What is Housing First and how can it solve homelessness in the UK?

The much-heralded Housing First model has been used increasingly across the country after proving successful abroad

If you heard anything about efforts to end rough sleeping in the UK over the last few years, chances are you will have heard Housing First mentioned.

The model’s success abroad has seen politicians, both local and national, heading to Finland to learn more about how it has been introduced in the Scandinavian country.

All left these shores in search of an ever-elusive solution to homelessness. With governments vowing to end rough sleeping once and for all, The Big Issue lays out how Housing First works and why it is held up by many experts as the model to follow to help people into a secure home for good. 

What is the Housing First approach?

Housing First in many ways is self-explanatory.

Rather than making rough sleepers jump through hoops to prove their ability to hold down a home in order to access accommodation, they are simply given a home.

But the cornerstone of the model is the support that comes alongside the property. That support helps people keep their homes, battle their demons and adapt to independent living so they can get back on their feet.


There is no time limit to this support, it’s there for as long as someone needs it and housing and support are separate too. If someone no longer needs support they do not have to give up their home.

The idea is to give people who have experienced homelessness control and choice over how they are treated give them the best chance of making the transition from the streets.

This differs from traditional methods used in the past, where a lack of support after someone has been housed can see them lose their tenancy and return to homelessness.

All Housing First models adhere to a set of principles. England, Wales and Scotland all have separate principles which, while broadly the same, do differ in slight ways. All of them recognise that people have a right to a home and are entitled to support in the way described above.

Who started Housing First?

The approach is the brainchild of Sam Tsemberis, a clinical psychologist who took a fresh perspective on solving spiralling homelessness in early-Nineties New York City.

Tsemberis, now 71, could see that full communal shelters were not translating into more people being housed. So he developed the Housing First model and started tracking its success, initially housing one person a week and seeing higher housing retention rates than people moved on from shelters without support.

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It has become a blueprint for tackling homelessness all over the world and Tsemberis has proven to be a charismatic advocate for the model as well as an advisor and sounding board for countries wanting to adopt it.

He recently told The Big Issue: “With our model we quickly understood that we were on to something here, it was extraordinary. But it became a matter of why aren’t people doing more of this? We’re in Covid right now and Housing First felt like we had discovered a vaccine for chronic homelessness and I’m trying to tell people: use the vaccine!”

Does Housing First really work?

There is plenty of evidence that Housing First works internationally and the proof of its merits is growing in the UK too.

After initial success in New York, Tsemberis saw Housing First start to pick up internationally. Finland is perhaps the shining example of the model making a huge impact on rough sleeping.

While it is not true that Finland has completely solved homelessness, despite how the country is often hailed, Housing First has virtually eradicated street homelessness

At the end of the 1980s, around 20,000 people were homeless in Finland, which has a population of around 5.5 million people. Now that figure sits at around 4,600 and the majority of people without a home of their own live with family and friends.

By comparison, 288,470 households needed council help with homelessness in England alone in 2019/20, out of a 56 million population. On this measure, England is effectively 40 years behind Finland in tackling homelessness.

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Since 1987 about 12,000 people have received a home through the Housing First model.

It’s a remarkable success achieved by wide-spread embracing of the ideology behind Housing First.

There is evidence that Housing First is also proving successful in Scotland (see below) and there is a commitment to make Housing First the default response to rough sleeping in the long term.

How much does Housing First cost?

Initially, the approach can be costly. You can’t have Housing First without housing first, as Juha Kaakinen, CEO of Finnish non-profit Y-Foundation puts it.

Sourcing homes can be expensive, especially in a housing crisis like the one the UK has been mired in for years, and the cost of providing support is not cheap either.

However, Housing First is not considered to be an overnight quick fix or a magic bullet to end homelessness for good. It’s a long-term commitment that brings financial savings over future years as well as the obvious social benefits in our communities.

Analysis in Finland reported that the supported housing unit in Härmälä in the Finnish city of Tampere made almost 250,000 euros (£221,000) in savings in one year thanks to Housing First.

On an individual level, Housing First can save up to 9,600 euros (£8,500) a year when compared to the costs that would result from a person being homeless while housing someone over the long-term can save up to 15,000 euros (£13,300) of taxpayer’s cash per year.


Housing First has continued to scale up in England, with 105 active projects supporting more than 2,000 people – six times the number seen in 2017.

The government-backed pilot schemes in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands are continuing to expand in 2021.

Westminster paid the devolved authorities almost £6 million to run the schemes between April 2019 and March 2020 with a £25.3m set to be spent on the schemes over four years in Greater Manchester and West Midlands and five years in Merseyside.

That investment is starting to pay off. In Greater Manchester, 224 people have been housed across the region by the end of the pilot’s second year in 2020/21, including 121 since the first Covid-19 lockdown.

The West Midlands pilot has moved 326 people into a permanent home as of December 2020, with West Midlands Mayor Andy Street calling the latest update an “important milestone”. 

As for Merseyside, 48 of the 60 people included in the first phase of the pilot have moved into their first home with Mayor Steve Rotheram announcing plans to expand the pilot to help more than 200 people over the next 18 months. 

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick insists that lessons learned by the pilots are being applied in their efforts to move people protected in hotels during the pandemic into 6,000 long-term homes with wraparound support.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness has been running a Housing First inquiry throughout the latter part of 2020, bringing in experts such as Tsemberis to discuss how the model can provide a sustainable solution to homelessness in England.


It was a landmark year for the scheme in Wales, as August saw projects in Conwy and Denbighshire given the first Housing First in Wales accreditation.

Cymorth Cymru, the charity overseeing Wales’ Housing First Network since 2017, say that 2021 promises to bring more projects around the country into the fold while ensuring all projects stick to the country’s Housing First principles.

Wales’ principles contain a particular focus on mental trauma as well as an explicit mention of the UN charter that outlines housing as a human right.

The Welsh government has been supportive of Housing First as a long-term strategy to end homelessness, and Cymorth has one eye on May 2021’s Senedd elections to ensure funding backs up that commitment long-term.

Alex Osmond, Housing First co-ordinator at Cymorth Cymru, said: “The Housing First principles have become more important than ever and we’re proud to have developed the accreditation process in Wales. Sustainable funding and multi-agency support will be critical in 2021 to expand Housing First.”


Housing First has progressed more quickly in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK.

The Housing First Pathfinder programme, a project jointly funded by the Scottish Government and homelessness charity Social Bite, moves into its third and final year in 2021 but Housing First is here to stay whoever comes out on top in May’s Holyrood elections.

The programme has offered 457 people a home in Aberdeen/Aberdeenshire, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling as of the end of February, and 396 people are still in their homes. That means 87 per cent of people given a home through the programme have managed to maintain it with no evictions recorded.

Housing First has been given government backing in the Ending Homelessness Together Action Plan and the Everyone Home Collective – a group of 30 charities, experts and academics – have set out road maps to tackle homelessness during the next two parliamentary terms with Housing First at their centre.

Scottish housing minister Kevin Stewart said: “We know that 28 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities intend to have Housing First programmes. There are plans to have an estimated 350 Housing First tenancies over and above the Pathfinder, indicating the commitment to this approach.”

The country has also launched a national framework to ensure the model is at the centre of tackling homelessness for the next decade.

Housing First Scotland research published alongside the national framework in March estimated around 3,560 people could be helped into permanent accommodation through Housing First every year. The greatest demand is reportedly in Glasgow where 538 people could benefit.

Maggie Brünjes, chief executive of Homeless Network Scotland, said the framework covers the next ten years because “we know it’s going to take that long to do this properly”.

The model has helped teenager Alex Lyon out of homelessness in Scotland. He has not only seen homelessness end for himself through Housing First, he has used the knowledge he has gained to help others too. 

Alex moved into his Aberdeen flat in November 2019 ending a year of rough sleeping and time spent staying with friends.

The 18-year-old struggled to adapt to living in communal shelters that saw him with nowhere to go until he was referred to receive a Housing First flat.

Alex told The Big Issue: “That first night in the flat was nice because I had a place to stay and I didn’t have to worry about it – rough sleeping at the age of 16 was stressful and scary. It gave me time to relax and I didn’t feel as stressed as I had in the last year. 

“I was looking at buying my own flat but I didn’t have the money because I’m on benefits so it was really difficult for me to find a place to stay so I kept bouncing back and forth between friends and sometimes people I didn’t even know. I’d probably still be there without Housing First.”

Alex has continued to receive support to tackle his mental health issues even throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

He hopes that the support will help achieve his dream of studying music at college.

Alex added: “My support worker Tabitha is ace and we’ve built quite a good working relationship and I trust her.

“She is someone that I can ask for help whenever I need it but she has stayed with me throughout the pandemic and she has taken me on walks along the beach to talk about the flat and how I’m doing. 

“I talk to people who are in my position and tell them my experience. I teach them how to budget, live properly and how to keep a flat, through my own experience I have been able to help my own friends and people close to me.”


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