Britain faces an "unprecedented and escalating" housing crisis, charities warned yesterday, with middle-class families at greater risk of homelessness than at any point in the past century.
Geoff Hawkins, chief executive of the housing charity Chapter 1, said the problem was no longer confined to the stereotype of rough sleepers rehabilitating from lifelong addictions, but now includes victims of recession who do not qualify for appropriate help.
The housing charity Shelter, meanwhile, accused the Government of dismantling the housing safety net that helps so many people to stay in their homes.
The number of people requesting council housing in the first quarter of 2011 jumped to 26,400, an increase of 23 per cent on the previous year, according to official figures. Home repossessions are also up, rising 17 per cent in the first three months of 2011, to 9,613.
The Government has pledged 150,000 affordable homes over the next four years. But it has also reduced state subsidy for building new homes by 60 per cent and is looking to housing associations to fund these by charging higher rents – up to 80 per cent of market values.
This weekend's warning about the burgeoning problem of middle-class homelessness came after a letter to the Prime Minister was leaked warning that 40,000 people risked being made homeless as a result of a cap on housing benefits.
A report by the Local Government Ombudsman last week criticised councils across Britain for "consistent failings" in dealing with those at risk of homelessness. "We see too many cases where individuals have suffered injustice at a particularly precarious moment in their lives," Jane Martin, the ombudsman, said. "When councils fail to give them a helping hand at that key moment, it can affect that individual for years."
Campaigners point to cases such as that of Leigh Ryder, 42, from Llanfair, North Wales, who, until recently, was an IT manager renting a two-bedroomed house, but who was evicted by his landlord last month.
"Homelessness used to be around drug issues, not someone who worked. You couldn't fall through the gaps. The worst that could happen is that you'd go to the council, you'd go to a waiting list, and they'd put you in. Now landlords have all the autonomy – there's no security in the private rented sector," said Mr Ryder. "You can be out easily on fixed-term tenancies. We are on a 12-month contract, but there is no protection. We could be out in six months. I have a claim for housing benefit, but don't hold out hope. I have already bought a campervan and am doing it up. When our time is up in this house, I can easily see us moving in there instead."
Labour's housing spokesperson, Alison Seabeck, argues that measures introduced to combat the problem are likely to make matters worse: "The Government's flagship Localism Bill will see councils able to place homeless families straight back into the private rented sector, where they've already been unable to keep their home. Labour pushed amendments to introduce landlord accreditation, improved standards of accommodation and better national standards of advice and support to people at risk of homelessness; all of our amendments were opposed by the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. We want to see better advice and support, which can keep people off the streets and get them back into a home."
Leslie Morphy, chief executive of the homeless charity Crisis, said: "The Government must change course before this flow of homeless people becomes a flood. It must legislate to ensure that when someone finds themselves homeless, all councils give the support and emergency accommodation needed, so no one faces the horrors of sleeping in sheds, squats or on the streets."
She added: "With unemployment rising, the cost of living increasing and an inevitable rise in interest rates ahead, millions of people are facing a real struggle to keep a roof over their heads."
Geoff Hawkins of Chapter 1 said: "Today, homelessness is no longer confined to the stereotyped image of rough sleepers rehabilitating from lifelong addictions. Instead, we are seeing new groups: the inadvertent victims of the recession that remain too close to either side of the poverty line to qualify for instant and appropriate help. This is one of the most vulnerable sectors, with many forced to seek alternatives, including downsizing into caravans, tents, mobile homes, sofas or even on to the streets."
Jean Preux, 33
A qualified chef who was laid off in January and moved from Wales to London. He now sleeps in London's Victoria Station
"When I was made redundant and lost my home I used some of my savings to travel to America, to see if life was any better there. That only made things worse. I returned three months later and was told that, because I had been out of the country for 12 weeks, I was no longer eligible for housing benefit.
"In London, I found a bedsit with a small kitchen in Tottenham for £750 a month. It was advertised as a studio but it was actually a single room. The landlord was merciless. Now I am homeless. I cannot get a place in a hostel because they are overcrowded, and the sick or mentally ill are given priority.
"I never thought I would find myself sleeping in Victoria Station. But I come across all sort of other professionals who are also homeless, including former doctors and lawyers. Nothing is shocking in England any more."
Lucy Cusack, 39
A qualified nurse, who lost her family home to repossession. She has since moved to a St Mungo's housing project in Camden and retrained as an acupuncturist
"Five years ago, I was working in an A&E department as a well-qualified nurse. My ex-husband was a building contractor who did plenty of work with Irish firms.
"Then the property market in Ireland crashed, which put a massive strain on the business and our marriage. I ended up having a mental breakdown and living in a 24-hour care hostel in Camden. Our house in Hertfordshire was repossessed and we went from a six-figure income to none at all.
"I was perhaps the last person who ever imagined I could become homeless. I had never come from a bad family, was well educated and articulate.
"Much of this is down to financial deception: New Labour created an imaginary cushion of apparently endless credit for people. One thing I have learned is that you have to hit rock bottom economically before you can recover. The Government was simply not allowing this to happen."
James Cummings, 51
From Redbridge, Essex. Worked at a hotel in Watford for eight years before losing his job in December 2008
"During the New Labour boom years it was easy to believe the good times would last for ever. Tips would often be bigger than the salary you'd take home for that night. Living in a hotel meant that I had my meals made and even my room cleaned. I was looking at life through rose-tinted beer goggles.
"Then the recession hit. I found myself on the street, sleeping under a bridge. It was through the Salvation Army that I found a shelter for the night. I leant on numerous charities to get back on my feet. But I'm worried about the future. Even this far out of London, it's impossible to find anything decent for under £650 a month – that is only going to escalate homelessness."
Tony Clayton, 43
Manager, from Manchester, of a bookmaker's before he lost his job in June last year. He lost his home soon after when a relationship failed. Eventually, he found shelter through the charity Chapter 1
"The one night I stayed on the street was the worst feeling: completely depressing. I felt my life had ended and I had reached rock bottom. I could not believe this was my life from now on, but I thought I'd be forever destined to live on the street. I applied for council housing, but it was totally oversubscribed, so the local authorities were unable to help.
"Due to funds being cut, I have found no support from council and government at an extremely vulnerable time. In times of crisis you really rely on housing charities, many of which are getting their funding cut. I was very lucky to get into my hostel. Had I not been taken in, I would probably be taking drugs, under the influence of alcohol or still on the street. I now want to be able to help people in this position."
Angela Powell, 37
From Newquay. Married with two sons. The family eventually moved into a charity-owned property after their private landlord wanted their flat back; they couldn't afford other private rents
"We had been on the list for council housing for about eight years, but the council didn't have anything. The day before we were due to move out of our flat, the council got in touch and said they had found some temporary accommodation. First, we had to move into a one-room bed and breakfast for about three weeks. Then we moved into temporary housing, but the rents were phenomenal.
"I think we're completely priced out. The wages are very low here in Newquay and the housing is very expensive, so I don't think we'll ever get on to the property market.
"There are thousands of people in temporary housing of a really low standard. But, as far as the Government is concerned, if you're not sleeping in a cardboard box, you're not homeless. The problem has not gone away and I can only see it getting worse."
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