Policy in Practice’s third Leading Lights Network event was sponsored this year by Lord Bird, founder of the Big Issue, and held at the House of Lords recently. The theme was preventing vulnerability, with a particular focus on the Homelessness Reduction Act. Invited policy makers and practitioners gathered to hear how organisations can use their data to get better visibility of vulnerable households and engage early, to prevent crisis.

Policy in Practice created the Leading Lights Network to give practitioners a bigger role in policy development. This year’s event boasted  a phenomenal line-up of speakers.

Use of data to proactively identify and prevent vulnerability was the theme of this third Leading Lights event

  • Mary Holden sells the Big Issue in Westminster and kicked off the evening from a service user perspective
  • Lord Bird epitomises policy and practice, and is passionate that prevention becomes a core objective of government
  • Anna Whalen, MHCLG,  spoke about the Homelessness Reduction Act and how trailblazer funding for councils is driving inspirational and creative work aimed at prevention
  • Chris Parker and Jo Morris, Newcastle City Council, gave a practitioner perspective and their experiences of working as multi-disciplinary team
  • Nikki Middleton, Luton Borough Council, spoke about the obvious case for prevention while also needing to convince internal and external stakeholders of its impact

Newcastle and Luton councils are each using the rich administrative data that councils hold to target their respective preventative services, engage residents through tailored support and track the impact their interventions are having. To be put in touch with them directly email hello@policyinpractice.co.uk.

Mary Holden, Big Issue vendor

Mary Holden, a Big Issue vendor, challenged the audience to consider their own financial resilience

Mary opened the event by reminding the audience of the dangers of stereotyping homeless people and imagining this can only happen to others. In reality, she said, homelessness can happen to anyone. Mary urged attendees to take a cold, hard look at their personal finances and consider how resilient they really are.

Mary’s own story is one of a series of life-events that led to crisis. She was previously a childcare professional but redundancy, delay in seeking further employment and inability to gain employment led Mary to attempt to access benefits. Her tenancy was deemed illegal, so she could not receive Housing Benefit. She became homeless and now lives in a hostel and sells the Big Issue.

Mary explained how she was directed from one council to another and how there was no single place to get helpful information, both something that the Homelessness Reduction Act should help with. She would have welcomed intervention as she fell into arrears. Ultimately, Mary pointed out, the cost of housing her in a hostel is far more than standard rent, making the financial as well as social case for prevention.

Key messages from Mary Holden

  • Agencies need to be joined up. Mary could not find one point of comprehensive advice.
  • There needs to be a better council response to threatened homelessness. Mary could not receive Housing Benefit as her tenancy was illegal, resulting in Mary’s homelessness and re-housing in a hostel. Her rent support now costs twice as much as support in her home. Councils need to consider how to maintain people in their home, outside the housing benefit framework.
  • Every effort should be made to assist people to stay in their home. Once a person is homeless the lack of an address, lack of possessions, mental health pressures etc mean that accessing services / work is much harder than if they had stayed in their home.
  • Anybody could end up homeless. Consider your own financial situation – how long could anybody retain a home without work?
  • Challenge your own perceptions about homeless people. There is a general perception that they’re unkempt. Mary ensures she is always clean and well dressed, which is a challenge for any homeless person.
  • Mary’s hostel rent is paid but beyond that she lives on income from selling the Big Issue. How many other people are in this situation? What changes could be made to the support system to ensure vulnerable people engage?

Lord John Bird, founder of the Big Issue

Lord Bird’s Creditworthiness Assessment Bill can tackle financial vulnerability

Lord Bird founded the Big Issue to help homeless people with a hand up, not a hand out, and was driven by his own lived experience of homelessness. He volunteered to become a peer and, in many ways, epitomises policy and practice as he works with many in the House of Lords who are actively engaged with anti-poverty issues.

A man passionate about prevention, Lord Bird says “In ‘this house’, esteemed colleagues clear up the mess and don’t investigate why people fall into the sticky stuff. Moving people from outdoor homeless to indoor homeless is simply inadequate said Lord Bird, as he challenged the audience to be more ambitious. During his talk, Lord Bird outlined the drivers behind his Creditworthiness Assessment Bill and its potential to tackle financial vulnerability. The government needs to change, he said.

Instead of thinking outside the box, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could change the f’’’ing box?

Key messages from Lord Bird

  • Intervention occurs too late – our efforts need to be focused on early prevention and support.
  • There is innovative thinking in the social sector and incredible ideas around prevention and support, but we need to bring this thinking into government.
  • It would be wonderful if instead of thinking outside the box we could get the box to think differently!
  • The key question for government and all agencies is “What can we do to prevent poverty?”
  • My private members bill, the Creditworthiness Assessment Bill goes some way to ensuring that those in poverty have more opportunities open to them through access to credit.
  • Provision of hostels is not an answer in itself – we must avoid turning the outdoor homeless to indoor homeless.
  • The Homelessness Prevention Act goes some way towards addressing homelessness by promoting early intervention, but we need to ensure that local authorities have the resources to effectively implement the Act.

Anna Whalen, Ministery for Housing, Communities and Local Government

Anna Whalen was seconded from St Basils to the Homelessness Division at MHCLG to support the implementation of the Homelessness Prevention Act. Coming into force in April this year, the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 is the biggest change to homelessness legislation in 40 years, explained Anna. It places new legal duties on councils to prevent and relieve homelessness so that everyone who is homeless or at risk of homelessness will have access to meaningful help, irrespective of their priority need status, as long as they are eligible for assistance.

The key measures in the Act are:

  • an extension of the period ‘threatened with homelessness’ from 28 to 56 days.
  • a new duty to prevent homelessness for all eligible applicants threatened with homelessness, regardless of priority need.
  • a new duty to relieve homelessness for all eligible homeless applicants, regardless of priority need.
  • A new ‘duty to refer’ – public services will need to notify a local authority if they come into contact with someone they think may be homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

To deliver the new duties £40 million was allocated to local authorities via the Homelessness Trailblazer fund. Anna updated the audience on the early impact of work done to date, singling out the innovative and creative work done by London Borough of Southwark, as led by audience member Ian Swift. She also highlighted the important of data and culture change.

Key messages from Anna Whalen

  • The Homelessness Reduction Act should enable people in crisis to be helped earlier. In particular councils have a new duty to single-person households.
  • Local authorities and public bodies are charged with assisting those threatened with homelessness but this needs to be embedded in these bodies.
  • Many local authorities have yet to update their websites or give information to ensure those in crisis know how to access support.
  • Prior to the Act, LA homelessness was based around investigation to ascertain statutory duty. It should now be focused on prevention and support. This requires a fundamental culture change.
  • LB Southwark implemented the Act a year early with great success. They have halved the number of people needing statutory re-housing. They no longer have any households in Bed & Breakfast accomodation and have doubled the number of preventative outcomes.
  • Data is important – adverse childhood experiences are a key risk factor in homelessness. Are support or prevention agencies accessing the correct data to act on these risks?
  • The government approach has changed focus from response to prevention. Expertise is being seconded from the homelessness sector, for example the head of Thames Reach is now heading up the rough-sleepers unit.

Chris Parker and Jo Morris, Newcastle City Council

Newcastle CC says responding 56 days before someone becomes homeless is often still focused on dealing with a crisis

Chris Parker, Senior Active Inclusion Officer, and Jo Morris, Welfare Rights specialist,  are part of a multi-disciplinary team from Newcastle City Council who are working to prevent homelessness in the city. They utilise data to identify those at risk to enable early intervention. The team includes external agencies and other organisations, for example DWP.

Chris said, “The Homelessness Reduction Act is a step in the right direction but our work has revealed that responding two months before someone becomes homeless is often still focused on dealing with a crisis. The monitoring framework used to establish the impact of the act doesn’t allow us to record true early prevention work as it falls outside of these 56 days.”

As part of their MCHLG funded trailblazer work Newcastle has established a multidisciplinary team incorporating a housing specialist from their ALMO who manages the council’s housing stock, a debt advisor and a welfare rights advisor from Newcastle City Council, and a Work Coach on loan from the DWP.

This team actively ‘case find’, rather than taking referrals. Working with Policy in Practice, they use data to identify residents who are likely to be at risk of homelessness in the future, before collating data across various databases in order to determine an individualised approach for that household. The team doesn’t rely on self-identification, preferring instead to use the wealth of information available on residents which, when analysed, pinpoints those who would benefit from proactive targeted advice and support. “We reach out to residents rather than waiting for them to present in crisis,” said Chris.

Key messages from Chris Parker and Jo Morris

  • Policy in Practice’s LIFT Dashboard is a critical tool to give the council visibility over residents, particularly private tenants who were often previously hidden from council intervention services.
  • Early intervention is crucial. This needs to be before the 56 days stated in the Act. Once a person is 56 days from homelessness, it is usually too late for intervention.
  • Newcastle CC uses data to identify pathways to homelessness. This enables early intervention for these households. The first pathways were residents affected by the benefit cap or LHA restrictions.
  • Households at risk generally have a broad range of issues. Support agencies need to be realistic about the resources required for prevention of homelessness. This can be long-term and multifaceted. A multi-discipline approach is essential.
  • Data can inform the best “first approach”. Often this will be a debt advisor in order to ensure ongoing income maximisation and sustainability prior to other interventions.
  • Financing prevention is an issue. Newcastle has reduced and limited resources.
  • The council can assist with prevention and support, but central government needs to tackle the issues causing poverty and take a more structured approach to prevention.

Nikki Middleton, Luton Borough Council

Nikki Middleton, Luton Borough Council: “It makes no sense at all for us to wait until someone is at a point of crisis.”

Nikki is Customer Services Manager at Luton. Her team has responsibility for early intervention under the Act. Nikki talked about why Luton is committed to adopting a preventative approach, why data is important to them and some of the challenges they’re experiencing.

Luton Borough Council is committed to adopting a preventative approach because homelessness is an avoidable process. Nikki said “When we don’t avoid it not only is it expensive but the cost to individuals is considerable. That means that the interventions become less effective and engagement much harder. It makes no sense at all for us to wait until someone is at a point of crisis.”

Luton uses the administrative data it collects when supporting its 20,000 low income households to provide proactive help. Real, proper intervention is when you offer preventative support before someone presents to you, asking for help, says Nikki. Look at the data you’re holding and identify which people you can give more help to.

“Luton’s biggest challenge is heartbreaking. We know this works; we know the level of need and demand in our town; but we can’t resource the support we know we need to provide, even though we know that’s going to save us, DWP, other central government departments and other public sector departments money in the long term. It’s cost effective and we still can’t make the case to find the resources now,” said Nikki.

Key messages from Nikki Middleton

  • Prevention is vital. Allowing homelessness to occur results in further cost, as clearly illustrated by Mary’s experiences.
  • Once a person is homeless they may not have the resources to engage with agencies. It makes no sense to wait until homelessness has occurred.
  • Local Authorities hold incredibly rich data. Most low-income households will have already presented to the authority. Councils need to draw this information together from different departments and amalgamate it to allow early intervention.
  • Local authorities do not have the resources to offer all the intervention and support that they need to provide. Luton cannot resource the support required for early intervention even though they know this will result in eventual cost savings. There is an ongoing battle to fund a crucial service.

View more images from the event here.

Next steps

Policy in Practice will build on the event and keep the conversation going.
    1. Please help us prepare for our forthcoming Roundtable with Lord Bird by telling us how committed your organisation is to preventing poverty and vulnerability, and what needs to improve. Take the survey here
    2. To register your interest in attending the Roundtable email hello@policyinpractice.co.uk.
    3. If you weren’t able to attend the House of Lords event but would like to hear more please join our webinar on Preventing Vulnerability on Wednesday 22 August, details here.
    4. To learn more about our work with local authorities helping them to prevent homelessness view the video below. We are helping councils across the UK pool their data to proactively identify households at risk of homelessness, engage those household with timely and relevant support and track the impact of interventions. This helps councils build a case for prevention.

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