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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Redefining the homeless

December 08 2010
New definitions would - helpfully, for the government - lower the numbers

A homeless person, to most people, is someone without a roof over their head. However, the tricky language used to define homelessness in law may get an overhaul as the government seeks to narrow the scope of the definition ahead of housing benefit cuts.

Currently, you are classed as homeless if there is no accommodation that you are entitled to occupy or you have accommodation but it is not reasonable for you to continue to occupy it (for example, if you are living in accommodation that is crowded or dangerous). The law also defines "threatened homelessness" as the likelihood of being made homeless in the next 28 days.

Ministers want to scrap the part of the law that includes the "unreasonable to continue to occupy" element, together with the threatened homelessness definition. People living in crowded or dangerous housing and those who are likely to be made homeless very soon by housing benefit slashes would no longer fall under the definition of homeless, and councils would not have the same obligation to support this category as they currently do.

Lord Freud, the Welfare Minister, has said homeless figures fluctuate depending on whom you speak to because of its current definition. For example, he estimated that roughly 410,000 people live in overcrowded accommodation which - under current legislation - means they are homeless and entitled to help. Thus, the homeless figure is a lot more than it might have been if this group were not included.

He said: "We have found it very difficult to define homelessness in this country. The estimates [of homelessness] go from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands depending on who you are talking to."

He added: "It is immensely unhelpful when people and commentators stir up fears using somewhat arbitrary figures because it frightens people."

Some commentators have criticised the proposed definition change and accused Lord Freud of moving the goalposts to suit official figures at a very critical time.

Campbell Robb, chief executive of Shelter, said: "This broad definition was passed after much consultation to ensure that it reflected the full spectrum of homelessness and housing need, and to ultimately help prevent people from ending up on the streets.

"Any proposal to narrow the definition may well hide the true scale of the housing crisis from the public, but certainly won't do anything to help tackle it."

Shadow Housing Minister Alison Seabeck has written to Housing Minister Grant Shapps seeking urgent clarification on the government's plans. She said: "Lord Freud has let the cat out of the bag. The coalition's policies are already going to see an increase in homelessness to make it harder for people who lose their homes to get any help at all because the coalition thinks it would be 'valuable'."

Lord Freud's comments come ahead of the proposed housing benefit cap, which many charities predict will make thousands of people homeless and put a strain on already struggling public services.

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