Z2K’s NextDoor Project was launched in July 2012, anticipating a surge in demand for decent, affordable housing in the private rented sector, a direct consequence of the Coalition Government’s “austerity measures”.
One of the first of the cuts to be announced was a reduction in Local Housing Allowance Rates of Housing Benefit in the private rented sector. This had the effect of greatly constricting the supply of properties that low-income renters could afford; with the result that many quickly fell into arrears and ended up being evicted.
Some families, and a few individuals in priority need, have the right to housing from their local authority. Many more apply but are refused; savage cuts to local authority budgets have resulted in homelessness regulations and guidelines being interpreted more rigorously than ever before.
Increasingly, families who are “owed a duty” are offered accommodation outside London, cruelly severing ties with family, friends and support networks; a process dubbed “social cleansing” by more than one commentator. Refusing an offer of accommodation from the local authority is frequently classed as “intentional homelessness” further support is seldom, if ever, offered.
Year on year, since 2010, outreach workers have reported a sharp rise in the numbers of people spotted sleeping rough. In Westminster, between April 2016 and June this year, 909 people were logged as street homeless in official statistics.
These figures do not include the “hidden homeless” – those who have nowhere to live but do not qualify for, or are refused, formal housing assistance and end up “sofa surfing” in friend’s homes, or paying exorbitant rates for dormitory accommodation in cheap hotels. The exact numbers in this category will never be known for certain, but in 2017 the charity Crisis estimated that there were over three million homeless adults “concealed” within households in England.
The aim of the NextDoor project was that we would help families who had been denied statutory assistance to transition as painlessly as possible into decent affordable accommodation. To achieve this, we developed relationships with a few select private landlords, and were able to help a significant number of families in this way. As the scheme grew, we began to receive a steady trickle of referrals from day-centres, night shelters and supported hostels in Westminster, all of whom specialised in service provision for rough sleepers. Z2K was able to secure a month’s rent in advance from Westminster and offer a guaranteed deposit.
From November 2012, new powers under the Localism Act meant that for the first time local authorities were allowed to discharge their housing duty into the private rented sector. Many London boroughs enthusiastically seized the opportunity to cut housing waiting lists, offering “incentives” to Private Landlords of up to £6,000 for housing a three or four person family. We could not, and would not compete with these “incentives” which although legal are, in our opinion, a misuse of public funds.
As the project evolved so the emphasis changed; we do still assist families in finding accommodation, but the main thrust of our work is now directed towards helping single people, both rough sleepers and the hidden homeless (many of whom also sleep rough, intermittently). In total, we have now helped nearly 300 people into a private tenancy.
Early in 2013, on the cusp of these changes, I attended a conference for homelessness practitioners organised by Shelter; during the lunch break I fell into conversation with a reconnection worker who had many years of experience working with rough sleepers. His job title was Personal Navigator, a nomenclature which at the time I thought somewhat opaque, although he certainly knew what he was about.
Five years on, and the steady trickle of NFA’s (persons of no fixed abode) referred to our service threatens to become a deluge and I have learnt much from that most brutal but effective of teachers, experience; and now see that personal navigators is indeed what we are.
Over the coming weeks and month’s we’ll be posting reports on the work that we have done and continue to do. We shall look back at notable moments from the last five years, talk honestly about frustrations and failures; revisit old friends to see how they are getting along, post bulletins about ongoing cases as we continue to help vulnerable individuals navigate the maze of bureaucracy, gatekeeping and the paucity of adequate service provision.
All of the above will attempt to convey the incredible tenacity and resilience we see every day from our clientele, and will endeavour to shine a spotlight onto the iniquities created by a flawed and mean-spirited government policy that is driving so many thousands into destitution; clinging onto hope by their fingernails.