Christmas without a home in Sutton, London

Hundreds of households in Sutton are at risk of homelessness, according to recent statistics published by the government. Homelessness means not having a home, and whilst this is often associated with living on the streets (‘sleeping rough’), according to the homelessness charity Shelter, being homeless can also include staying with friends and family, in a hostel or bed and breakfast, or being at risk of violence or abuse in the home (known as ‘homeless at home’). Reasons for becoming homeless could be financial or social. People can become homeless due to eviction by a landlord, splitting up with a partner, the loss of a job, or family or friends asking the person to leave. Big cities such as London also tend to have higher rates of homelessness. The Covid-19 pandemic is also adding to financial hardship and it could have a knock-on effect. 

In the financial year 2019-2020, 871 households in Sutton were considered to be owed a duty from Sutton Council under new legislation, the Homelessness Reduction Act, to prevent homelessness or to provide relief from homelessness. Around 5 households per 1000 in Sutton were assessed as being under a threat of homelessness. The reasons for threatened homelessness included a change in personal circumstances, a landlord wishing to sell or re-let the property and family or friends no longer willing or able to accommodate them. Other reasons include a relationship breakdown with a partner, domestic abuse and the end of a private or social rented tenancy. Typically these situations lead to financial hardship. In 2018 Shelter placed Sutton in the top 50 local authorities for homelessness in England, at 35th in the national ranking. 

The Homelessness Reduction Act, which came into force in April 2018, imposes new duties upon local housing authorities to prevent homelessness and to provide relief measures to those who are homeless. The new legislation includes single adult households, who were not previously afforded protection as a priority need under the Housing Act 1996. This has resulted in a rise in single adult households receiving local authority assistance. These households are most likely to seek relief assistance when they are already homeless, whilst households with children are more likely to seek prevention assistance at an earlier stage, before homelessness. If a household is considered ineligible by the council or if they disagree with aspects of a decision, a person may ask for a review of the decision within 21 days of being notified. The decision will then be reviewed by a senior officer who was not involved in the original decision. 

There are currently around 1600 households in Sutton on the waiting list for council or housing association accommodation. The council makes clear that homeless people are unlikely to be placed in council housing due to the long waiting list. Instead those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness will be assessed by the council and assigned a caseworker. The caseworker will draw up a personalised housing plan to prevent homelessness or assist in finding new accommodation. This can include liaising with a landlord to resolve issues, contacting family or friends for temporary accommodation and assistance in finding employment or privately rented accommodation. The caseworker can also assist the person in making a claim for benefits or discretionary housing payments. They may be placed by the council into temporary accommodation, although the availability for this is limited.

With a long waiting list for council housing, temporary measures will only delay the problem. This is why charities such as Shelter are calling for a ‘New Homes Rescue Fund’ to build 50,000 social homes, particularly as the pandemic exacerbates the situation. Sutton Council, in its Homelessness Strategy 2020 report, noted that there was a ‘rehousing shortfall’, admitting that there was ‘insufficient housing to discharge the main homelessness duty’. This is the reason for the temporary accommodation measures, which currently provide homes to 700 households, possibly rising to 1,200 households in three years’ time. Sutton Council has stated in the report an objective of increasing council housing stock as well as working with private sector landlords to increase the amount of properties available in the borough, as well as reducing the reliance on temporary accommodation. Sutton Council has a programme of buying back ex-council stock and has returned over 100 properties through this programme. The council is currently looking at a new acquisition programme to increase social housing stock. It primarily deals with homelessness and housing advice though its trading company Encompass, and this year its total budgeted spend was over £2.5m.

In response to the increasing homelessness figures, Sutton Council has commissioned the charity St Mungo’s to assist people in Sutton experiencing homelessness. The three year contract, awarded in 2019, is worth £2.8 million and will provide services including housing and a tenancy support service. It will particularly assist single vulnerable adults who were considered at risk. Councillor Jayne McCoy said:

‘St Mungo’s will help us make sure single, vulnerable adults can continue to live independently. Increasing rents, low incomes, changes to the welfare system and personal challenges mean more vulnerable people face eviction. We’re ambitious for all Sutton’s residents, whatever their situation, and working with St Mungo’s will help us provide the employment, education and training support our most vulnerable residents need.’ 

Properties across 40 sites in Sutton will be included in this programme.

Sutton Night Watch, a homelessness charity in Wallington, has recently teamed up with the clothing brand Phase Eight to launch a new clothes outlet to generate income for the charity as they face challenging times, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The charity is currently handing out food parcels and attending local boot sales and fairs to raise funds. During the pandemic a local costume maker, Heather Filby, is donating money from face mask sales to Sutton Night Watch. However, the charity has seen its opening hours cut back during the pandemic and many homeless people have found themselves slipping through the cracks during this time. Fundraising events by the charity have been cancelled or scaled back, and donated items have had to be quarantined.

Sutton is also benefitting from the work of the charity Caysh, an organisation that specifically assists young people aged 16-21 who are often facing homelessness. It operates services in Sutton, as well as in Bromley, Croydon, Royal Greenwich and Lewisham. The charity works through a referral system, with referrals coming from local authorities. In Sutton its youth homelessness pathway can be accessed through the housing centre at Sutton Civic Centre. They offer lodgings, a housing pathway, and advice and support to help young people to live independently.

The implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 should go some way to alleviating the homelessness problem through its preventative and relief measures. Compared to inner city London boroughs such as Lambeth, Hackney or Tower Hamlets, the homelessness rate for Sutton is considerably lower. However, the rate for Sutton is higher than some boroughs outside of London. Homelessness in Sutton is very much a live issue, and the borough still has some way to go. The new St Mungo’s contract and the ongoing work of charities in the area are contributing towards the reduction of homelessness. However, many homes are living precariously at the edge of homelessness with tenancy issues, unable to make the rent. This Christmas, spare a thought for those hundreds of households in Sutton who are teetering on the edge of homelessness.

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