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29 July 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 8:17am

To end homelessness, we need to flip the support system on its head

Neil Coyle MP says that rather than making people prove they are ready for a home, we need to give them support and access to mainstream housing as soon as possible.

By Neil Coyle

If I ask you to picture homelessness accommodation, you might think of a night shelter, a hostel or maybe a room in a B&B. You are unlikely to think of a one-bed flat, complete with kitchen and bathroom. That makes sense, as someone living in one of those would most likely not be described as “homeless”.

Generally, people who are forced into homelessness in England are put into those first types of temporary accommodation, before hopefully progressing to a place of their own. For many it can be life-saving and, indeed, hundreds of deaths were avoided in lockdown by providing emergency accommodation to 37,000 people rough sleeping or at risk of homelessness – even if the Everyone In scheme was something of a misnomer after the government refused to assist anyone without access to public funds because of their immigration status, leaving councils to foot the bill for this vulnerable group. It should not have taken a pandemic to prove that homelessness is a threat to life, but that combined effort from government, councils and charities showed what can be achieved through policy in action.

However, for a significant group of people, the traditional route out of homelessness via temporary accommodation does not work. For people with multiple and serious mental health, trauma and addiction issues, temporary or supported accommodation does not give them the stability to properly address these issues and they end up trapped in a cycle of homelessness for years. On top of that, some women can feel threatened in those environments and seek to avoid them altogether. These people need an alternative, which brings me back to that one-bed flat.

Housing First is a scheme that can end homelessness by flipping the system on its head. Rather than making people prove they are ready for a home, it gives them access to mainstream housing as soon as possible, along with long-term support to address whatever needs they may have. Simply put, it ends their homelessness by giving them a home.

It is already central to the response to homelessness in countries including Finland and USA, as well as Scotland. In 2017, the UK government committed to increasing the number of Housing First places available in England by funding three region-wide pilot schemes in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and West Midlands. They have been incredibly successful. Of the 450 people housed by last September, many of whom had been homeless for years, 88% had sustained their tenancy.

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On the back of that success the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness has just completed an inquiry into how we can scale up these three pilots into a national programme by expanding the number of Housing First places in England from 2,000 to 16,450. This is the number of estimated places that were needed pre-pandemic, though it may now be higher. The annual upfront cost for long-term support would not be cheap at around £150m but the savings would be huge, with the Centre for Social Justice estimating that for every £1 spent, £1.56 would be saved across health, criminal justice and homelessness services.

Sixty-five people with experience of homelessness contributed to our inquiry, including many Housing First clients. They explained how the level of support they received was unlike anything they had before. As one person said: “My Housing First worker is a constant in my life, with her supporting me and a place to stay I can take action on my substance abuse and mental health issues. Housing First have worked with me whatever state I’ve been in, including when I’ve been suicidal and unable to see how I could carry on.”

Hearing people reflect on painful issues and hugely damaging periods of their lives should never be underestimated, and the conclusion of the collective testimony from our inquiry is clear: it is time for a national Housing First programme.

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The problem is there is no sign yet of one coming, despite the 2019 Conservative manifesto pledge to “end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next parliament by expanding successful pilots and programmes such as… Housing First”. Worse still, funding for the three regional pilots is set to end from next year and there is still no clarity on how they will be funded beyond that.

Together these pilots support up to 1,100 people, around half of the current total Housing First places in England. Those people must not be left unsupported and at risk of being forced back into homelessness. It is vital that the government commits to continuing the pilots’ funding in the autumn spending review.

But equally urgent is the need to start expanding Housing First everywhere it is needed. The pandemic was the first time in years that many people across England with multiple and serious support needs engaged with support services. We must help break the cycle of homelessness and Housing First is the best way to do it.

It will also require long-term funding in support services and housebuilding. The pilot regions have all been held back from supporting more people due to difficulty in accessing appropriate housing, particularly one-bed flats, as well as the short-term funding arrangements for support services.

A national Housing First programme is vital to achieving the government’s commitment to ending rough sleeping, but its success relies on people knowing they will never be cut off from the support they need.

Neil Coyle MP is co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness and MP for Bermondsey & Old Southwark.