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Housing before treatment

Housing homeless people before they receive treatment could end rough sleeping, but the policy must not disrupt existing allocations, says Matt Downie



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Last week the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) presented an ambitious plan for ending homelessness. Crisis was one of the organisations to commission the CSJ to carry out this research. A national Housing First programme features as the key component of this strategy to end rough sleeping and chronic homelessness.

“Housing First is based on the simple idea that the best way to solve homelessness is to provide people with their own home.”

Housing First is based on the simple idea that the best way to solve homelessness is to provide people with their own home. Once rehoused, people are offered the necessary services to address the reasons they may have become homeless to start with.

This may sound blindingly obvious but the current approach in the UK is predominantly ‘treatment first’, where people are required to successfully address wider needs such as substance misuse or mental health problems before they move on from temporary accommodation such as hostels and night shelters.

Widely adopted across North America and several European states, Housing First has formed a central component of successful national homelessness strategies. Perhaps the most dramatic results have been in Finland, where in the 1980s rough sleeping had reached a high of 4,700, but where today it is virtually zero.

Wherever Housing First has been adopted at scale it has provided successful results, with high tenancy sustainment rates and improved health and well-being. The arguments for adopting this approach as national policy in the UK (and specifically in England, which is the focus of the CSJ report) are now too compelling to ignore.

The CSJ report advocates a national Housing First programme costing £110m per year. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has estimated that after two years of implementing Housing First for 46,000 people, the government would save £200m per year, making this programme cost neutral over the course of a parliament.

Further work is required to show exactly what would happen if Housing First was adopted as the default approach to addressing different forms of homelessness.

“Crisis is conducting a feasibility study in the Liverpool city region.”

In order to answers these questions in a real context, Crisis is conducting a feasibility study in the Liverpool city region to look at cost benefits of Housing First and the transitional costs of moving away from the current system. The study has been funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the European Housing First Hub, and it will report in June.

Hostel providers have raised concerns that the current environment of funding reductions for supported housing may be compounded if Housing First if it is somehow seen as a panacea or justification for further cuts to existing provision.

It is also worth noting that politically there are those who level at accusation of ‘queue jumping’ at Housing First – citing the issue of people who have had to wait many years on the social housing queue – and a perceived unfairness of fast-tracking accommodation for rough sleepers and others with support needs.

“Should the government adopt such a policy, it would represent a mind shift in the way homeless people are seen and our shared aspirations for their future.”

Both of these issues are surmountable, but do require a transition plan and transparency about what exactly Housing First will replace and for whom it will be provided. Any national policy must also ensure that existing allocations of social homes are not disrupted.

There is a strong interest from within government for the Housing First model, with communities secretary Sajid Javid announcing that he will be visiting Finland to find out more about how it works in practice. This is to be strongly welcomed, and as ever with homelessness policy, cross-party agreement on this issue will required if Housing First is to be adopted successfully across political cycles and jurisdictions.

Should the government adopt such a policy, it would represent a mind shift in the way homeless people are seen and our shared aspirations for their future.

Having a stable place to call home is fundamental to the life chances of us all, and Housing First offers that opportunity to those who need it most.

Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs, Crisis

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