'We need to rethink the way we deal with homelessness'
The Homelessness Reduction Act has huge potential - but only if organisations have the right culture to make the most of it, says CIH policy and practice officer Faye Greaves.
We’re now in 2018 and the implementation of the much-hailed Homelessness Reduction Act is just around the corner. It doesn’t seem so long ago that the sector was rallying to get the private member’s bill through parliament. Now we’re just months away from seeing it delivered in practice and it could genuinely help tackle the homelessness crisis that has gripped our nation.
The Act’s new measures have the potential to make a real difference by making sure more people get access to meaningful help and sooner. The key word here is “potential”. CIH has always supported the principle behind new laws to maximise opportunities to prevent homelessness but we’ve also been very clear that other things need to happen if we’re going to realise its full potential. Namely we need the government to finally see the light and make housing and welfare policy work together to help people stay in their homes in the first place.
But aside from the obvious structural barriers to success, we can’t underestimate the need for a dramatic cultural shift in the way we deal with homelessness in England. By rethinking current approaches to tackling homelessness, guided by an unwavering commitment to the true spirit of the Act, we could achieve more in the short and medium-term than we could ever have anticipated.
Before Christmas I visited the London Borough of Southwark to find out more about the council’s homelessness prevention trailblazer work. Southwark is one of three national early adopter areas (Greater Manchester and Newcastle were the others) for the Homelessness Reduction Act and so far it’s the only local authority to have already started delivering the new measures in practice. Southwark has made impressive progress to embed a culture that prioritises early intervention, partnership working and person centred support.
The most important thing I took away from my visit was that it has to start with culture. How local authorities think about dealing with homelessness will shape how services are delivered and associated behaviours and attitudes will play a significant role in reducing homelessness. But achieving the cultural shift required to implement the new measures in the true spirit of the Act has to start at the top.
This involves getting political buy-in to embed homelessness prevention across all public services and making sure government funding for homelessness that isn’t ring fenced is spent on what it’s intended for. This requires individual homelessness services in councils exerting internal influence and making the case for getting access to the money; to clarify what they are going to do with it, what impact they can have and how this aligns with the council’s strategic aims and values.
In Southwark all cabinet members and partner agencies have received mandatory training on the Act, its aims and what the council is doing to deliver on its ambitions. And partners have been trained so that referral routes and joint working benefits all organisations and departments. They take the view that homelessness is everyone’s responsibility in Southwark.
At an operational level, the council has placed the applicant at the centre of the process. This has been a vital part of making the move from the position of investigator of homelessness applications to one of negotiator and mediator. In order to achieve this shift Southwark has restructured its service delivery and introduced apprenticeships to improve the dynamic of the team.
The team has seen some really positive outcomes since it started delivering the Act at the beginning of 2017. There has been an inevitable increase in footfall overall but the amount of acceptances (those owed the main housing duty) are down 53 per cent (Jan 17 to Sept 17) and the total cases of successful preventions are up too. They’ve also managed to eliminate the use of B&Bs, going from a total of 326 households in B&B accommodation in January 2017 to zero at the beginning of 2018. Customer satisfaction is on the rise too.
I’m truly excited about the potential of the Homelessness Reduction Act to make a real difference but I can’t emphasise enough the importance of culture in achieving this. We now have a legal framework that places prevention at the heart of statutory provision. Yes, we need more genuinely affordable homes to rent, and welfare policies and stagnating wages are not helping people access or maintain affordable housing. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t successes to be had in reducing homelessness - we just need to change the way we think about achieving it.
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