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Daniel Pryor is Head of Programmes at the Adam Smith Institute. 

It’s difficult to self-isolate in a crowded night shelter, and it’s even harder to stay healthy when you’re sleeping rough. Covid-19 has hit the UK’s homeless population hard.

Heightened financial pressures on those struggling to make rent means many more Brits are now at risk of ending up without a roof over their head.

This would be an unacceptable affront to human dignity after a series of good moves in recent months to alleviate the issue of rough sleeping, and the centre-right urgently needs to respond.

The “Everyone In” scheme – which gave local authorities £3.2 million to provide rough sleepers with emergency accommodation such as vacant hotels – has helped alleviate some of the immediate risks.

The latest figures show that over 90 per cent of rough sleepers known to councils at the beginning of this crisis have been offered accommodation.

But there is an ongoing confusion over whether this support is being wound up.

Although there has been no ministerial statement on the matter, Manchester Evening News says that a leaked report shows the Ministry for Communities, Housing and Local Government has now ‘drawn a line’ under the programme. 

This has prompted concerns from local authorities that they will face unfunded costs and rough sleepers could face more stringent criteria before being offered emergency housing.

There were already misgivings about the programme after it was clarified that those made homeless during the lockdown were not covered.

However, the Government denied these claims when it fired back last week, pointing to Dame Louise Casey’s newly-formed task force to support rough sleepers into long-term accommodation post-lockdown.

The situation remains unclear and further clarification would be most welcome.

Whether or not the Government’s response stands up to scrutiny, the ongoing crisis has reinforced the need for long-term solutions to homelessness and what comes next.

As we fast approach the end to the first cliff-edge on eviction bans, it’s a debate we need to be having with some urgency.

Figures on this topic are famously imprecise, but they do give some idea of the magnitude of the problem.

The latest Office of National Statistics data from late 2019 shows that over 87,000 households (over 200,000 people) in England lived in temporary accommodation, with 4,266 people estimated to be sleeping rough based on a count from a single night in Autumn last year.

Following rapid growth in the past decade, the last couple of years have seen the number of rough sleepers begin to level off at the national scale. Post-Covid, the Government looks even less likely to meet its target to halve this number by 2022.

Recent funding increases and reforms like the Homelessness Reduction Act – which aims to boost the level of support required from local councils – are welcome but not enough by themselves.

The most promising development in recent years has been trials of Housing First in places like Liverpool, Manchester and the West Midlands – funded directly by central government.

First developed across the pond in the 1990s, Housing First does what it says on the tin: offering separate social or private accommodation with no strings attached.

Mobile support workers connect clients with allied services.

It works best when targeted specifically at homeless people with high and complex needs, giving them a secure platform to tackle issues such as mental ill health, substance misuse, or repeated contact with the criminal justice system.

It’s a chance for the most marginalised in society to rebuild their lives without constantly worrying about ending up back on the streets.

In contrast with the default approach – training people up to become ‘housing ready’ – Housing First accepts the reality of homelessness for many.

If you’re an alcoholic, going cold turkey to enter a dry facility is a tough path.

It’s also hard to improve your mental health in a shared hostel that bans pets or requires a commitment to a minimum number of support hours in order to stay off the streets. 

Housing First is a liberal approach based on harm reduction, and its success speaks for itself.

A recent systematic review of the international evidence from the University of Glasgow found that recipients were two and a half times more likely to be stably housed after 18-24 months compared to treatment as usual.

They also experienced fewer adverse health outcomes like hospitalisation and emergency department visits.

Figures on cost-effectiveness in the UK are somewhat speculative, but the research so far suggests that Housing First offers more bang for the taxpayer buck.

Any scheme that effectively reduces homelessness saves money for the NHS and criminal justice system, but Housing First is also able to cut costs by redeploying resources as the level of support needed for service users falls over time.

Quite simply, this approach needs to be scaled up.

When charities like Crisis are saying the same thing as those on the centre-right like the Centre for Social Justice and ourselves at the Adam Smith Institute, politicians should listen.

Another key part of tackling homelessness in the UK is prevention.

While Housing First is a successful way of helping existing rough sleepers in the worst situations, we also need to address the structural factors that lead to people ending up without a roof over their head.

This means fixing our broken housing market.

Unsurprisingly, a large body of economic research shows a clear relationship between housing affordability and homelessness.

The past two decades have seen a 50 per cent increase in the house price to earnings ratio across England and Wales, and in London the average home now costs around 13 times the median wage.

As homeownership declines, an ever-increasing number of renters have seen much of their pay rises lost to rental costs in recent decades, with average rents continuing to take up around 40 per cent of household income. 

Rather than chasing after the phantoms of interest rates, foreign investors or empty homes, we should make housing more affordable by building more houses.

Stricter housing market regulations increase homelessness, so we must relax the worst elements of our planning restrictions.

This could be anything from letting residents of a street vote on giving themselves planning permission to freeing up small areas of the green belt within walking distance of train stations.

More homes in places that people want to live would also go some way towards addressing our ongoing productivity crisis and helping to revive the economy post-lockdown. 

More central government funding for Housing First and building more houses won’t end homelessness entirely – nothing will.

But both measures are proven, practical, liberal ways of restoring dignity and the chance of a better life to hundreds of thousands of Brits who find themselves in impossible situations.

With many people affected by the ongoing pandemic at risk of financial hardship and the Government facing renewed pressure to act on homelessness, the voices of those on the centre-right need to be louder than ever.

9 comments for: Daniel Pryor: Reducing homelessness. Housing First is a liberal approach based on harm reduction. We need more of it

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