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‘Equality should be enshrined in solutions’

Home, a charity determined to end homelessness in Bermuda, is working with the Government, other agencies, charities, and the religious and wider local community to create a collaborative, single plan to try and eradicate homelessness. It has compiled a report, out for consultation, called Plan to End Homelessness. Here, some of its findings and suggested solutions are outlined

From failing to consider that low-barrier, emergency housing should be a basic right for any person in need to recommending setting up a Poverty Commission, Plan to End Homelessness takes a wide-ranging look at homelessness.

Formal outreach, it says, “is insufficient relative to the existing population of rough sleepers” and that “insufficient housing stock is available for rough sleepers transitioning from outside and emergency accommodation”.

People who have experienced or are experiencing poverty, the plan says, are at the highest risk of homelessness.

It recommends establishing a Poverty Commission “to provide independent advice to ministers, have a strong scrutiny role in monitoring progress towards tackling poverty and inequality, and have an advocacy role to help bring about real reductions in poverty and inequality in Bermuda”.

The plan’s findings showed that children who experience homelessness have higher rates of school absenteeism, developmental delays and more mental health problems than other children.

“They are sick four times more often than other children,” it says. “And have emotional and behavioural problems such as anxiety, depression and aggression at three times the rate of their peers.”

Childhood trauma, it adds, creates significant long-term issues for individuals.

The lack of affordable housing leaves ex-offenders competing for the same limited resources with others who have no criminal history, according to the report. “People leaving prison are known to recommit crime to avoid homelessness,” it says.

People entering the prison system sometimes lose their homes because of becoming incarcerated, the document adds.

Young people ageing out of the child welfare system are at high risk of becoming homeless during the transition to adulthood.

As a solution, the document says that “a duty of care is placed on the Department of Child and Family Services to ensure a successful transition for young people ageing out of the child welfare system for five years following discharge, between the ages of 18 and 23”.

It adds that “statutory responsibilities to ensure that immediate housing and support services needs are in place for the same period and these statutory responsibilities are matched with critical time interventions”.

LGBTQ+ young adults are more than twice as likely to experience homelessness as their non-LGBTQ+ peers, and Black or multiracial LGBTQ+ youth have the highest rates of homelessness, the plan finds.

The main causes for LGBTQ+ homeless people are family rejection resulting from sexual orientation or gender identity; physical, emotional or sexual abuse; ageing out of the foster care system; and financial and emotional neglect.

Private rental-sector tenants are often most exposed to some of the major issues in housing systems, such as a lack of affordability, insecurity, poor-quality dwellings and overcrowding.

The document says that there needs to be fundamental reform “to ensure all private landlords adhere to a legally binding standard on decency, accompanied by a modern tenancy system that gives renters peace of mind so they can confidently settle down and make their house a home”.

It also suggests that an empowered authority is put in place to ensure disputes between tenants and landlords can be settled quickly and cheaply without going to court.

Importantly, the plan says that a standard definition of homelessness does not exist in Bermuda.

“A standard definition of homelessness is a necessary basis to produce meaningful statistics on the size and characteristics of homeless populations, which are of critical importance for informed policymaking,” it states.

There are no systems that link data across health, homelessness, housing, criminal justice, substance misuse, welfare benefits, immigration and employment services, adds the report, which limits “the impact of providing preventive services for individuals”.

Homelessness generates a financial and economic burden for society, and yet a quantification of this to Bermuda does not exist. This means that there is not a clear understanding of the case to end homelessness, it adds.

There is an inadequate understanding of the supply and demand of housing in Bermuda, according to the plan.

“A comprehensive understanding of the level of housing and support needs does not exist, including how many households are moving or waiting to move into temporary settings; how much and what type of housing is required to permanently house people; and who needs support, and at what level, to maintain their tenancy.”

There is not a commonly accepted definition of affordable housing, there is an insufficient supply of housing at social rent levels and housing supply targets are not informed by evidence on the scale of homelessness, the plan states.

Welfare entitlements have consistently failed to keep up with inflation and rising costs of living, the report adds, and tend to be below most socially accepted measures of adequacy.

It says that welfare entitlements tend to follow a “one-size-fits-all model” rather than considering the social determinants of each individual.

“This often results in inadequate resources being expended, so failing to address root causes, so perpetuating crisis management rather than ending homelessness,” states the document.

“The application process for financial assistance has become more onerous and difficult to navigate, thereby discouraging applications altogether.

“Application criteria demands a copious amount of documentation required for social assistance eligibility.

“For those who are experiencing homelessness or fleeing abusive homes, such records may be difficult to retain, leading to ineligibility.

“Individuals turned away from financial assistance programmes on the basis of ineligibility are often directed to food banks or third sector support,” the report finds.

Many people who are at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness want to work or are employed, but don’t make enough to sustain themselves. “They need sustainable wages and permanent housing,” says the plan.

As a solution, it says a welfare-to-work framework should be established “to provide early intervention when a claimant first leaves work. Including providing a case manager who is responsible for providing frontline support that claimants require before focusing on employment as the main outcome [example, help with managing a health condition or disability, confidence building and skills development]”.

Statutory rights in Bermuda fall short in offering protections for (low-income) renters as well as in respect of clarity around landlord protections.

It suggests reviewing the private renters’ market and introducing a Private Renters Bill to enshrine rights to both renters and landlords.

“As a result, renters in the private sector receive the right to feel secure in their home, settled in their community and able to plan for the future with confidence, and landlords have clarity over their rights, including when they can reclaim a property.”

Private renters, says the plan, are often unable to take claims to court owing to expense resulting in evictions, substandard properties and inappropriate rental charges going unchecked.

The rationing of scarce resources for housing, welfare and other assistance, says the report, has created a set of arbitrary distinctions between those who are seen to deserve and qualify for help, and others who do not.

One group in particular — Black male Bermudians — have consistently lost out.

It suggests that the principle of equality — a response without discrimination — is enshrined in every proposed solution to end homelessness.

• The full Plan to End Homelessness can be seen in Related Media

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Published February 12, 2024 at 7:56 am (Updated February 13, 2024 at 9:41 am)

‘Equality should be enshrined in solutions’

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