Housing

What are the solutions to homelessness?

We already know the solutions to homelessness. Now it’s just a question of political will, investment and action to make the issue a thing of the past

solutions to homelessness

There's no 'silver bullet' to solve homelessness but there are plenty of things that can change in society to eliminate the issue for good. Image: Charles Edward Miller / Flickr

There are many solutions to homelessness. It is not inevitable, it should not be expected or tolerated and we know how to solve it.

Having said that, homelessness is a complex issue and there are many reasons why people find themselves without a home. Often there are several things in a person’s life that force them into homelessness.

There is no one silver bullet to solving the issue. Instead it takes a society-wide effort of interventions and changes to make a difference.

Here are five solutions to homelessness.

1. Housing First

Finland is regularly championed as a world leader when it comes to tackling street homelessness and an initiative called Housing First is one of the main reasons why.

It’s a simple concept. Instead of relying on shelters and piecemeal stop gaps to get rough sleepers off the streets, the Housing First model gives them a home of their own.

Alongside that home they are also given support to help them keep the home and tackle issues that mean they become trapped in street homelessness, such as addiction. There is no time limit or restrictions – once they have been given a home it’s theirs to keep without conditions.

Originally designed by clinical psychologist Sam Tsemberis in New York in the early 1990s, the Housing First model has spread across the globe, most notably in Scandinavia and, most recently in the UK.

In the last few years, the model has become commonplace in Scotland where 24 of 32 local authorities operate a Housing First programme with an estimated 1,224 tenancies under the model as of June 2022.

In Wales, there are 15 local authorities with Housing First projects as of September 2021, with 521 people supported by those projects since 2018.

There were 105 active Housing First projects as of 2020 and the Westminster government has been testing the model since 2018 with pilots in Liverpool, Manchester and the West Midlands.

Those pilots were recently extended for another two years as part of the government’s rough sleeping strategy. But for some the rollout of Housing First has not been quick enough. 

“The take up of Housing First, particularly in England, is far too slow,” Crisis chief executive Matt Downie told The Big Issue earlier this year. “There is no service in homelessness with a better evidence base and so there is no reason not to go faster. I would say that the examples from across the world – we don’t even need to look at them anymore. The results from the pilots in England show just like everywhere else 80 to 90 per cent tenancy sustainment rates.

“I want Crisis to be agitating for and showing how that’s the way to end homelessness, moving away from quite traditional old ways of doing it, which haven’t haven’t shown anyone that they’re the way to to end homelessness at all.”

The irony, of course, is that the pandemic meant that Housing First was, sort of, tested at scale during the pandemic when the Everyone In scheme brought people indoors in hotel rooms and other emergency accommodation.

It showed that the approach could work for some of the most vulnerable entrenched rough sleepers but it will take more than a one-size-fits-all approach to solve homelessness.

2. Affordable housing

You can’t have Housing First without housing first.

Britain has been trapped in a housing crisis for decades and house prices and rents are now at record highs.

The current economic woes may well see house prices finally fall as mortgage rates begin to rise but there’s no guarantee it will boost affordability.

Rents are already higher than at any point in history. The median monthly rent in England between April 2021 and March 2022 was £795, according to the Office for National Statistics. Since March they have continued to rise.

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That, coupled with the cost of living crisis, is already having an impact on homelessness. Almost 280,000 households needed help from a local authority for homelessness in England in 2021/22 and there were steep rises in no-fault evictions which almost doubled.

The Scottish government has chosen to freeze rents as an emergency measure to help tenants maintain their home.

There is no rent freeze in England but reforms have been announced to stop renters losing their home. Boris Johnson’s government announced the Renters’ Reform Bill earlier this year to scrap these evictions – which allow a landlord to evict a tenant without a reason – more than three years after the move was first promised.

The wait goes on for the legislation to come into force but removing no-fault evictions will shift the power balance between tenant and landlord towards the former and remove one of the leading drivers of homelessness.

Building enough affordable homes is also important. Previously the Conservative government was targeting building 300,000 homes a year but the new prime minister Liz Truss described targets as “Stalinist” on the campaign trail.

But new homes are needed, particularly social rented homes which bring more affordable rents than on the private rented market and also replace social housing lost through the Right to Buy scheme to help councils tackle long waiting lists.

The supply of homes is also constrained by homes left empty or turned into short-term or holiday lets on sites like Airbnb and Vrbo.

With housing unaffordable for scores of Brits, it is difficult for people to keep their home or find a new one and that inevitably means homelessness.

3. A functioning safety net

People need enough money to afford a home, pay their bills and afford food. Without that, they can be forced into homelessness.

Wages in the UK have largely remained stagnant over the last two decades and that means work is not paying enough in the face of rising inflation and bills due to the cost of living crisis.

Around 40 per cent of people who receive universal credit are working and benefits are also needed to help people with living costs if they have a disability, care for someone or are unemployed.

But they must keep up with the cost of living to prevent homelessness. Liz Truss has been under pressure, including from MPs in her own party, over her failure to commit to her predecessor Boris Johnson’s pledge to ensure benefits rise with inflation.

Even with support for energy bills and the rising cost of living, failing to give people the money they need to keep their home will lead to more homelessness.

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Housing and homelessness charities have been calling for housing benefits to rise to cover rents after local housing allowance rates were frozen at 2020 levels.

For some people there is no safety net at all. The no recourse to public funds condition largely applies to migrants and means they cannot claim any state support at all. This situation means many are forced into destitution and homelessness as a result.

There are also rising calls for a universal basic income, which would provide everyone with the same cash payment to create a minimum income floor to ensure no one earns less than a certain amount.

The idea is largely untested – the Welsh government is currently trialling a form of basic income for care leavers – but in theory could help people who find themselves homeless to have the cash to change their position if the income is high enough.

4. Support services where people need them

Support is not only a vital component of Housing First but wider support services are needed to help people overcome the issues that leave them homeless.

Whether it be helping people affected by poor mental health or addiction issues or providing refuges for people who lost their home due to domestic violence, frontline workers across the country play a vital role in ensuring people don’t end up on the streets as a result.

It’s essential these services are given the funds they need to support everyone who requires them.

That’s a concern in England after Liz Truss’s “Growth Plan” sparked fears of reined-in spending to cover her proposed tax cuts.

Homelessness accommodation services have already declined since 2010 when austerity measures were introduced by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government.

There were 39 per cent fewer accommodation providers and 26 per cent fewer bed spaces for people experiencing homelessness in 2021 compared to 2010, according to research from Homeless Link.

Rick Henderson, Homeless Link’s chief executive, criticised the announcement from chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng that public services budgets would not be uplifted to account for inflation.

“During her campaign to become prime minister, Liz Truss committed herself to the government’s target of ending rough sleeping in England by 2024,” said Henderson. “To achieve this homelessness services must have the appropriate funding, not only to support people into accommodation, but to help them address broader issues such as physical and mental health. 

“In a recent poll, over one in four of our members who responded said they feared service closures if the situation continues, while many are talking about scaling back their operations. If they’re forced into these actions, homelessness and rough sleeping will almost certainly rise as a result.”

Investment in public services is essential to tackle homelessness.

5. Prevention

Prevention is better than the cure and ultimately efforts to tackle homelessness will be for nought if there is no effort to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

That involves some of the economic choices mentioned above but is also about intervening at points where people find themselves on the verge of becoming homeless.

Homelessness, particularly street homelessness, is a tricky situation to get out of. There is a stigma that might affect employment opportunities, it may be hard to keep important documents like a birth certificate that are needed to access a bank account or get a job and it can have a detrimental impact on physical and mental health.

Preventing that situation from occurring doesn’t just make moral and humane sense, it makes economic sense too.

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Small changes in society can help to prevent homelesness. Like ensuring prisoners at risk of homelessness are not released on a Friday with only a small amount of cash to their name when they may struggle to find accommodation.

Or ensuring people are not released from hospital into homelessness. Or care leavers are given the skills, support and resources they need to avoid homelessness when they leave care.

All of these interventions are mentioned in the UK government’s plan to end rough sleeping by 2024.

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