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Friday, 14 December 2012

Homelessness: What's New?

Last night's Panorama on Homelessness started by saying that we were seeing a new kind of homelessness, affecting groups of people who had never been homeless before.

Short memories. When I started as a Housing Adviser in a west London Borough in 1980, it's true many homeless people were poor, young, unemployed, or older, disabled, addicted - the usual stereotypes. 

But others were not - the elderly couple returning from an ex-pat life unable to live with a daughter in her one bedroom flat; the young woman out of work following a car accident and treatment for depression; the family thrown out of their home tied to a pub tenancy which didn't make a profit; a young couple in a bedsit with a toddler and another on the way...

With interest rates at 15%, people camped out for a week to put a deposit on Council houses being sold off to first time buyers, private landlords put people's belongings outside without notice -  these stories were commonplace then  so what's different now?

The scale of mortgage repossessions is higher, because of the post 1980 boost to home buying through the Right to Buy and the extension of mortgages to those on lower incomes before the crash. More people are vulnerable to job losses, frozen incomes and a stagnating market. The volume is greater.

And we talk more about it. I didn't need to watch Panorama last night to know before it ended what had been shown - my friends on Twitter told and reflected on it all. It's good, we all know more, but don't let's pretend it's all that new.

I'm most distressed that we seem to learn nothing in more than 30 years. Eviction is costly and destructive for almost everybody involved, including the banks and mortgage lenders. 

A woman in Dagenham returned to her empty home to find it still languishing - what a waste, she could have been living there, paying interest on the mortgage from her Housing Benefit. By selling now the bank just recovers capital, which is always secure as long as the mortgage is in place and prices keep reasonably stable.

The family with six children had clearly made some mistakes - but they seemed mostly to be about paperwork. Do you make yourself intentionally homeless if you can't face, understand or read a mountain of forms about your benefit, your arrears, your eviction. Of course people are difficult, they're not coping.

With a dad with his pride back, the family had a good prospect of settling down, but not by being passed from hostel to hostel, the kids missing school, the mum lurching between outrage and despair. A very bright girl aged 10, needed to be in school in September to make the most of her potential, and the memories being cast for the younger ones don't bear thinking about.

The investment banker fell furthest, maybe there's some poetic justice in that. Eventually he was safe - let's hope he can get back on his feet, in work, paying taxes and contributing to society in a positive way. Good luck to him.

The hard working, self-employed, clean and tidy middle class family fallen on hard times was an indictment of the government's purported support for hardworking families. These are not the underserving poor, but homelessness takes no prisoners, however upright they might be. Lucky to have family to support them, but unable to find a way out themselves, this is the case that none of us could say, 'It could never happen to me'.

Why can mortgage lenders not be required to reduce payments to interest only, deferring capital until the house can be sold by the owner, allowing them control their destinies?  Interest only payments should then be eligible for benefit, subject to downsizing within 12 months, say, if the cost is beyond the HB cap.

Why not?