On Christmas Eve 2019 the government announced that “200 people were to spend Christmas off the streets and in their own homes thanks to an innovative government programme, Housing First”.

Housing First schemes place homeless people in accommodation quickly and then, crucially, offer intensive, specialist support.

Housing First initiatives are not new in England but these pilots are the first to receive direct funding from central government, a total of £25.3 million. So far, 200 people have been helped by Government-backed pilot schemes in Greater Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands. This is bolstered by the new Homelessness Reduction Grant, a top-up of £63 million, raising the existing Flexible Homelessness Support Grant to £263 million for 2020-21.

The announcement comes as the number of homeless households was estimated by Shelter to hit a high of 280,000 by Christmas. This figure includes a growing number of rough sleepers, which increased by two-thirds between 2010 and Autumn 2018, to 4,677. Inner cities and built-up areas understandably are worst-hit, but the scale of the problem is such that tackling the homelessness crisis is a top priority right across councils in England.

All forms of homelessness have been on the rise for a decade, with charities, support organisations and councils working tirelessly but struggling to control the current homelessness crisis due to structural issues. In this context the Government’s acknowledgement of Housing First’s potential is very welcome, complementing the wider push for prevention-led homelessness services, which was ramped up following the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

Give people a home first, then tackle complex issues

Across Europe Housing First is known as a set of guiding principles to help relieve, in particular, the most visible and marginalising form of homelessness, rough sleeping. Originally implemented in the United States in the early 1990s, its early success encouraged European countries, most notably Finland, to follow suit.

At the heart of Housing First is an understanding of how best to engage with people facing complex needs such as drug dependency, mental ill health or having previous experiences in the criminal justice system. This group is over-represented among rough sleepers who find it especially difficult to retain accommodation and engage with support organisations.

The principles of Housing First, from Housing First England, are aligned with the eight principles contained in EU guidance. The most novel, compared to traditional strategies, is that of separation of housing and treatment. With Housing First, giving someone a roof over their head takes priority over the push for the client to change their behaviour. Behavioural change is client-led and based on active engagement without coercion. Other important principles include harm reduction, the resolution to encourage people to reduce harmful behaviour rather than go cold-turkey, and flexible support, which means for as long as it’s required.

Housing First can be a part of an effective homelessness relief strategy

Housing First has proved to be more effective than traditional methods in helping those with complex needs secure a stable home. The Finnish model has formed the basis of Greater Manchester’s planning; in Helsinki, the approach has cost the national government €300m (£260m) over the last decade. Rough sleeping is now virtually non-existent in the capital city. In England, a government research briefing of the approach reported that 8 out of 10 people who get accommodation under Housing First have sustained their tenancy a year later, compared to 3 in 10 for other international case studies over the same period.

One example in Manchester found that rough sleeping numbers have fallen by 37% in 2019, as Housing First initiatives were increasingly adopted. A 2017 cost-benefit evaluation of Shelter’s Housing First pilot in Manchester estimated net positive savings were made, due to wider impacts on police and healthcare services.

Stop gap housing solutions are costly and more funding should be invested in prevention

Housing First strategies are resource-intensive which makes them cost efficient only in extreme cases of prevention and relief. All short-term solutions to addressing the crisis of homelessness are likely to be relatively expensive, in part because they rely on costly temporary accommodation services.

A powerful case for more prevention can be made. In 2018, Crisis estimated that for every £1 invested in homelessness prevention there would be a benefit of £2.8. In a forthcoming report for the Local Government Association, Policy in Practice estimates that an additional £1.4 million in funding could successfully prevent around 2,500 people from becoming homeless. Senior local authority stakeholders agreed that additional funding should go to prevention services:

“There is an aim to shift more focus into early intervention methods to reduce the risk of homelessness, such as debt advice, tenancy training etc, as opposed to reactionary methods via temporary accommodation.”

London local authority Housing Manager

Housing First is not the only approach local authorities can take

Ending homelessness is a tough and complex challenge and a variety of approaches are needed. Manchester’s success can be attributed to the adoption of Housing First principles in addition to wider efforts that ensure a holistic and grassroots approach, via the Inspiring Change Manchester programme.  The vast majority of homeless people don’t consistently sleep rough every night, many will use temporary accommodation too. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to homelessness.

Identifying at-risk households to prevent homelessness is key

Policy in Practice helps councils to identify vulnerability, target support and track change over time in order to prevent homelessness in the first place. Using their own household level data sets local authorities can create a robust measure of financial resilience that takes not only income into account, but the cost of living. Luton Borough Council has used this to identify at-risk households and provide targeted support, tracking the outcomes of early interventions six or twelve months down the line. We have written about 7 lessons from Luton’s experience, such as the importance of early intervention and ensuring that services are tailored to the individual.

The Low Income Family Tracker (LIFT) that we’ve created helps councils to build on early intervention and prevention approaches. Croydon Council has adopted an early intervention and prevention approach to helping affected families affected by welfare reforms. Called Gateway, the award-winning programme uses tools, including LIFT, to help identify households at risk and target tailored support to people before they reached crisis point.

Using administrative data to support homelessness prevention

Understanding how effective homeless interventions like Housing First are is critical to tackling and preventing homelessness and analysing the information contained within the existing administrative data sets held by local authorities can do this. Robust initiatives like Housing First are very welcome because the evidence shows that it can provide workable solutions to homelessness, particularly rough sleeping. We support councils with their homelessness prevention work by helping them to uncover the insights in their data. Our clients can identify people who are at risk of homelessness, target effective support to those most in need, and track change over time to evidence how well interventions such as, but not limited to Housing First, have worked.

Join our webinar on designing effective data-led local authorities

In our latest webinar showcasing how public sector administrative data is being used for good, join us to hear how our guest speakers,  Fiona Clay-Poole, Neath Port Talbot Council and Mark Fowler, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, are using data to transform their organisations intelligently. The webinar is free and takes place on Wednesday 29 January at 11:00 to 12:00. More details and registration here.

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