02 Jun 2021

A traumatised system: lessons learned from commissioning homelessness services over the past decade

Prior to the emergence of COVID-19, the homelessness sector had faced a tough past decade. The title of our research report on commissioning homelessness services stems from a perfect storm, caused by a large increase in demand for homelessness services at the same time as the sector faced a significant and sustained drop in funding for the best part of ten years.

In a nutshell, as the sector looked to adapt to £1bn less spent on single homelessness; it also had to deal with a 141% increase in the number of people affected by rough sleeping.

The result is ‘a traumatised system’, according to our study authored by Imogen Blood and Associates with Professor Nicholas Pleace from the University of York, a globally recognised authority on homelessness.

Riverside initially commissioned the research to find out more about the most significant trends in the commissioning of homelessness services in recent years and to understand what lessons can be learned from these changes to inform future policy and strategy.

Symptoms of the traumatised system include:

  • Beleaguered commissioning teams pressing the repeat button on existing contracts because they have insufficient funding to implement strategic changes
  • Services which are no longer commissioned being reconfigured to provide much lower levels of support so they can survive on significantly lower funding
  • Short-term funding creating doubt and anxiety among people affected by homelessness that their support might be lost and that staff with whom they’ve developed a relationship leave.

Now there are fresh reasons to be concerned.

Having endured two significant waves of COVID-19 in 2020, Riverside asked Imogen, Nicholas, and team to update the report with further understanding of how a global health emergency and the sharpest recession for 100 years has impacted the homelessness sector. COVID-19 has further exacerbated the traumatised system we have seen emerge in the homelessness sector over the past decade. Now we are starting to hear more:

  • Reports that councils could be planning substantial cuts to adult social care budgets to cope with impact COVID-19 has had on the public finances
  • Concerns that due to COVID, unemployment will rise, evictions will increase, and homelessness will become an even bigger issue than it was 12 months ago.

To deepen the concerns further, Joseph Rowntree Foundation has estimated that 2.5 million households are worried about paying rent, 700,000 are already in arrears and 350,000 are at risk of eviction (as at November 2020).

However, the sector has been buoyed by the success of ‘Everyone In’ and the Government’s incredible efforts to co-ordinate the national response to COVID-19 which has helped more than 33,000 people affected by homelessness during the pandemic.

The updated research is entitled: “A critical crossroads for the commissioning of homelessness services” to reflect where the sector sits after the success of ‘Everyone In’ but now staring over the precipice of potential further cuts.

Last month we hosted a virtual roundtable to discuss the report.

During the roundtable Rick Henderson, CEO of Homeless Link, was unequivocal, saying, “We have to end the culture of short-term sticking plaster responses to homelessness.” Rick called on central Government to deliver five- and ten-year plans to tackle homelessness and matched by long-term sustainable funding.

Stable funding is the foundation for providers to deliver better support, and for people accessing services to feel safe, secure and supported. Without this, all other efforts at ‘de-traumatising’ the system will struggle.

To provide the housing and homelessness services our country needs requires long-term sustainable investment from central and local government and an integrated commitment across departments and agencies.

As Imogen and Nicholas state in the report: “If the system can be ‘de-traumatised’ so that imagination and innovation are enabled and sustained, it should be possible for things to get a lot better, very quickly.”

The forthcoming Spending Review presents an opportunity for a reset on housing and homelessness spending and the chance to place as much emphasis and investment on preventing homelessness as is spent on tackling the most visible form of homelessness: rough sleeping.

Now is the time for this administration to build on the great achievements of ‘Everyone In’.

Written by John Glenton

John Glenton is the executive director of care and support for The Riverside Group. He is a CIH member, chair of the National Housing Federation's Homelessness Steering Group and has over 30 years’ experience working in the homelessness sector including directing innovative new services for rough sleepers and pioneering Housing First support for people affected by homelessness in the UK. In 2017 John was a key player in the successful sector campaign to lobby Government over planned changes to Local Housing Allowance caps which saw him provide evidence to the Commons Select Committee inquiry into the future funding of supported housing.