Families living in caravans and B&Bs for months after huge homeless rise
PUBLISHED: 06:00 22 April 2019
The introduction on Universal Credit is being blamed for Suffolk's "shocking" rise in homelessness, which has seen families left living in caravans, mothers separated from children and hundreds placed in emergency B&Bs.
The benefits changes and social housing shortages are thought to be behind the crisis, which is costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Freedom of Information responses by Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils show homeless applications increased by a massive 500% last year.
Suffolk Coastal, now part of East Suffolk District Council, saw its spending on emergency accommodation at one B&B more than double from £25,000 to £52,000 last year. Its homelessness spend increased from £86,000 to £258,000.
Councils say the rise is due to the Homelessness Reduction Act, which made more people eligible for help when it launched last year, and B&Bs were sometimes necessary for short term support.
But Sarah Adams, leader of the Labour group at Suffolk County Council said the “shocking” figures were due to a lack of affordable housing and benefit changes under Universal Credit (UC), which had created a “hostile environment” for those struggling financially. Ipswich Citizens Advice said UC was a big concern.
The scheme, which combined benefits into one payment to simplify the system and help people find work, has faced complaints, often over delays in claimants receiving money.
Many guests at The Chequers in Ipswich – which is used as emergency accommodation – said they struggled with UC and felt abandoned by authorities.
A mother who became homeless after fleeing domestic abuse said she had been left with just £100 after most of her UC was deducted. “I thought surely they can't take it all in one go,” she said. “I was on the phone to the council in floods of tears asking what I should do. It's been seven weeks and I've no idea what I'm going to do about my son who's s due start school in September.”
Another mother, who had been at the hotel 10 months after claiming she had been kicked out of private rented accommodation because she kept a dog, said: “It seems like the council are not interested in helping people. They couldn't find me anywhere near where I was in Felixstowe, so my children are staying with my mum and I'm here with the youngest.”
A hotel worker said it had been “extremely busy” with guests arriving due to problems with housing benefits. “When people turn up, they're often in the worst condition you can imagine,” she said. “They're distressed, very frightened and worried about what's going to happen to them.”
Although emergency accommodation is supposed to be temporary, the lack of social housing and guests' financial troubles means many stay far longer. The longest stretch recorded last year was 293 days.
Families say being cooped up in one room for weeks on end can be too much to bear. One father, who stayed at The Chequers with his partner and three children for 10 weeks, said it almost tore his family apart. “It's not an exaggeration to say we were at breaking point,” he said.
He claimed he had been bitten by bed bugs and that other guests complained about mice.
The hotel said it had passed all its inspections and staff took every complaint seriously.
“If a problem comes up, we don't let it fester, we deal with it,” a staff member added.
Guests at Ipswich's Kinglsey House Hotel, which is also used as emergency accommodation, have raised further concerns.
Kylie Goodyear, 20, who was placed there by Suffolk Coastal District Council, along with her partner and two young children, after rental problems at their former home, said it was not appropriate for a young family.
She claimed some guests' behaviour made her concerned for her children's safety. The family left and have spent weeks in a caravan in her father's garden.
“Now the council says we've made ourselves intentionally homeless and won't do anything to help,” she said. “My little boy has a constant chest infection because of the damp, the doctors have written notes to the council, social services have been on their back, but they're not interested, they're happy to leave us in a caravan.”
David Goodyear, Kylie's father, said: “I'm sure the council have hundreds of people they're trying to help and are doing their best but there's a duty of care and they're not fulfilling it.”
Lynda Bennett, manager of the Kinglsey House Hotel, rejected the criticisms. “I have the greatest confidence in my hotel,” she said.
Councils using the hotels raised no concerns with the provision.
Councils: We're investing to cut homelessness
Suffolk councils are taking steps to tackle homelessness – but politicians say more is needed.
Mid Suffolk District Council said it had doubled its temporary accommodation by opening the Foyer in Stowmarket last year.
The council said the scheme, which houses up to 17 families had brought a “significant reduction” in B&B spending, despite more people being classed as homeless.
A spokesman for Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils said their homelessness reduction showed commitment to preventing homelessness and reducing B&B usage.
The councils will review whether more temporary accommodation is needed.
Ipswich Borough Council is creating more temporary accommodation at a former care home in the town, which is expected to cut its £250,000 annual spend on B&Bs.
Sarah Adams praised IBC's investment and said it was “vital” other councils built their own temporary accommodation.
“B&B accommodation is no way for a family to live and it will cost the taxpayer much more in the long run,” she said.
“To combat the devastating impact of homelessness we need more affordable housing and a greater supply of decent temporary accommodation across the county; we need more realistic funding from central government; and we need local councils to look at implementing landlord registration schemes that will improve security, stability and predictability for tenants and provide safeguards for landlords, lenders and investors.”
East Suffolk Council said it was sometimes necessary to use B&Bs at short notice. It said officers visited regularly to meet service users to offer support.
“East Suffolk Council will continue to work innovatively with partners to prevent and relieve homelessness and to develop accommodation to meet a range of housing needs across the district,” a spokesman added.
The Department for Work and Pensions said the reasons for rent arrears were complex and it would be wrong to attribute one cause, such as Universal Credit.
A spokesman said UC offered support on homelessness, housing and budgeting.
“Many people start their UC claim having built up rent arrears, but our research shows this figure falls by a third after four months,” a spokesman added.