OPINION - 'Housing First' is a bold, straightforward idea that will help us end homelessness for good

A homeless person sleeping on the streets in central London, Britain, December 20, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Housing First makes providing a home a central strategy to ending homelessness, followed by support for health and social needs

In this day and age, I think we can all agree that everyone should have somewhere safe and secure to call home.

But, despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, this simply isn’t happening across the UK.

Every day, people in the most vulnerable circumstances come through the doors of our centres across the country, looking for help to leave homelessness behind.

Often these individuals will be tackling a range of complex and inter-related issues – such as mental or physical health conditions or dependencies on things like drugs or alcohol – which are sometimes caused or exacerbated by their homelessness.

Our most recent figures show that there are over 170,000 families and individuals trapped in some of the worst forms of homelessness – of which about one in ten of these people will have complex support needs to be addressed if they are to truly end their homelessness ordeal.

Imagine for a moment that you struggle with alcohol dependency or a severe mental health condition, and to be eligible for a place to call your own, you must prove you have fully resolved these complex issues first.  Now imagine how difficult this may be if your only option is to move into a hostel with many other people facing similar challenges or how the trauma of rough sleeping would make recovery nearly impossible.

Battling through these situations and jumping through procedural hoops in order to be granted permanent housing is what is expected of people facing homelessness in most areas of the UK though. 

We know that whatever the range of issues someone is facing, having a secure and safe home is always part of the solution to their homelessness.

This is where 'Housing First' comes in.

Housing First is the approach which offers a solution to this complex situation: provide a stable home as quickly as possible and address any needs like dependencies or health issues with coordinated and intensive support.

The rationale is that by providing this permanent home straight away and without strings attached, people are given the right tools to tackle any other issues and leave homelessness behind for good.

We know from our own studies and from elsewhere in the world, that this is much more effective in ending someone’s homelessness and keeping them housed in the long term than other models being used across the UK. 

When people ask about how to best tackle homelessness here, often we look to a country like Finland for inspiration - where homelessness has been reduced consistently and significantly over recent years, whilst it has continued to rise on our own streets.

Investment in a healthy supply of social housing and a welfare system geared towards preventing homelessness in the first instance are key factors in this, but so is Housing First. It is no coincidence that recent research comparing the Housing First model across Europe, pinpoints Finland as the only country of 19 to have this approach built in as one of their key responses to homelessness.

We have seen great promise for use of the model across the UK.

The British government have committed to funded pilots of the scheme in three areas across England and our charity Crisis will be starting our own small-scale Housing First project next year.

It is a start, but the government needs to go further.

With all evidence showing that this model effectively pulls more people back from long term homelessness, we must learn from these pilots and ensure that we have the political support to embed the model up and down the country. 

People often say that Housing First is ‘not a panacea’ or ‘not for everyone’. Whilst this is true, most people who experience homelessness just need housing and for the approximately 10 percent who have the complex support needs described here, Housing First is the answer that all the evidence points to.

Ending homelessness across the UK is completely possible - it will not happen overnight and will mean some radical changes to the way we are currently doing things here in the UK.

But the evidence is all there: Housing First works.

What we need to see now, more than ever, is the funding and political will to make sure we truly make this work across the UK. We cannot afford to lose this opportunity.

Jon Sparkes is chief executive of UK homelessness charity Crisis

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