Money: Opening new doors for the homeless

A new scheme will build trust between young people and landlords, writes Shaks Ghosh
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The Independent Online
EVERY YEAR, thousands of young people make the move towards independence and want to find a place of their own. For some their first taste of life away from home comes in shared houses, as new friends begin new lives together.

It sounds easy enough. But while many young people are keen to live independently the reality today, especially for those on low income, is that being self- reliant is not that easy. Without support from friends and family, finding somewhere to live in a new town or city can be virtually impossible. For those who slip through the net for whatever reason, from family arguments to simply not knowing who to turn to for help, the worst case scenario could be that a youngster ends up sleeping rough on the streets or in a temporary hostel until things are sorted out.

Young people on low incomes face all sorts of barriers when looking for somewhere to live. The range of accommodation agencies and housing advice services is at the very least baffling and at the very worst, can incur expensive charges for the tenant. And if a single, young person does turn to the local authority, help is only available if they are deemed to be in "priority need" or "vulnerable" after a complex assessment under the Housing Act 1996.

The only real option tends to be to rent from a landlord in the private sector, which in itself can be problematic, because the cost of rented accommodation itself is high. Contrary to popular belief, as you move out of town rent does not dramatically decrease. For example, in London weekly rent ranges between pounds 80 and pounds 150, while the average young person with a degree can expect to earn in the region of pounds 150 per week. And for those dependent on benefits, particularly those under 25, the figures just don't even begin to add up.

Traditionally, landlords are reluctant to rent their properties to young people. If tenants are claiming housing benefit, many landlords are unconvinced that tenants will be able to make up the difference between the money the government provides and the extra the individual has to pay. Thanks to recent changes in housing benefit this can be between about pounds l0 and pounds 20.

They are also concerned their properties will not be looked after and properly maintained. If one set of tenants living in a shared house, claiming benefits, does not come up to scratch this can put a landlord off for good.

A number of schemes that seek to help people find accommodation in the private rented sector are springing up to help bridge this gap between landlords and potential tenants SmartMove - a scheme launched nationally by Crisis last week is one such scheme. The aim is to make sure people have an option that prevents them from, in the worst case scenario, ending up sleeping rough on the streets.

The aim of Crisis is not just to put a roof over someone's head, but also to promote the self-reliance that creates independence amongst young people. SmartMove helps people move into a flat or house of their own and supports them while they are living there.

The prospect of saving from an already low wage for one month's deposit and one month's rent in advance is a daunting one and creates yet another barrier to getting a place of your own. SmartMove provides guarantees in place of the traditional deposit; helps people in their search for accommodation; helps set up the tenancy agreement and processes claims for housing benefit. Once the tenant has moved in, SmartMove offers ongoing support and advice to both tenants and landlords. Volunteers also offer a befriending service if anyone is having trouble getting established in their new community.

The concept of providing a guarantee against a deposit is not particularly new. After all, this is something many parents feel they have to do when a student moves into the first shared house after living in halls of residence.

Robert, a 19-year-old student turned to SmartMove when he suddenly found himself homeless two years into his three-year graphic design course. When his sister left the private flat they shared to get married he could no longer afford the rent alone. His landlord asked him to leave and after spending a few nights in a hostel he was referred to a SmartMove operator in central London. His project worker assessed his needs and his ability to pay rent. Rather than claim benefits Robert gave up his studies in order to find full-time work. From there his SmartMove project worker provided his landlady with proof that he was working and a reference from his previous landlord. With this in place and with the assurance that SmartMove was at hand should there be any problems the landlady was happy for Robert to move in paying only one week's rent in advance.

Trust is a key element in the three-way relationship between the landlord, the tenant and SmartMove. Tabby Eichler, who runs a SmartMove scheme in London, explains: "Landlords often think young people are time-intensive trouble. So if we build a relationship with the landlord on the tenant's behalf to start of with, SmartMove can prove to be a very fast route in the private rent sector."

q Shaks Ghosh is chief executive of the national homelessness charity Crisis.