A Grey future

At the age when many people are looking forward to retirement after a long working life, others are finding themselves without a roof over their head

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Vicky was 72 when she declared herself homeless. Her landlord was selling up and – unable to find anywhere else – she was forced to approach the local authority for help.

“Like many others, I’ve been pushed from pillar to post,” she says. “I’ve moved many times over recent years, trying to find places I could afford as rents went up. It got to the stage that no one wanted to know me due to my age and because I rely on local housing allowance to pay the rent.”

The pensioner was eventually given grim emergency accommodation in a large converted house – staying for five agonising months before finding something more permanent through a charity.

She recalls: “It was awful. There were drug dealers upstairs and an electricity box in the house was set on fire when someone tried to steal power. I called the police numerous times because of everything that was happening. It was a relief to move on.”

Although shocking, Vicky’s experience is not unique. The number of older people finding themselves in a similar position is on the rise – and experts say the situation is likely to get worse.

“The situation is certainly getting worse – it’s a minefield out there at the moment.”

In inner cities, redevelopment and gentrification have resulted in the loss of cheap housing and spiralling rents. This, coupled with the sale of social housing, has led to a greater reliance on the private rented sector by middle aged and older people. As well as being expensive, many of these properties are in poor condition and let on insecure short-hold tenancies with few protections for residents. Campaigners warn it’s a perfect storm which could lead to greater levels of “grey homelessness” over coming years.

According to the latest government figures, the number of over-60s accepted as homeless by councils in England rose by 48 per cent between 2012 and 2017, to a total of 2,590.

Over the past 12 months, people in Vicky’s age bracket have been hit the hardest, with acceptances of applicants in the 65-74 age group jumping by 15 per cent, to 1,120 cases. Across the over-60s, acceptances rose by eight per cent.

Even this only tells part of the story, however, with people who sleep rough or do not apply or qualify for council help not being represented in the data.

Women aged over 60 and men over 65 may qualify as having priority need if deemed as being unintentionally homeless, although under the Homelessness Reduction Act, which came into force earlier this year, local authorities have a duty to help secure housing for anyone who is homeless and eligible for assistance.

Dr Maureen Crane, of King’s College London’s Homeless Research Programme, has recently written a paper – yet to be published – for the journal Gerontology on factors contributing to the increasing numbers of older homeless people in the UK. She says issues such as benefit sanctions and zero hours contracts are contributing factors in some cases – along with the insecurity of private rented housing. And she notes that over recent years there has been an increase in the number of households accepted as homeless due to the ending of short-hold tenancies.

She says: “The situation is certainly getting worse – it’s a minefield out there at the moment. The number of older rough sleepers has been increasing since 2010. We know the number of older prisoners is increasing and they are more likely to be homeless on release. And there are also increasing numbers of drug users in this age group.

“We’ve also found the number of people aged over 50 who are on zero hours contracts has gone up quite a bit. This is a precarious form of work – if people can’t get the hours they need they can run into big financial problems. There are also increasingly issues with welfare cuts, benefits sanctions and the private rented sector.”

Around 75 per cent of people aged over 65 are owner-occupiers. Until recent decades, the remainder were normally council tenants but as social housing has been lost under the Right to Buy scheme, the proportion of older people living in the private rented sector has increased.

Currently, households aged over 65 account for fewer than one in 10 of all those living in private rented housing. But a bulge of middle-aged renters is approaching, with three times the number of households aged 45-64 currently renting privately than there were two decades ago. Estimates suggest a third of over-60s could be living in private rented accommodation by 2040.

Anecdotal evidence suggests some private landlords may be unwilling to let to older people and those who are approaching retirement age, when a large proportion of income goes on rent. And experts warn of a ticking time bomb as tenants who struggle to afford high rents while in work face an even greater challenge when their incomes drop.

Private renters aged over 75 spend more than 40 per cent of their income on housing, according to Shelter, compared to 30 per cent for social tenants in the same age group. And older people are more likely to be forced to move from their private rented property than younger tenants – with being served notice cited as the largest single reason for moving.

Campaigners warn it is too easy for landlords in England to serve notice and force a tenant to move and believe legal changes are required to protect people. The government recently closed a consultation [on introducing new three year minimum tenancies – rather than the current six months] – “to help renters put down roots”.

“Soaring rents and unforgiving welfare cuts are a huge challenge for older renters.”

More fundamental changes are also required if the situation is to improve. Many local authority-funded support services which could have helped people apply for benefits and manage financial problems before they reached crisis point have withered away under austerity. And, despite the fact older homeless people can slip through the cracks of established services, earlier efforts at collaborative working in this area ceased almost a decade ago. These included a partnership formed in 1998 by Help the Aged (now Age UK), Crisis and the Housing Associations Charitable Trust, as well as the UK Coalition on Older Homelessness, which ran from 2000 to 2010, when funds ran out. Campaigners say action needs to be taken to increase social housing provision and to make the housing benefit system more generous.

Joe Oldman, Age UK policy manager, says: “I think older homeless people fall into a gap in services. There are services for homeless people and the problems they may encounter and there are services for older people. But we don’t really have specialist services for those who fall into both of these groups. “We would like to see local authorities think more about older people’s needs and develop strategies around their findings – only around 10 per cent of councils currently do this. It’s also vital that local authorities think about this in terms of providing specialist forms of housing.”

Greg Beales, campaigns director at Shelter, adds: “Decades of failure to build new social homes have left many people on low incomes trapped in expensive private renting, and older people are no exception.

“The strain of soaring private rents coupled with unforgiving welfare cuts present a huge challenge for older renters on limited incomes, who increasingly risk being made homeless.

“If we want to protect more people from the ravages of homelessness, the government needs to ensure housing benefit actually covers the cost of local rents and, in the longer term, come up with a bold new plan for social housing.”

Back in her new flat in London, Vicky feels fortunate that she has found somewhere to live but remains bitter about the system, which she feels lacks empathy.

“The forms are very difficult to complete, the attitude of some staff has been dreadful, and where you end up is appalling. You frequently meet the attitude that ‘if you don’t like it find something yourself’.

“It’s a real bugbear of mine that we don’t have access to housing associations – that the council is a gatekeeper and has to refer people on to them. There are thousands of people like me, living in these horrible circumstances. When you lose control of your life in this way it is very scary.”

One step from the streets

Ray, 72, never imagined he could end up homeless but he has spent the past year living in a hostel after being evicted from his housing association property in Hove in a dispute over service charges.

“I used to think homeless people must have brought it on themselves. I didn’t give much thought to how people could end up in this situation,” he admits.

“Everyone here, including myself, has problems of some sort – drugs, drink or mental problems. It’s no place for anyone but especially an old codger like me.”

Since arriving at the hostel, the pensioner’s health has declined. Despite the fact he has mobility problems he spent nine months living on the sixth floor. Once he was finally moved, his rent payments were almost stopped due to confusion over his address.

He says: “I’m asking the doctor to tell the council the kind of pressure I’m under. Last week I got a letter saying they were going to stop paying my rent on this place. But if that happens I’d be out the door. I never thought for a moment that I would be one step away from being on the streets.”

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