Now that the Homelessness Reduction Bill has passed its crucial second reading, I-SPHERE PhD Student and practitioner Adam Stephenson considers how local authorities can best implement the bill based on his knowledge of local homelessness systems in London.
The Homelessness Reduction Bill, which recently passed its second reading, will bring much needed reform to the 40-year-old homelessness legislation by ensuring ‘meaningful’ help is provided to single people. The Bill is largely based on the recommendations of an independent expert panel convened by Crisis and chaired by I-SPHERE’s Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick. The Bill’s key provisions place the following duties on councils:
- to assess and agree a plan
- to help prevent homelessness
- to help relieve homelessness
The bill also creates a new duty on public agencies to refer people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to the council. Various conceptions of prevention exist in this context but the one that best reflects practice defines homelessness prevention as activities that:
- help households to remain in their current home
- delay ‘homelessness’ while alternative housing is planned
- find households alternative housing
The new prevention duties fall into the first two groups and the relief duty in the third.
Implementation: lessons from London
My PhD fieldwork, completed this summer, examined approaches to homelessness in six London boroughs. The research identified an array of local practices that can inform the successful implementation of the new bill.
A duty to assess and agree a plan
The first reform introduces a new duty to provide a personal housing plan covering: the reason for homelessness; the applicant’s needs; the advice given, accommodation options and the actions to be taken by both the Officer and the applicant.
It’s rare for councils to provide personalised plans directly (its common in commissioned services). Of the six case studies, only Newham provided Personal Housing Plans. The plans were introduced in early 2016 as part of their Resilience agenda and ensure that everyone receives tailored advice on housing options, benefit entitlement and signposting. To improve homeless prevention and pilot the plans, Newham tripled investment in homelessness prevention services. Newham’s pilot provides lessons on plan formulation, effectiveness and resource implications.
A duty to help prevent homelessness
The second new duty ensures that action is taken to prevent homelessness for anyone who is eligible and threatened with homelessness within 56 days, regardless of priority need status, local connection or intentionality.
This will require a new approach to the provision of frontend services, particularly for single people. Two innovative models provide a possible blueprint for this. Tower Hamlet’s Single’s Team (HOST) are responsible for homelessness prevention, rough sleeping, Pathway coordination and PRS access. HOST also leads the Greater London Authority’s No First Night Out (NFNO) pilot. Similar teams are provided in Greenwich, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Lewisham, among others.
Hackney’s Greenhouse is a partnership between the council and the NHS that provides a multi-agency hub covering homelessness prevention, welfare and health. Waltham Forest also provide a multi-agency hub covering homelessness; tenancy sustainment; health and education, training and employment. The hub came at a high price, with funding for accommodation services slashed. Another example is provided by The Point, a multi-agency hub for young homeless people in Greenwich.
Helping a single person to remain in their home is often complicated, as many do not have ‘security of tenure’. As such, HOST and the Greenhouse work exclusively with single people without ‘tenure’. The most common form of homeless prevention is to delay while alternative housing is found, much like homelessness relief.
A duty to help relieve homelessness
There are three main ways to prevent and relieve single homelessness: via access to hostels, temporary accommodation, social housing, and the private rented sector (PRS). Hostels were the most common form of homelessness prevention in the case study areas. In four boroughs, hostels were arranged as a ‘Pathway’: a linear model, typically starting with an assessment centre, moving through specialist hostel provision and ending with social housing or PRS access.
Camden has the largest hostel sector, arranged in three distinct pathways: Adult; Young Persons’ and Mental Health. Camden’s Adult Pathway differs from most as progression is ‘notional’ – each person remains in the same room throughout. Westminster has five pathways: rough sleepers, young persons, mental health, older people, and single homelessness. The latter is targeted at single people with support needs and consists of approximately 70 unsupported self-contained flats where people typically stay for six to 12 months while alternative housing is identified.
Tower Hamlets also provides separate pathways for rough sleepers, people with mental health problems and young people. Like Westminster, Tower Hamlets also use temporary accommodation to accommodate almost 130 single homelessness people under the NFNO programme. SPEAR provides a holistic Pathway for rough sleepers in Richmond. Kingston and Newham provide hostels outside a pathway, meaning access and exit is somewhat ad hoc.
Social housing is also routinely used to prevent single homelessness in London. Clearing House provides move-on housing for former rough sleepers across London. The six boroughs used social housing allocations to prevent homelessness, often through a ‘quota’ which provides ‘priority’ access to social housing for targeted groups of single people, such as care leavers. The most interesting social housing innovation was found in Tower Hamlets, where 10% of all one-bed lettings are set aside for ‘hidden homeless’ single people.
Helping single homelessness people access the PRS was also found to be a well-established practice at the sub-regional and local level. Three sub-regional partnerships operated PRS access schemes for single people. Locally, Tower Hamlets operated two PRS schemes for prevention and move-on. PRS move-on schemes were also found in Camden, Westminster, Kingston and Richmond.
A duty to refer
The Homeless Reduction Bill also places a new duty on public agencies to refer people who are homeless or at risk to the local authority.
In many London boroughs, public agencies work together to prevent single homelessness through joint commissioning, multi-agency partnerships and joint working. Mental health pathways were jointly commissioned in Camden, Westminster and Tower Hamlets. Mental health services in Camden and Westminster also provide outreach teams to work with rough sleepers.
HOST partners with health providers; the special addictions unit, drug intervention project, Community Alcohol Team and Community Mental Health Team. HOST also sit on a number of local panels, such as the Hospital Pathway, multidisciplinary panel, bed management meeting at the local psychiatric unit, MAPPA and MARAC. HOST contains a hospital and a health specialist and co-locates two officers at the Community Rehabilitation Company. Partnerships between mental health services and homelessness services were also present in the outer London boroughs of Kingston and Richmond.
The Homeless Reduction Bill and system change
My research also suggests that the successful implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Bill could promote place-based system change.
Housing plans, service integration and outcome delivering
To meet their current challenges, local authorities are increasingly focusing on devolution, collaboration, data analytics and outcome delivery. Croydon’s Gateway delivers holistic, whole-family early interventions through the integration of housing needs assessments, welfare reform, discretionary welfare and financial inclusion services. Similar processes are driving the evolution of multi-agency single homelessness services in Hackney, Waltham Forest and Greenwich.
Personal Housing Plans, combined with support plans such as the ‘Homelessness Star’, could potentially create a means to access and navigate the emerging multi-agency approaches. Personal Housing Plans and the localisation of Universal Credit support and health services create further opportunities for local collaboration and outcome delivery.
Path(way) dependency and Housing First
While the Homelessness Reduction Bill aims to improve early intervention and homelessness prevention, linear resettlement models such as Pathways are likely to prevail, particularly in London, due to the model’s prevalence, ongoing capital investment and an unaffordable PRS.
The Bill, funding promises, and homelessness funding localisation however does create opportunities to rebalance funding away from pathways towards Housing First and Rapid Rehousing. Furthermore, Arlington House provide a potential model of hostel modernisation that could be repeated elsewhere.
Partnerships and local priorities
Local strategic partnerships are key to understanding how resources for single homeless people are allocated. Local priority is often given to rough sleepers and what one Westminster practitioner called ‘strategically relevant’ single people i.e. someone who receives a service from another local statutory services, such as leaving care or mental health provision. If the local authority and mental health service jointly fund a person’s treatment, they will prioritise access for that person. Similarly, social housing quotas target available lettings at care leavers, people with mental health problems and people exiting hostel pathways.
While the aim of the Homeless Prevention Bill is commendable, it is essential that local authorities are allowed the flexibility to set local priorities. Local prioritisation would seemingly remain possible under Section 184d (1)(a) of the new bill. It requires local authorities ‘to take reasonable steps to help, having regard (among other things) to the need to make the best use of the authority’s resources’.
The Homeless Reduction Bill has the potential to transform services for single homeless people in England by ensuring more local authorities provide meaningful help. In London, many local authorities are well placed to deliver their new duties and can help others achieve change. At the same time, the Bill must allow local authorities flexibility to target resources at local priority groups such as rough sleepers and people with complex needs. Moreover, the proposed reforms, backed by spending commitments, should enable local authorities to facilitate collaboration between different agencies to deliver both housing-centred approaches and system change, thereby improving the system of protection for single people threatened with homelessness.
Photo credit: Rough sleeping site in London. Adam Stephenson, 2016.