Homelessness

Unemployed pushed to back of housing queue

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(The Pavement, 8 November 2011) Unemployed people will be pushed down the housing register under a new proposal from London’s Westminster Council, introduced to “discourage a benefits culture.”

Under the council’s new housing allocation policy, which will come into force on 30 January 2012, applicants who have been working for more than two years will receive 50 extra ‘points’, moving them closer to gaining a council home.

To qualify, the applicant (be it an individual or the main applicant from a family) must have been working at least 16 hours per week under a written contract for at least two years. Applicants with temporary contracts, meanwhile, must have been employed continuously, with no more than one month’s gap between contracts.

Successful applicants will keep their bonus employment points until they have been re-housed or their application is closed. If they lose their job, the points will not be removed, as long as there is a “realistic prospect of re-employment.”

Those who have been looking for work for more than two years will also receive 50 extra points, as long as they have been “actively engaged” with the council’s Homeless Employment Learning Project, which aims to help those in temporary accommodation into work or further education.

According to Westminster Council’s cabinet member for housing and corporate property, Councillor Jonathan Glanz, “These changes ensure that not only do we prioritise the most vulnerable, including those living in overcrowded properties and those with medical needs, but we also reward those who are doing their best not to be dependent on the state by working or actively seeking work.”

The council is also hoping that the employed people they house will later move out of their council home into private accommodation, leaving their former property available for other people on the housing list.

The plans have met opposition and criticisms from a number of homeless groups and MPs. Alastair Murray, deputy director for Housing Justice, told the Evening Standard that many people would find it difficult to provide the required paperwork, adding: “Quite a lot of homeless people do work but the kind of work they are able to do is quite unstable, so they may not be eligible.”

For Kay Boycott, Shelter’s director of campaigns, policy and communications, the real issue is not the allocation of social housing but the amount of it: “Britain’s desperate shortage of social housing makes decisions around how to allocate it incredibly difficult. What we really need is to build more truly affordable homes for families across the country so we do not find ourselves in this difficult position of having to judge who is most worthy of this scarce resource.”

Earlier this year, Councillor Guthrie McKie, Labour’s Housing spokesperson, described the proposal as “very unfair and extremely divisive.” However, Councillor McKie may find scant support higher up in her own party. At the annual Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband declared: “When we have a housing shortage, choices have to be made. Do we treat the person who contributes to their community the same as the person who doesn’t? My answer is ‘no’. Our first duty should be to help the person who shows responsibility.”

Additional priority will also be given to applicants who have lived in Westminster continuously for 10 years. While priority is already given to applicants with young children, who are homeless or have special medical needs.

Westminster’s plans are just one example of a wider trend, which is seeing unemployed social housing applicants penalised across the country.

Similar policies have already been introduced or proposed in Manchester, Wandsworth and Newham. While in its recent Housing Allocations Consultation, Hammersmith & Fulham stated: “The council is proposing to provide a fixed number of new lettings each year for people who have taken part in specific council-supported programmes to get back into training or employment.”

On a national scale, the minister for housing, Grant Shapps, has pledged to give local authorities the freedom to draw up their own social housing priorities list. In an article for Inside Housing, Shapps wrote: “I believe that many councils will use their new powers to reward and acknowledge those actively working and contributing to their local area, as Westminster and others have done. And rightly so.”

Shapps insisted that “we will retain the ╘reasonable preference’ criteria, establishing proper priority for those in greatest need”, however the vulnerable are not immune from the shifts in policy. Under the new Localism Bill, homeless applicants would be forced to accept offers of “suitable private accommodation” – or face a penalty. This shift, it is explained in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s (CLG) Localism Bill Impact Assessment will allow local authorities to “discharge the duty they owe to homeless households.”

If passed, the law would also allow local authorities to operate closed waiting lists, removing the right for anyone (without restriction) to apply for social housing. According to the CLG’s impact assessment, “Under this option, the rules determining which categories of applicants qualify to be considered for social housing would be decided at the local level,” although “the rules determining which applicants receive priority for social housing would continue to be set centrally via the statutory ╘reasonable preference’ categories.”

Shelter issued a briefing for the second reading of the bill, in which it expressed concern over the “undermining” of the legal duty to homeless people: “The proposed changes sever the link between homelessness and recognising the need for a settled home by allowing councils to discharge homeless households into the insecure PRS [Private Rented Sector] rather than find them a settled homeâ•” there is a distinct lack of good quality housing at the bottom end of the PRS market meaning that many of the most vulnerable households will be placed in unsuitable accommodation.”

Another proposal Shelter has requested to be removed from the bill is the removing of tenancy lease security, which would allow councils to reassess tenants after a minimum of two years and evict them if they no longer met the criteria, in terms of for example income and benefits.

The Localism Bill is to have its third reading in the House of Lords on 31 October.

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Homelessness

A fresh approach

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(The Pavement, 1 October 2009) You might have walked past an Emmaus shop and wondered what lay behind the pale green sign with the emblem of a dove holding a flower. It may look and sound like a religious organisation, but Emmaus is a secular charity with a simple aim: to “give homeless people a bed… and a reason to get out of it”.

While most homeless charities focus on one need – be it providing jobs, housing or food – Emmaus offers all three. Its members (known as ‘companions’) live, work and eat together in small, self-sufficient communities. There are 19 groups in the UK, everywhere from Glasgow to Brighton, plus branches in 36 countries around the world.

The pioneering charity was founded 60 years ago in Paris by Father Henri-Antoine Groues, better known as Abb?© Pierre – a Catholic priest, MP and former member of the French Resistance. One night, he was introduced to a homeless man named Georges who had tried to commit suicide in the river Seine after being released from prison after 20 years, only to find his family could not cope with his return. Abbé Pierre asked Georges to help him, and together they set about building temporary homes, initially in é Pierre’s own garden, for people living on the streets of Paris. Later, Georges said: “Whatever else he might have given me – money, home, somewhere to work – I’d still have tried to kill myself again. What I was missing, and what he offered, was something to live for”.

As more companions joined, they decided to raise money by becoming “rag pickers”, collecting and selling things people no longer wanted. The same principle is used today, with Emmaus shops selling second-hand items donated by the local community. As well as providing a constant source of funds, this has gained new significance as the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra gathers pace.

In the last issue of The Pavement, we published a letter from the new general manager of Emmaus South Lambeth (ESL), James Hayes, in which he told readers about the spaces up for grabs at ESL. Despite some high-profile supporters (Terry Waite is the Emmaus UK president, and ESL alone has been visited by celebrity chef Antonio Carluccio, Joanna Lumley, Jerry Hall and MOBO award-winner YolanDa Brown), Emmaus is still relatively unknown. This means that although it has 25 en-suite rooms, ESL currently has (at time of going to press) just 18 companions – 15 men and three women, with an age range of 23 to 63. However, it’s unlikely the rooms will stay empty for long – and just as well, since ESL will need plenty of help when its new furniture and electrical superstore opens this month.

Construction of the Beadman Street store, part funded by the Emmaus UK Federation Office with a small donation from Lambeth Council, has cost £753,000. It is a sizeable chunk of money, but it is hoped that the new addition will bring fresh opportunities for the companions.

The electrical shop currently squeezes in a selection of giant TVs, small electrical appliances and – somewhat bizarrely – a motorised scooter. The new store will allow space for larger white goods, such as washing machines and dishwashers. One level of the two-storey development has been earmarked for use as a workshop, where companions will be able to do furniture restoration and PAT Testing on electricals.

Like many workplaces, a typical day at ESL begins with a staff meeting. Ideas are shared, grievances aired and jobs allocated, before everyone heads off to their respective posts. As a new arrival to ESL, James was impressed with the enthusiasm of the companions: “they’ve got strong points of view; they really care and have so much passion.”

As well as frontline work in the furniture superstore and bric-a-brac and electrical shops, the companions have plenty of behind-the-scenes work to do. Furniture donations have to be collected and purchases delivered, while all new stock must be sorted, cleaned and priced. Electrical items are also safety checked by one of the four companions trained in PAT testing.

Over in the kitchen, the chefs prepare three square meals each day for their fellow companions, using ingredients grown on ESL’s own allotment when they can. And at 5pm, after a hard day’s work, the group gather at the large wooden tables for dinner before spending the evening as they please, whether that’s at the local gym, watching TV in their room or relaxing in the comfortable communal room, with its separate TV, board game and computer areas.

The few house rules include no drugs or alcohol, no pets and no smoking in common areas. Although companions do not sign on while working with Emmaus, they continue to collect housing benefit, which goes towards funding the shops. As well as full board, companions receive a weekly allowance of £33 and a one-week holiday every three months, plus £100 and £50 for travel. An additional £5 per week is saved on behalf of each companion so that by the time they decide to move on, they have a tidy sum saved up.

There’s no time limit on how long companions can stay. “Some see it as a temporary measure to keep their CV up to date,” says James. “Others see Emmaus as their way of life and might stay five, 10 even 20 years”. The companions gain confidence, experience and skills on the job. In addition, they can attend workshops and courses in everything from food hygiene to computing and carpentry at Lambeth College. Many also bring skills from previous employment or life experience, which – combined with the help of ESL’s dedicated volunteers – makes for a rich talent pool.

Personal support is provided by a counsellor who comes once a week and a monthly support plan gives companions a chance to raise any issues, get advice and plan their next step. Additional support and guidance is provided by the two deputy community leaders, plus the four ESL companions have taken on extra responsibilities as ‚Äòcompanion assistants’.

And the inspiring principles of Abb?© Pierre remain at the heart of everything Emmaus does: acceptance, sharing, working for others in greater need and self-respect. Like Georges, companions today recognise that a reason to live is the best thing anyone can give you. ESL is holding a benefit gig at the Windmill in Brixton on 17th October, entry ¬£5.

http://www.thepavement.org.uk/story.php?story=817