Down, but not out
A pilot scheme to stop first-time rough sleepers spending a second night on the street has been so successful it could be rolled out nationwide. Martin Hilditch reports
Self-employed tiler Daniel sits on a plastic chair in the outdoor patio area of the ‘No second night out’ hub in London’s King’s Cross and relives his slide into rough sleeping.
The 27-year-old seems bemused, as if he’s still coming to terms with the chain of events that led him here today. He speaks directly about his experiences in a strong Irish burr, but it is clear he is uncomfortable with the story, looking at the floor at regular intervals as he sketches out the past few months of his life.
‘Basically, I ran out of work,’ he says. ‘I never signed on. The bills started coming in. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know what I was going to do. There was no one in a position to help me. I had been promised two jobs - if they’d gone ahead, I would have been fine.’
But the jobs both fell through and, unable to pay rent, Daniel lost his home and ended up on the streets. He slept rough for about four weeks, during which time his bag, containing all his identification, was stolen. He spent most of his nights in and around the newly redeveloped St Pancras train station in north London ‘because I felt it was safe there’.
He might still be there today if it hadn’t been for a new approach to tackling rough sleeping being piloted in London. NSNO is a ‘does what it says on the tin’ type of scheme - it aims to find new rough sleepers, ideally on their first night out, and end their stay on the streets there and then. In Daniel’s case it has helped him obtain new identification without which he would find it difficult to get work or find a home and then obtain a place in a YMCA hostel.
Officially launched in April, NSNO has been kept largely under wraps until now while the management team got it up and running. Behind the scenes, though, it is difficult to find anyone in the homelessness sector who isn’t bursting to tell you how excited they are by the project.
Politicians have been impressed too. Housing minister Grant Shapps announced last month he would like to see the scheme, which has £500,000 government funding, extended nationwide - although this is thought to mean the principle of intensive intervention rather than distinct hubs like this one in north London.
What, then, is the secret of keeping both homelessness professionals and politicians happy? How does the project operate and what has it achieved so far?
Hub of activity
The 14-strong NSNO team operates from an incongruous building 10 minutes walk from King’s Cross station. This ‘hub’ is the place to which all rough sleepers are brought when they have been spotted on the street. Its strict criteria mean that only first-time rough sleepers - those that haven’t received any official help before - can be brought here.
Members of the public can alert outreach teams to homeless people they spot via a phoneline which, like the hub, runs 24 hours a day, every day of the week. In Daniel’s case, it was a chance spotting by some council community wardens - who are able to refer people directly to the hub - that led to his arrival.
The building itself is a simple affair, consisting of a main office, two interview rooms, shower facilities and a common room with phones, internet access, books and a television. What it emphatically does not have is beds. Instead, it seeks to work out why people have ended up homeless and come up with practical solutions pronto.
‘Think of it as an A&E department,’ Petra Salva, director of NSNO, states. ‘It’s about intensive intervention.’
As it turns out, a lot of intervention has been needed. NSNO has so far seen more than 500 people, 272 of whom were in its first three months. After arriving at the hub, rough sleepers’ needs are assessed, stories verified and stable accommodation sought in areas to which they have a connection. The aim is to make people a ‘credible offer’ of a more stable environment within 72 hours - although the average length of time to deal with cases so far has been 3.25 days.
Rising to the challenge
‘We are really challenging with people,’ Lisa Reed, leader of the assessment team, says. If someone says “I really didn’t like it in Grimsby” you have to say “you do know that without a connection to London you will remain on the streets?”. We give people an action plan. We are on their back.’
Housing departments and hostels across the country find themselves challenged too. Part of the project’s aim is to work out which councils and providers are operating well and spread good practice - and combat bad practice when it is spotted.
‘I think they see us as pushy and demanding,’ Ms Reed adds. ‘I [just] asked my team what they have learned [so far]. They said “to ask loads of questions and get everything in writing”. Performance is very variable across different local authorities. I remember spending two hours on the phone once to ensure that two people who worked in the same organisation met, so I could get someone into accommodation on a Friday.’
A senior local authority source indicates that it’s a two-way process - and that councils are looking to challenge the NSNO team too.
‘I think there has been some tension between boroughs and the NSNO,’ he says. ‘There is a feeling from NSNO that the boroughs haven’t been sufficiently responsive to housing the people they have found. Boroughs feel that sometimes they have been put under pressure to house people that they wouldn’t normally house. The percentage of people it has housed is yet to demonstrate it has been a rip-roaring success.’
But the NSNO team feel the figures so far back their approach. Sixty-eight per cent of NSNO’s clients have accepted the ‘reconnection’ offers made by the team. Just 11 per cent have been seen on the streets again.
Information is also being compiled about where London’s rough sleepers come from. Just over half are from the capital city itself, 16 per cent from towns and cities throughout the rest of the UK and the remainder are international. Roughly 40 per cent of NSNO’s clients have had medium to high-level support needs, such as mental health problems.
Ms Salva says there are early indications of areas that might need more attention. ‘Most people have been to [council] housing options departments before they come here,’ she says. ‘You have to ask why it hasn’t worked.’
The pilot has already been extended to the end of the year, at which time it will be evaluated and possibly expanded. For now though, the most important job is helping people like Daniel into safe and stable accommodation.
‘Until these people picked me up, I didn’t know what I was going to do,’ he states. Now, at least, he has the promise of a roof over his head and a brighter future.