There are both individual and structural factors which drive homelessness and exclusion. We need to tackle both. We need to create an inclusive universal domain which enables people to thrive and to use their talents and skills, and we need to provide compassionate responsive assistance to those who need it, at the earliest opportunity to enable them to remain within the universal domain.
Homelessness is not the preferred or intentional route to housing for anyone. It should be the exception. Too often, however it is the default route in a system where need hugely outstrips supply and allocations systems are forced to focus on those in the most desperate circumstances. What should we aspire to and plan for? An accessible, affordable, desirable housing offer which underpins our ability to live, work, earn and learn; to make a home, to be safe. Without that, the cycle of homelessness is perpetuated, and prevention becomes a short-term gate-keeping measure delaying the often inevitable.
Homelessness is fundamentally an equalities issue – it is about:
• Economic inequality at all levels, with some communities and people including women, those from BAME communities, LGBTQ+ people and young people more exposed because of structural inequalities.
• Policy and investment choices which prioritise short term rescue services rather than tackling root causes.
• Poverty which creates an inability to meet your own and your family’s needs.
• Power inequality and compliance with system expectations, employing deficit rather than asset-based approaches, rather than making the system inclusive for all.
It is not true that we are all no more than a pay cheque away from homelessness.
We will always have a homelessness problem until we have a housing strategy and development plan which meets household needs over the timeframe of successive Parliaments. Otherwise, we will continue to patch up those who are most vulnerable to falling out of the system, to make them fit to fight for the tightly rationed resources…. a Home.
In the West Midlands, we have a collective ambition, to ‘design out homelessness’.
What do we mean by that? We mean ensuring that our mainstream services and systems are inclusive, and keep people in homes, jobs, communities, education, and safe support. We mean intentional, perpetual prevention of the ultimate exclusion of homelessness.
We have taken a life-course approach using the Positive Pathway model, examining what we have in place and where the gaps exist, for children and families, young people, and older people, paying particular attention to those who are serially excluded.
Initially developed by St Basils to prevent youth homelessness, it has much wider relevance. It is the framework for both our homelessness strategy in Birmingham and our West Midlands Combined Authority ‘Designing out Homelessness’ strategy. The pathway model looks at five domains: universal prevention, targeted prevention and early help; crisis prevention; recovery and move on, and a sustainable home.
The Framework enables each of our systems to consider a fundamental question, “what is our universal offer?” What is in our universal space which all may access and experience, for example in education, health services, housing, public services, community assets; public spaces, employment…. How successful is it? who is likely to fall out and how do we prevent them from doing so? How do we use our collective resources such as finance, planning, regulation, assets, and powers to enhance the universal domain? Do we use them in a creative way to take a prevention-first approach or do we focus them on the point of crisis? What is mandatory? and what is discretionary? The challenge for Local Authorities can be how to meet mandatory requirements without funnelling resources into crisis and how to lever in the wider contributions from other sectors and partners, not in silos but in collaborative and integrated approaches, making the whole greater than the sum of the parts…
It is a collaborative partnership approach which enables all sectors: public, business, voluntary and community to consider what are our assets and how we make best use of them collectively and collaboratively to prevent crisis and optimise INclusion. Research shows that early spend is more effective than late spend, both socially and financially. It is therefore in our collective interests to move from a system of silo services, high access thresholds, generic approaches, and often multiple exclusions to one where there are integrated, simple access routes, early intervention, and accessible, skilled, compassionate assistance. These keep people in the universal domain, reducing financial and social costs for all.
Our approach is based on the principle that we need to make the universal domain that we all occupy inclusive for everyone, including the most vulnerable.
We need to move from a Cycle of Exclusion- each event making the next more likely, to a cycle of INclusion – keeping people IN the universal space.
What does INclusion look like?
INclusion Education – understand the underlying issues; offer unconditional support; keep the child in school; support the family; intensify targeted support where required in a respectful way.
INclusion Employment – create pathways into employment for those furthest from the labour market; ‘good work’ for all; a housing offer which underpins work; ban the box; employers provide assistance to those experiencing difficulties within their workforce, including homelessness, domestic abuse, mental health issues and provide access to confidential early help.
INclusion Welfare – link Universal Credit to Minimum income standards above destitution levels; realign housing benefits with housing costs; remove SAR for under thirty-fives; reinstate Employment Maintenance Allowance; reclaim the meaning of social security.
INclusion Housing – develop a national housing strategy not just a homelessness strategy; increase capital subsidy for social housing and make rents truly affordable to enable people to live, work, earn and learn; exclude affordability criteria in allocations policies for social housing; create a duty to collaborate to prevent and relieve homelessness; provide bespoke housing management and fund housing-related support.
INclusion Health and Social Care – provide life course accessible health support; ensure integrated care systems are focused on keeping people in and access to mental health support is part of the universal service. We need timely access to health and social care. Ensure transition to adulthood is a developmental transition not a service transition.
INclusion Community: optimise social and community network support for people when allocating housing; understand the need to build social capital and positive belonging; investment in the whole person; optimise the wider social value of community and voluntary sector; ensure the voice of those with lived experience is heard at all levels….
What do we each need to do to ‘design out homelessness’ within and across our systems?
• Consider what is your universal space and your offer?
• How do you currently keep people ‘IN’, and could you do more?
• Do you work in silos or in partnership?
• How do you contribute to the universal offer of others?
• What is the total housing supply / capacity/ affordability in your area?
• Do you understand the experience of those who use your universal offer?
• How do you prevent exclusions and maintain INclusion?
• Do you work with specialist services to help you?
• Do you listen to the experience of those using your space?
• How do you use your data and intelligence to provide early intervention to those struggling?
• How do you provide information, advice, and assistance to those who may need it in your space?
• How do you work with wider partnerships doing the same?
• Do you listen to the voice of those experiencing difficulties?
Crisis Prevention and Relief
• What do you have in place to respond quickly in crises and help minimise crisis?
• Can you prevent evictions and exclusions?
• Can you rehouse rapidly?
• Do you have access to specialist services to intensify your support?
• Do you work in an agile and flexible way to support your partners?
• Do you listen to the voices of those experiencing crisis?
• Do you have a pathway back to full tenancy?
• Can you work with others who have specialist skills?
• Are you plugged into mainstream services?
• Do you have high standards and how do you know?
• Are you working in an integrated way across health, housing, and social care?
• Do you listen and engage those you are working with?
• Do you develop accommodation for vulnerable people?
• Do you have a truly affordable offer for all groups, including young people?
• Do you provide stability and assistance to maintain a home?
• Do you assess-out those with challenges from your accommodation through affordability assessments, prior history of anti-social behaviour, or criminal record? How conditional are you and how inclusive could you be?
• Are you happy for the poorest & most vulnerable to be housed by the PRS with least support?
We don’t want poverty and homelessness ‘tourism’; we do need to educate ourselves, recognise the limitations of our knowledge and personal experience, our unconscious and conscious bias, in order to respond effectively and create a universal space which works for everyone, and which keeps people in the mainstream. We need to develop policy which makes a difference and strategy which achieves the difference the policy requires.
Fundamentally we need a national Housing Strategy not just a Homelessness Strategy; one which addresses affordable, safe, decent, and sustainable housing which allows individuals and families to live and work and contribute to their communities. We need to reclaim the meaning of ‘social security’!
As a wise woman once said: “If we get it right for the most vulnerable, we have more chance of getting it right for everyone.”