Can Housing First help end homelessness?

Matt Downie MBE, Chief Executive

Today, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has presented an ambitious plan for ending homelessness. Crisis is one of the organisations to commission the CSJ to carry out this research, in an attempt to help generate new and innovative approaches to tackle the rising levels of homelessness and rough sleeping.

A national Housing First programme features as the key component of this strategy to end rough sleeping and chronic homelessness, but what is it, and could it make a difference? .

What is Housing First?

Housing First is based on the simple idea that the best way to solve homelessness is to provide people with their own home. 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. Housing First prioritises rapid access to a stable home for those with high support needs, but that is only the start. Once rehoused, people are offered the necessary services to address the reasons why they may have become homeless to start with.

Widely adopted across North America and a variety of European states, Housing First has formed a central component of successful, national homelessness strategies. Perhaps the most dramatic results have been seen in Finland, where in the 1980’s rough sleeping had reached a high of 4,700, but where today it is virtually zero, and where the capital Helsinki has only one 62-bed temporary hostel remaining.

Wherever Housing First has been adopted at scale it has provided successful results, with high tenancy sustainment rates and improved health and wellbeing outcomes.  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.

 What is the financial case for Housing First?

The CSJ report advocates a national Housing First programme costing £110 million per year. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has estimated that after two years of implementing Housing First for 46,000 people the Government would save £200 million 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, not least because the savings must be cashable, and presumably that means providing less temporary accommodation for people in hostels and night shelters.

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

What are the potential difficulties with Housing First?

 It is important to note that not everybody thinks Housing First is a great idea. Hostel providers have raised concerns that the current environment of funding reductions for supported housing may be compounded if Housing First is somehow seen as a panacea or justification for further cuts to existing provision.

It is also worth noting that politically there are those that level an accusation of ‘queue jumping’ at Housing First, citing the issue of those 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.

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. And yes, any national policy must also ensure that existing allocations of social homes are not disrupted.

 Political support

There is a clearly strong interest from within Government for the Housing First model, with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, 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 be required if Housing First is to be adopted successfully across political cycles and jurisdictions.

We strongly welcome the CSJ call for Housing First to be adopted as national policy. 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. Yes, we still need to address the political choices that create homelessness in the first place (welfare cuts, lack of affordable housing, etc.), and the CSJ report confronts some of these issues, but the case for Housing First as part of the solution to homelessness is now undeniable.

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.

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