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Exporting homelessness to struggling cities is not the solution we need

Nye Cominetti

22 February 2012

For those who can work, secure and lasting employment is surely one of the best routes out of homelessness and poverty. Even if they are given somewhere to live, homeless families and individuals who fail to find work will remain vulnerable - at risk of losing their home again and, at best,  reliant on benefits.

It is therefore bad news that Croydon council are, according to The Guardian, planning to rehouse homeless people potentially hundreds of miles away, in areas where they will struggle to find work. On 1st April local authorities will, via the Localism Act, have the power to ‘discharge’ their homelessness duty into the private sector. Previously they had to provide social housing or temporary accommodation until something became available. The new law is meant to ease the pressure on long social housing waiting lists. However, since private sector rents in London have remained high (the government argued wrongly that rents would drop in line with benefit cuts) while  housing benefit is being cut and capped, Croydon cannot afford to pay for homeless people to live in private housing nearby.  And so they are sending them to places where rents are cheaper – The Guardian claims that Hull is one such destination.

Those being forced to migrate to areas of lower rent will find it harder to get a job, because rents are generally low where economic opportunity is low. Research by The Work Foundation has shown that Hull is one of a number of cities that have been hardest hit by the recession and public sector spending cuts, and which will struggle the most to recover. The rate of those on unemployment benefits in Hull is currently fifth highest among English cities (Nomis, Feb 2012, Travel To Work areas). Unfortunately, local authorities have, and are acting on, the perverse incentive to send homeless people to precisely those areas where they are least likely to find a job.

The government is reforming the benefits system on the argument that currently it doesn’t pay to work. However, putting homeless people in private sector housing, where rents are higher and where one is more likely to rely on housing benefit, goes against the grain of those reforms. It would be better to provide genuinely affordable housing in areas of economic opportunity. Social housing is a better option; it also gives families easy access to the public services that can support them into work.

The government has argued that social housing restricts labour market mobility, trapping people in sink estates[2]. Reforms to homelessness laws are turning this argument on its head: sending people to those areas from which social housing tenants supposedly want to escape. Moving homeless families 200 miles away will remove children from schools, families from neighbourhoods, and jobseekers from jobs. The solution to long waiting lists is not to export the problem, but to provide more of what is clearly in very high demand: we should spend substantially more on building new social housing near jobs.

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