How we can end homelessness

How we can end homelessness

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By Jon Sparkes

Right now in Great Britain there are 170,000 individuals or families experiencing the worst forms of homelessness – rough sleeping, sleeping in places not meant for human habitation, staying in homeless hostels or emergency Bed and Breakfast (B&B) accommodation or sofa-surfing with people they may not even know.

At Crisis we don’t think that this is necessary, neither do we believe it to be inevitable. We believe that homelessness can be ended but to do this we need to stop making plans which aspire only to show how homelessness can be managed or at best contained.

There are many reasons for people becoming homeless. Some people become homeless when they leave prison or the care system; others when their relationship breaks down, when their landlord wishes to put up the rent or when they deal with difficulties by turning to drink, or because they have been the victim of domestic abuse.

Experiencing one or more of these things can be extremely stressful, and the pressure of dealing with this can quickly build up, often culminating in long term homelessness.

Not all of us however would follow this path to losing our homes, and if we did experience homelessness it might be brief rather than long term. The claim that we are all two or three pay cheques away from homelessness simply isn’t true. Many of us facing one of the challenges above would still have access to a home, or the support necessary to get back into new homes of our own as soon as possible. What leads to these situations making someone homeless, and keeping them homeless, is the lack of a safe, affordable home of their own to move into and the support needed to make it work.

However, we do not have enough homes available to stop people becoming homeless. We haven’t built enough social homes, so people are more reliant on private renting. Private renting is more and more unaffordable as rents go up, and the benefits freeze means that benefits which are intended to help find and secure decent accommodation do not cover the cost of rent. The supply of suitable housing isn’t adequate, but we have also compounded this by not traditionally recognising that the quick offer of a permanent home is the most effective means of ending homelessness, simple as that might sound. In addition to this, the way local authorities determine how many homes should be built in their area has not historically sought to identify how many homes are needed to end homelessness. Because of this the local authority Housing Strategy and Homelessness Strategy are too often separate documents written in isolation from one another.

This often results in homelessness strategies which set out how much temporary accommodation is needed year-on-year, stretching into the future with long-term commissioning plans focusing on procuring B&B placements and accommodation available on a night-by-night basis. These strategies, however, rarely set out how we can go beyond that, to a point where rather than just managing homelessness, at great financial and individual cost, we set about ending it.

In 2018 we produced our Plan to End Homelessness, which was the result of 12 months of extensive consultation with our partners in the sector, key academics, and crucially people with lived experience of homelessness. A key finding from the Plan is that that out of the 170,000 people and families experiencing the worst forms of homelessness about 152,000 just need a home and the means to pay for it. They don’t need support beyond that; they just need rapidly rehousing and then they can get on with their lives.

The recognition of the role this ‘rapid rehousing’ must play has been realised and championed in Scotland. I chaired the Scottish Government’s Homelessness & Rough Sleeping Action Group that made recommendations which are now embedded in the Scottish Government’s ‘Ending Homelessness Together’ plan.

As part of the plan, every local authority has now written a ‘Rapid Rehousing Transition Plan’ setting out over five years how they will make quickly rehousing people in mainstream housing the default of their system. The plans identify the numbers of homes needed to end the use of temporary and emergency accommodation and propose solutions for getting there. It’s an exciting time in Scotland. Homelessness is being tackled in a way that works, and this approach is setting the bar for the rest of Great Britain.

The figures identified in our plan are at a national level but, unlike Scotland, in England we don’t have a clear picture of real local housing need. Housing registers have been superficially reduced in recent years and the accuracy of the homelessness statistics in England being called into question by the government’s own statistics authority. We need to adopt the lessons from Scotland to ensure our decisions about housing supply mean we provide for everyone who needs a home, not just those who can afford to buy one.

I mentioned above the 152,000 of the 170,000 households need rapid rehousing, but that still leaves around 18,000 people needing more than that.

For these people we know the overwhelming pressure of homelessness has in some cases caused, but in all cases exacerbated, their poor mental health, their addictions and destructive behaviours. For these people the very worst place for them, but the place they inevitably will be found, will be the streets, or revolving around hostels and B&Bs. The solution here is Housing First. Encouragingly the term is now widely used, and the huge evidence base supporting it is recognised across Great Britain. However, we still do not operate Housing First at the scale needed for all who would benefit from it.

We know from studies we have undertaken that the system without Housing First and rapid rehousing is about 15% effective in ending someone’s homelessness. 85% of people are still unable to find a settled home two years after first becoming homeless. With Housing First, the extensive evidence tells us to expect effectiveness to be at 80-90%.

Transitioning to a system which is housing-led cannot take place overnight. We can’t simply switch off one system, which so many people are reliant on, and turn on another. The transition needs to be properly resourced so that the two systems can run in parallel, which is why we so welcomed the announcement of £28 million of funding for the three Housing First pilots in the Liverpool City Region, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands.

We need to learn and take inspiration from these pilots and by the other projects supported and promoted through Housing First England, our partnership with Homeless Link. We need to be bold and follow the evidence. Our commissioning and services need to be driven by what we know ends homelessness, rather than a need to maintain and honour historic investment in existing services and buildings.

Homelessness is ended when everyone has a home and the support available to make it so, we need to challenge ourselves and our own practice to make sure we are doing all we can to make that happen.

This article was written for The Vision Project by Jon Sparkes. Jon is the Chief Executive of Crisis, a national charity that works directly with thousands of homeless people every year.

If you are interested in this article, you may also be interested in finding out more about our Reach service and our social lettings agency, Home Turf Lettings.

DHI has invited the author to write the above article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies or otherwise of DHI.

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