Calling on the Government for Housing First, not housing only

Photo of St Mungo's staff during appointment with client

The centrepiece of the new Conservative Government’s commitment to end rough sleeping is an expansion of the Housing First scheme. Dave Wilson, Impact & Evaluation Officer, shares some new research about St Mungo’s own Housing First services and discusses how they offer a potential solution to our rough sleeping crisis.

It was easy to miss it, but the major parties made big commitments on homelessness in this election. The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all gave manifesto pledges to eliminate rough sleeping – the most extreme and dangerous form of homelessness – from our streets altogether.

As the dust settles on the result, one of the things we at St Mungo’s have been thinking about is how the new Conservative government will deliver on their pledge to end rough sleeping by 2024.

The Conservative manifesto makes it clear that the government sees an expansion of Housing First – an internationally proven approach to tackling rough sleeping – as a big part of the answer.

And so, now seems like a good time to share the work we have been doing recently about some of our own Housing First services, in Brighton and Hove, and Westminster.

An in-depth look at how Housing First operates in the UK

Housing First services look quite different to conventional homelessness services. In Housing First, individuals who are sleeping rough are given direct access to independent accommodation without going through a homeless hostel or shelter. From there they are offered intensive, holistic support from support workers.

Study after study has shown Housing First to be a very effective solution to homelessness. But much of this research comes from the US and the housing system and homelessness services work very differently there. We wanted to explore in more detail what Housing First looks like in practice in a UK setting.

Our new research, published this week in partnership with the University of Salford, looks at two St Mungo’s Housing First services in Brighton and Hove, and Westminster. Both areas face very similar challenges: an overheated housing market, a severe shortage of social housing and some of the highest levels of rough sleeping in the country.

An effective solution, but practical constraints

For us, there are three main lessons from the research:

  1. Housing First can be an effective solution to rough sleeping in the UK.
    Both projects work with clients who have chaotic housing histories. In many cases, these individuals had been through and struggled with the system of conventional homelessness services on multiple occasions. But the research found that the Housing First teams were very effective at supporting these clients to sustain independent tenancies. Crucially, even when clients struggled to maintain the tenancy or were evicted, they continued to receive support from their Housing First support worker. This was often an important platform to help them get things back on track.
  2. Some of the Housing First principles are compromised by lack of housing options.
    We learned that there are serious challenges to operating a Housing First service in the form originally intended in these areas. One of the principles underlying Housing First is that clients should have choice and control over where they live and security of tenure. Both of those are hard to achieve in cities where private housing is shockingly expensive and social housing waiting lists stretch thousands long.
  3. Partnership working is key to success in Housing First.
    Clients in Housing First services often have a range of complex, interrelated needs. Support is most effective when it is provided by a skilled, multidisciplinary team covering specialisms like drug and alcohol treatment, mental health and employment skills. The model is at its best when it is Housing First, not housing only. It is also vital for services to cultivate good relationships with private sector and social landlords. The research highlighted this in Westminster in particular, where all Housing First clients were able to access secure social accommodation via a single housing association, Sanctuary.

Housing First should be part of a wider strategy to tackle rough sleeping

Last year, the government announced £28 million of new funding for three Housing First pilots, in the West Midlands, Liverpool and Greater Manchester.

Our research strengthens the case that Housing First is an effective solution to rough sleeping, and we welcome these schemes.

But we also know that Housing First works best if the wider environment is right. £1 billion has been cut from vital homelessness services in the past decade. There is a lot of ground to make up to ensure everyone sleeping rough has the right, tailored package of support for them.

That is why we are calling on the government in our Home for Good campaign to take the bold action needed to end rough sleeping for good.

  • Firstly, it must ensure an adequate supply of social housing.
  • Secondly, it must make the private rented sector more secure and more affordable.
  • And thirdly, it needs to provide long-term guaranteed funding for homelessness services. This includes Housing First, but it should not be limited to it.

More Housing First is a good idea, but without these wider changes, the Government will not be able to follow through on its pledge and end rough sleeping for good.

Read the full report and our summary.