Another example of a false economy, common to austerity driven cuts.
The NAO report describes the government as failing to “evaluate the impact of its welfare reforms on homelessness” and found that they did not have a “ cross government strategy to prevent and tackle homelessness”. Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said:
“Homelessness in all its forms has significantly increased in recent years, driven by several factors. Despite this, government has not evaluated the impact of its reforms on this issue, and there remain gaps in its approach. It is difficult to understand why the Department persisted with its light touch approach in the face of such a visibly growing problem”
Housing is a mental health issue
Hardy and Gillespie are still in contact with the Focus E15 campaign and are extending the research to other boroughs in London and Greater Manchester. Their experience of the mental health issues involved in homelessness, while carrying out their research in Newham, has made them keen to investigate the subject more thoroughly. Gillespie said:
“We have started working with mental health practitioners and we want to start doing interviews with them so they can guide people towards services. One outcome of the research is that Focus E15 launched a ‘Housing is a Mental Health Issue Campaign’, and a network has been set up of academics, activists and practitioners who are interested in the intersection of housing and mental health.”
The intersection of inadequate housing and mental health problems can only grow stronger in the UK. Chronic underfunding of NHS mental health services, rising demand for care and workforce shortages means the system is being overwhelmed, despite government promises to provide parity of esteem between mental and physical health. This leaves more people with mental health issues to slip through our increasingly severe and threadbare social security safety net. While the housing crisis continues to escalate, driven by inadequate, disjointed and callous government policy.
It will take mass public vocal support of campaigns such as Focus E15, Housing is a Mental Health Issue and Greater Manchester Housing Action to force government to provide a UK housing policy that provides a safe, secure and healthy home for every one.
The Meteor is replicating this study in Manchester to see if we really are following in the footsteps of London. If you would like to help or require further information email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA) website – click here
GMHA Facebook page – click here
Focus E15 website – click here
‘Homelessness, health and housing’ report PDF – click here
Featured image: Homelessness, health and housing