Thousands of families are struggling to keep a roof over their heads as the cost of living crisis deepens and landlords rush to cash in on privately rented homes.
Homeless charity Porchlight has warned that Kent is “watching the barrel” of a homeless crisis with numbers reaching emergency levels last seen at the start of the pandemic.
In the first three months of 2022, there were 2,423 households in Kent who were homeless or at risk of homelessness – a 7% increase on the previous quarter, according to new data released by the Department for Leveling Up , Housing and Communities.
Outside of Medway (503), Swale had the highest number of disadvantaged families at risk (251) while the area with the fewest was Tonbridge & Malling (65).
Alongside Canterbury, Maidstone and Thanet, it was one of a small number of areas that saw a slight reduction in the number of households due to prevention or the council’s relief requirement.
The latest statistics make “worrying” reading for homeless charities as households struggle to keep pace with soaring food and petrol prices.
It comes as private landlords are also looking to take advantage of soaring house prices and sell their properties, causing the rental market to crash.
Chris Thomas, of Porchlight, a Kent-based homeless charity, said: “It’s quite a worrying time for Porchlight actually. We’re seeing that over the past few months the number of people who sleeping rough is starting to increase.
“We also work with a lot of people who are at risk of losing their homes or maybe couch surfing or having unstable housing.”
The communications manager added: “It’s getting really difficult to help everyone we need and what we’re seeing is rents going up, landlords selling and there’s a lot of people in the Kent who simply can’t afford to live.
“We are sort of looking in the direction of a homelessness crisis.”
During the pandemic, protections were put in place for tenants, but these were lifted in May last year and the impact continues to be felt.
Chris adds: “Since this ban has been lifted, we have seen more and more evictions.
“We hear of people skipping meals and not using their electricity because they can barely afford to pay rent. Or they’re using credit cards and going into debt just to cover essentials.”
Porchlight’s dedicated helpline hears from individuals and families every day who report that they have nothing left to cut.
They include people like David who is no stranger to skipping meals and leaving his electricity and heat off.
The 60-year-old from Thanet used to restore antiques but lost his job in 2018.
He was looking for work when the pandemic hit and its effects on his mental health made him too anxious to attend job interviews.
“Before I met Porchlight, I was in hopeless debt,” David said. “I was depressed and didn’t talk to anyone.
“I didn’t heat my house during the winter and warmed myself by going to bed in the middle of the afternoon.”
As the cost of living began to rise, David found that the Universal Credit (UC) payments he relied on were no longer enough to keep him afloat and he began skipping meals and falling behind. in the payment of energy bills.
He reached out to Porchlight for help on the recommendation of his UC coach who could see something was wrong.
His community mental health team is now helping David turn things around and have worked with utility companies on his behalf to arrange manageable repayment plans for his debts.
They also helped him improve his mental health so that he was able to return to work.
“I am brought back to the person I was,” he added.
But there are many more struggling people who go undetected and the latest government statistics don’t cover those couch surfing, living in squats or other unsecured short-term accommodation.
Porchlight spokesman Chris added that the ‘true scale’ of hidden homelessness is masked by vulnerable groups such as young single women most at risk.
This includes the prohibited practice of “sex for hire” where predatory landlords advertise rooms in exchange for sexual favors instead of rent.
“Women have to put themselves in dangerous situations,” says Chris.
“If rents go up and people are unable to cover basic living expenses, unfortunately people are doing everything they can to keep a roof over their heads and avoid the streets.
He added: “We hear of quite a few women who find themselves homeless and sometimes forced to couch surf or stay with someone who doesn’t have their best interests at heart.
“They put themselves in a pretty dangerous position because it’s between that and ending up on the streets.”
Porchlight has set aside services and funds to help women in these situations, but says it can often “prove difficult to contact them”.
“It’s a really problematic area and I think more can be done there,” Chris adds.
“Essentially, we need to solve the housing crisis and the cost of living crisis so that people don’t end up in this situation in the first place.”
The charity has previously warned of the “devastating” impact of withdrawing the £5million-a-year Kent Homeless Connect (KHC) service.
KHC helps homeless people find accommodation, jobs and medical appointments, but the service could be stopped by Kent County Council on September 30 due to “serious financial difficulties”.
During the pandemic, local authorities helped people get off the streets through the government’s “Everyone” initiative.
But according to housing charity Shelter, one in four who have been helped find a bed through the scheme are still not living in fixed accommodation two years later.
Porchlight says a lack of affordable housing in Kent is preventing it and other organizations from finding permanent homes for people who no longer need support.
In response, councils are increasing the number of multiple occupancy houses (HMOs) in circulation to provide stable housing for the homeless to rebuild their lives.
But the situation is far from helpless and if we are serious about “breaking the cycle of homelessness”, Chris believes more action needs to be taken.
“HMOs are an approach that works for most people,” he said. “But we’re actually trying to switch to a different method of helping people.”
The charity worker added: “Housing led support is our solution to the growing homelessness crisis here in Kent.
If you need urgent help, contact Porchlight on their free helpline on 0800 567 7699
“It is based on an internationally recognized approach to helping people with complex needs, such as mental health issues, trauma, or alcohol or drug-related issues, who struggle to break the cycle of homelessness and who have often been on the streets for years.”
It works by moving a homeless person directly to their own home instead of shared accommodation with others.
Once they have the safety and security of their own home, they can begin to address other issues they face, such as poor mental health or drug or alcohol addiction.
There are no conditions imposed on people other than that they must show a willingness to engage with a support worker.
“Giving someone a place to call home with long-term support is the best way to help people recover from homelessness,” adds Chris.
“When someone feels safe, secure and included, they will, at their own pace, begin to recover and make positive choices about how they live their life.”
He says the approach has already been tested in Kent and shown positive results, but needs more government investment.
“We have already tested this approach with great success,” he added.
“People who had been rough sleepers for over 15 years and found it difficult to engage with other types of homeless support were able to rebuild their lives.”