Can we really end rough sleeping in Britain?

Francesca Albanese, Head of Research and Evaluation

As a society, it’s a question we ask ourselves a lot, even though many of us have come to see rough sleeping as an aspect of the world we live in, that, however tragic, will always be with us. But what if there was a way to end it for good?

In England we came very close to solving the issue in the early 2000s following the creation of the Rough Sleepers Unit in 1999. In other parts of the world, such as Finland and Canada, their levels of rough sleeping and chronic homelessness have been reduced in recent years. The driver of this change is predominantly policy decisions and political commitment backed up by investment in interventions and services like Housing First that are known to work in tackling rough sleeping. So, what should we be doing here? Today Crisis has published a report undertaken by Cardiff University and Heriot-Watt University which draws together the best evidence from around the world on what works to end rough sleeping.

The review has analysed over 400 published studies and spoken to 11 experts to understand what it takes to reduce the problem, which is a direct result of policy and societal failure.

The research concludes there are five very simple but important principles, which if adhered to, can offer us an opportunity to reverse the trends of the past seven years and contribute to the wider goal of ending homelessness.

Principle 1 – Understand the diversity of experiences. We know there is variation in both the profile of rough sleepers and their experiences as individuals, and local housing markets. Any approach to address rough sleeping must take these into account.

Principle 2 – Take swift action to prevent or quickly end street homelessness through interventions such as No Second Night Out (NSNO). This gets people quickly off the streets who are new rough sleepers and reduces the number of long term rough sleepers and those who develop complex needs.

Principle 3 – Identify and reach out to rough sleepers through an assertive outreach model which should be accompanied by a suitable housing offer which takes an individual’s needs into account. The review found assertive outreach to be a key component of several interventions but is potentially unethical without a meaningful accommodation offer.

Principle 4 – Widely adopt a housing led approach including the use of Housing First to move people quickly into settled housing. The evidence shows swift access to stable housing has positive impacts on a person’s ability to sustain their tenancy sustainment, and Housing First is particularly effective for those rough sleepers with complex needs.

Principle 5 – Offer person-centred support which includes choice for the individual about where they live and how they receive help. Personalised Budgets are a good example of this and any intervention must be commissioned and designed in collaboration with other services including those around health, substance misuse, and criminal justice.

The review focused its attention on interventions to address people already experiencing rough sleeping but also recognises the pivotal role prevention plays in ending homelessness. Any strategy to address rough sleeping must sit alongside good quality short term emergency accommodation, and be integrated within a plan to prevent homelessness, because we know that with the right interventions, most people can be stopped from sleeping on the street in the first place.

However, there are a number of barriers that must be overcome so the five principles can be implemented in their entirety. There needs to be greater access to, and supply of, good quality accommodation. Funding needs to be long term to support, sustainable interventions, and on a collaborative basis including health and criminal justice to avoid expensive and inefficient silos.

Restrictions to entitlements for rough sleepers on the basis of local connection or access to public funds should also be addressed. Finally, we also need to consider the barriers posed by gaps in the legislative frameworks for England, Wales and Scotland that would need to be tackled if we were to adhere to the five principles.

There are good intentions by governments in Westminster, Scotland and Wales to tackle rough sleeping but this isn't enough. The next steps must involve taking the evidence seriously, and through partnership working and political will, putting what works at the centre of any rough sleeping strategy.

We know that rough sleeping can be ended. It’s time now to act.

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