The Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA) came into force on April 3rd of this year. It emphasises a focus on early intervention, partnership working between statutory and other bodies, and better information for individuals, combined with a wider scope to support any UK citizen or person with the right to reside who is at risk of homelessness. At a time when homelessness is rising across England at a phenomenal rate – up by 132% across England since 2010, according to Crisis – the changes the HRA brings are more than welcome.

In North Devon, where we are based, homelessness has increased more than many other parts of the country – the most recent figures to date show that 20 people are sleeping rough in our area, this is a 25% increase in rough sleepers since last year and 11% higher than the figure given for ‘the rest of England’. These figures don’t include ‘sofa-surfing’, people in temporary accommodation or other types of homelessness which are often referred to as the ‘hidden homeless’ by organisations like Crisis.

Rural homelessness has unique challenges

The picture of homelessness in rural areas like ours is quite different from our urban cousins. Most people think of homelessness as living on the streets, and this is partly true for urban areas. Yet the reality in rural areas is quite different and poses unique challenges for Local Authorities and charities like ours who are working to respond to the worsening situation.

In July last year, a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) noted the difficulty in producing accurate rough sleeper counts. In places like North Devon, homeless people aren’t all found in urban areas and towns; they often use cars, garages, outhouses, sheds and barns for shelter, making the scale of the problem much less visible. On top of this, vulnerable people and those at risk of homelessness in rural areas frequently have long distances to travel to reach the services they need. In some cases they may have to visit several locations to receive support and advice for a single issue.

One of the five key changes that the HRA brings is the encouragement of public and other bodies to work together to both prevent and relieve homelessness, along with a duty to refer individual cases (with consent) to housing authorities they identify. This will help areas like North Devon build the inter-agency relationships that are needed to respond holistically to those who are already homeless or at risk of homelessness.

A good foundation for addressing homelessness

In North Devon, we have a good foundation to address the changes the HRA brings. A ‘Housing Hub’ is held at our Day Centre, regularly bringing together housing agencies, health providers, substance misuse teams, police and probation officers and environmental services to mitigate our area’s challenges of scale and distance. It also ensures specialist services can be accessed under one roof by anyone at risk of or experiencing homelessness.

Visits to our Freedom Centre service, have been steadily rising since 2016. The free hot meal, showers, internet access, debt advice, health promotion, job search, CV writing support and volunteering opportunities, available there are one of the few places people can come to address singular or multiple issues to improve their situation. The local authority office and their weekly presence further strengthens the partnership working ethos between local authorities and other service providers, enabling vulnerable people to be easily sign-posted to the services that can help their predicament.

The extended period in which someone may be considered for help with risk of homelessness from 28 days to 56 days will further enable our partnership working practices to engage with people before they are without shelter and work with them to prevent the trauma and distress of being without a home. The additional time allows local housing authorities to be even more proactive with their prevention work and to build tailored plans that support vulnerable people to find and secure appropriate accommodation for their needs.

The assessments and personalised plans that the HRA requires housing authorities to conduct are already somewhat in place in North Devon, thanks to our Housing Hub approach. No doubt tweaks to these will need to be made, but the spirit in which the HRA is asking local authorities to act to eradicate homelessness in the UK is already in place here.