By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON, Sept 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Homelessness in England has risen by 60 percent in the past six years, fuelled by rising rents and welfare reforms, a public spending watchdog said on Wednesday, with 77,000 families in emergency accommodation.
The number of rough sleepers has more than doubled to about 4,000 people in six years, the National Audit Office (NAO) said, as England grapples with a chronic housing shortage.
"Homelessness in all its forms has significantly increased," NAO's head, Amyas Morse, said in a statement.
"It is difficult to understand why the (government) persisted with its light touch approach in the face of such a visibly growing problem."
The government said it was investing 550 million pounds ($729 million) by 2020 and implementing the "most ambitious legislative reform in decades" to address the issue.
England's homeless include more than 120,000 children living in temporary accommodation, such as hostels or bed and breakfast hotels, NAO said.
Private sector rents in England have risen three times faster than wages since 2010, while a cap on housing allowances also likely contributed to making rents less affordable, it said.
The number of households recorded as homeless following the end of an shorthold tenancy overtook personal issues, such as a relationship breakdown, as the main cause of homelessness.
"It is a national scandal that more and more people are made homeless every year," said opposition politician Meg Hillier, who chairs parliament's Committee of Public Accounts.
"This reports illustrates the very real human cost of the government's failure to ensure people have access to affordable housing."
A government spokesman said ministers will set out further plans shortly, including delivering on a commitment to eliminate rough sleeping entirely.
Local councils spent more than 1 billion pounds a year on homelessness, mostly on providing temporary accommodation due to a reduction in social housing, the report said.
Some authorities, mostly in London, are housing families in cheaper properties outside their borough, it said.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents local authorities, said councils have to provide emergency housing for the equivalent of a secondary school's worth of homeless children every month.
"The net cost to councils of doing this has tripled in the last three years, as they plug the gap between rising rents and frozen housing benefit," said LGA spokesman Martin Tett.
Homelessness charity Shelter urged the government to increase housing benefit payments and commit to building decent, affordable homes.
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(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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