Bob Blackman is co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness and MP for Harrow East.
I am proud to co-chair the All Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness because we never lose sight of what we are for: it is in our name. We do not want to reduce homelessness or minimise it but end it for good.
If that sounds like too big a challenge then I would ask you to do two things. First, look at what was done in the last year to support people without a home in the pandemic. 37,000 people facing homelessness were provided emergency accommodation, with the Everyone In scheme rolled out in a matter of weeks.
A hotel room is not a home, but that combined effort from government and local services showed what can be achieved through bold policy action. There is no doubt that this saved hundreds of lives and led many people to access support for the first time in many years, or ever in some cases. It showed that no one is beyond help. It showed that if the Government makes the right choices now, it can meet its commitment to end rough sleeping by 2024.
That brings me to the second cause for optimism. If you think that homelessness, and indeed rough sleeping, cannot be ended, I would ask you to read the testimonies of the 65 people experiencing homelessness who contributed to the APPG’s latest report.
Battling multiple issues with mental health, addiction and trauma meant many had been stuck in cycles of homelessness for years. They are what are often referred to as the most entrenched rough sleepers.
But thanks to groundbreaking Housing First pilot schemes, which the Government funded in 2017, many are now not only housed but finally have the stability to address those multiple serious issues. In the words of one of our contributors: “I honestly believe if I wasn’t introduced to Housing First and this programme I wouldn’t be here to tell any story.”
Unlike other homelessness schemes, Housing First does not require people to prove they can live in a normal home by first living in shelters and hostels. Though life-saving for many, for people with the most serious needs this support falls short and can, at best, only manage their homelessness.
With Housing First, people are given access to mainstream housing as soon as possible and provided long-term support to help address their other needs. The 2019 Conservative manifesto made the very welcome commitment to end rough sleeping by the end of this parliament “by expanding successful pilots and programmes such as…Housing First”.
In England, the Government recognised the important role of Housing First back in 2018, when it funded three pilots in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and West Midlands. They have been hugely successful, housing 450 people by September last year with 88 per cent of clients sustaining tenancies across the programme and contributing just over half of the total of 2,000 Housing First places we currently have across England.
But despite that success, as it stands, funding for the three pilots is set to end from next year. Failure to fund these programmes beyond this would not just be turning our backs on the progress they have made. It would leave over a thousand people who have been promised open ended support at serious risk of being forced back into homelessness.
That cliff edge is understandably causing considerable uncertainty and apprehension among clients and staff and urgently needs resolving. At the very least, we have urged the Government to commit to funding the three pilots beyond next year.
When reading the experience of Housing First clients, what is most striking is not just the level of support they are offered but the choice and direction they have over their own recovery and route of homelessness. As one client said:
“There was never you must do this or you must do that to get something, only suggestions and encouragement for things that would benefit me and when I made the decision if I wanted to engage with other service I was supported with this.”
Choice does not just help tailor the support, it gives clients ownership of their new life away from homelessness and crucially, the responsibility to make it work. That is very different to hostels, which left another client feeling as if all her life decisions were taken out of her hands.
Housing First has also proven to be especially successful for certain groups of people, including prison leavers, young people and women. Addressing the specific needs of women’s homelessness is vital to meeting the Government’s target of ending rough sleeping by 2024. Evidence has shown that more “traditional“ homelessness services in supported and temporary accommodation are simply not working for some women. Housing First provides a much-needed alternative to this.
Now is the time to build on the success in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and West Midlands to create a National Housing First Programme. The pandemic has brought many people who were experiencing long-term homelessness back in touch with services but for many with the most serious issues, successful schemes like the Rough Sleeper Accommodation Programme will not be enough to keep them off the streets for good.
Before the pandemic it was estimated that we needed to increase Housing First places in England from 2,000 to 16,450, though it is likely to now be higher. The upfront cost of expanding the scheme to meet that need is not cheap, with an annual cost of £150 million for people to receive the support they need to build a life away from homelessness. But the long-term savings are considerable. The Centre of Social Justice estimates that for every £1 spent on Housing First, £1.56 is saved across the criminal justice, health and homelessness sectors.
This investment however, will only be realised if it is backed up by addressing England’s serious lack of affordable housing. With Housing First built on the principle of giving people a home as soon as possible to start their recovery, a lack of appropriate housing has been a major challenge for all three of the pilot regions so addressing this will build even more on the effectiveness of this overall approach.
We should be proud of the efforts made to provide emergency accommodation to people facing homelessness in the last year. But failure to build on that progress could see us go backwards, with people in the most vulnerable situations bearing the brunt of this unravelling.
The Government must start by committing to funding the Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and West Midlands Housing First pilots and then begin to scale the scheme up across England. It is time to end homelessness, not manage it.