Foreword - Jack Mactaggart, Chair of Commonweal Housing

Reading this collection of essays it is impossible not to be deeply humbled by the wide range of adversities facing many of today’s vulnerable people.

Sitting within the fairly unique position as facilitator or ‘enabler’ of pilot project ideas, Commonweal are exposed to a particularly broad set of issues and developing themes in the sector – and are increasingly striving to share this leaning.

This topical and thoughtful collection, written by subject matter experts, does just that.

As an action-learning charity that’s focused on innovation, Commonweal is truly flexible in our approach and mindset, but completely focused on capturing learning and using it in the most impactful way possible.

Indeed, this is in many ways underpinned by our financial independence, due to the longstanding generosity of our benefactor, Grove End Housing. Free from the pressures of fundraising, or beholden to rigid project eligibility criteria, we are able to follow our nose and explore the often uncomfortable issues at the margins.

This ability to be independent extends throughout all aspects of our approach. We are not a housing association, a homeless charity, a VAWG (violence against women and girls) charity or one focused on youth issues or the criminal justice system. There are many other organisations with these issues as their mission statement – and they do it brilliantly.

Instead, we aim to be a trusted and experienced voice between them all; funding ideas, facilitating pilot schemes and then being obsessive about capturing and sharing the learning – both the good and bad.

We are fortunate to work with and support some really brilliant partners who do inspirational work every day. Like everything, it is a team effort.

We hope this anthology continues to bring together the ecosystem of organisations working together in the sector. Our experience has shown us that collaboration can be one of the keys to success, and as such we are committed to using our position to share knowledge and insight as widely and frequently as possible.

We hope the following pages get you thinking as much as it made us – our door is always open for those with a project, an idea or even just a thought.


Introduction - Connie Muttock

In the midst of a national housing crisis, it is obvious to most of us that too many people are locked out of safe, secure housing in the UK. But which groups are particularly at risk and why?

This collection of essays highlights the links between housing and social injustice, and the ways in which our most marginalised populations are further disadvantaged by housing policy, provision and practice. It contains contributions from expert leaders across the third sector, writing on: violence against women and girls, the criminal justice system, and periods of transition. These subjects were chosen as a focus for Commonweal’s 2020-2022 strategy, as areas in which social injustice and housing insecurity collide.

Written against the backdrop of the global outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown of spring and summer 2020, many of these essays reflect on how pre-existing injustices left many vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic. For some, unprecedented measures have given them a roof over their heads at long last – too many others face far worse conditions than before.

This introductory chapter sets out the context of housing and social injustice in the UK, before giving a brief outline of the chapters in this anthology. It is written with many thanks to all the writers who contributed, and especially to the people they work with and support – who have been fighting for their housing needs to be met for too long.

A deepening housing crisis

It is common knowledge that the UK has been in the depths of a housing crisis for many years. As home ownership has become impossible for many, the private rented sector has boomed, with private renters now spending an average of 40% of their income on rent.¹ There is a significant lack of affordable and social homes across the country: from World War 2 to 1980, an average of around
126,000 social homes were built every year – yet in 2018/19, just 6,287 homes were built in England.²

For those caught in the crisis, the impacts have been devastating. In England:

  • There are 1.5 million households currently on a waiting list for a social home³
  • 8.4 million people are living in an unaffordable, insecure or unsuitable home
  • Before the pandemic, 4,266 people were sleeping rough on a single night – an overall increase in 141% from 20104
  • 88,330 households were in temporary accommodation at the end of 2019 – up by 84% since December 20105

The popular message that ‘we are all one pay check away from homelessness’ doesn’t capture how certain groups are particularly at risk. It is those at the sharpest end of inequality – people facing poverty, oppression, and violence – that are more likely to be locked out of the housing system, often with devastating effects.

It is those at the sharpest end of inequality – people facing poverty, oppression, and violence – that are likely to be locked out of the housing system, often with devastating effects.

Safe and suitable housing: an arm of social justice

From prejudice among policy makers, landlords and housing providers, to challenges like poverty and generational trauma impacting your ability to sustain a tenancy – social injustice is embedded in the housing system from top to bottom.

Maslow has highlighted that humans must meet their basic needs – of food, shelter, and safety – before they can focus on building relationships, growing self-esteem and eventually achieving their potential. Without a roof over your head, or when you are living in an unsafe home, it can be near impossible to move forward into long term stability. A lack of housing can mean social injustices are exacerbated and entrenched: people staying with abusive partners because they have nowhere to go; others cycling in a revolving door of homelessness and offending; people sleeping rough facing worsened mental health and substance dependencies. Too often, the housing system can be an arm of injustice – when it should be a route to safety and stability.

Too often, the housing system can be an arm of injustice – when it should be a route to safety and stability.

While these essays hone in on three specific areas, there are a range of other social justice issues that intersect with housing and homelessness. For example, recent evidence shows:

  • 90% of wheelchair users struggle to find accessible housing in the private rented sector6
  • BAME homelessness is on the rise: the percentage of homeless households from ethnic minority groups has risen from 21% in 2006/7 to 32% in 2017/187
  • Young LGBT people are particularly affected by homelessness, and in turn can experience a lack of understanding and even discrimination when accessing services8
  • EEA nationals make up 39% of rough sleepers and 100,000 migrant households experience destitution annually9

In this anthology

This anthology of essays focuses on three subject areas: violence against women and girls, the criminal justice system, and periods of transition. Commonweal chose to focus on these areas in our three year strategy 2020-2022: in our experience, they are areas where housing insecurity and social injustice collide – and while there is a range of excellent policy and practice in these areas, some of which is highlighted in these chapters, there is still a huge amount of work to be done.

Chapter one focusses on the experiences of survivors of violence against women and girls (VAWG). Evidence from the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance shows us how important access to safe housing is to tackling domestic abuse – with the financial burden of moving and a lack of available housing a key barrier to survivors leaving their abuser. Rosa dos Ventos Lopes Heimer from Latin American Women’s Aid highlights in her essay how Black and minoritised women and girls facing VAWG are particularly impacted, and how by and for BME women’s refuges have been depleted by austerity. This chapter also contains a special essay from the Nelson Trust, who chose to highlight the story of one of their clients, who struggled to access secure housing while she coped with the overlapping impacts of abuse, poor mental health, and addiction.

In chapter two, experts from criminal justice charities highlight the cycle of homelessness and offending for people in contact with the criminal justice system. In her essay, Nicola Drinkwater from Clinks explores why more than half of people are homeless on release from prison, and what needs to change. Burcu Borysik from Revolving Doors Agency highlights similar challenges across the criminal justice system, as well as the specific issues caused by the devastating disruption of a short prison sentence. Jessica
Southgate from Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, draws attention to the particular challenges for women in contact with the criminal justice system, such as finding housing that can
reunite them with their children, and overcoming the legacy of trauma and disadvantage.

Chapter three focusses on a range of different social injustice areas which are caused or exacerbated by points of transition – between services, life stages, employment, and other states of disruption. In her essay, Katharine Sacks-Jones from Become highlights the housing challenges for young people leaving care, revealing that
housing is the most common issue young care leavers seek advice for. Sam Pannell from homelessness charity Rentstart focusses on the risks of homelessness at the transition between benefits and employment – particularly following the roll out of Universal Credit. Bill Tidnam of Thames Reach reflects on a lack of support that is tailored to needs of homeless EEA (European Economic Area) migrants, and the difficult transition out of homelessness.

A perfect storm: the housing crisis, social injustice, and Coronavirus

The question on everyone’s lips, is where do these issues fit in the current context? At the time of writing, the UK is moving out of lockdown and looking ahead to a potential cliff edge, as vital safety nets such as the ban on evictions and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme are removed in the autumn.

The previous months have exposed long-standing inequalities to a wider audience than normal. We saw how Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities were the worst affected by coronavirus; calls to domestic abuse helplines rocketed; disadvantaged children were worst affected by school closures – the list goes on. For many of us, the only aspect of this crisis that has not been ‘unprecedented’ is that those already facing injustice have been the hardest hit.

But we also saw the capacity for previously unfathomable change. In the housing world, we saw almost everyone sleeping rough housed through the everyone in directive – with Government now looking to find more long-term housing solutions for this group through the Next Steps Accommodation Plan. These are welcome and long overdue measures that have reinvigorated an ambition in the sector to end homelessness for good.

But the issues highlighted in these essays did not emerge out of nowhere this year – nor are they likely to go away any time soon. What we need to see now is thoughtful, ambitious discussion of
the challenges and the potential solutions – and for this we are grateful to the contributors to this collection. We hope this anthology generates a meaningful and helpful conversation about how we can ensure some of the most marginalised communities get the housing and support they need – so that by the time the next crisis hits, we won’t be having the same conversations.

What we need to see now is thoughtful, ambitious discussion of the challenges and the potential solutions – and for this we are grateful to contributors to this collection.