What next for rough sleepers?

The time is ripe to make a once-in-a-lifetime change and end homelessness for good.

Following Dame Louise Casey’s ‘Everyone in’ announcement in March – which directed local authorities to offer accommodation to rough sleepers and those at risk of rough sleeping – councils across the country have worked hard to temporarily house people.

In Reading, our response was swift and immediate, starting with the cohort of people identified by our outreach team as verified rough sleepers, accommodated within a single night.

More than 120 people, both those who were rough sleeping and those who were at risk of rough sleeping, have been accommodated in a range of B&Bs and hotels across the borough.

Although many of the hotel chains were reluctant to enter into agreements to support us in this ambition, we were able to respond effectively to this crisis. This was because a previous focus on eradicating the use of B&Bs for homeless families meant that the capacity was available within the local B&B sector, in this COVID-19 emergency, to provide assistance.

In 2017, we had more than 130 families in B&B accommodation, and within 18 months this had fallen to zero, resulting in savings of over £1 million.

Our strong, proactive, early intervention approach to homelessness coupled with a holistic approach to solving homelessness issues – linking households in with services that addressed other problems they faced – paid dividends.

In addition, our highly regarded Rent Guarantee Scheme has led the way in the sector in demonstrating how you can build mutually beneficial relationships with private sector landlords to provide decent housing for homeless households.

We currently have more than 600 households accommodated through the scheme and we are regularly approached by other local authorities for advice since it was cited as an innovative intervention by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s Housing Advice Support Team.

Our pioneering development of modular housing for homeless families has also made national headlines.     

As regards rough sleeping, the question now for all local authorities is what next?

There is a general perception that rough sleeping is just a housing issue and therefore if there were enough homes provided no one would sleep rough. Those of us who have worked in the sector for many years know that this is only one part of the jigsaw. The current provision of accommodation during COVID-19 is a short-term fix to a multi-faceted problem.

Many of the people who find themselves rough sleeping are wrestling with some sort of trauma having suffered (or still suffering with) abuse, mental health issues, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or violence, among other contributing factors.

Substance misuse is often used as a coping mechanism, which in itself can lead to anti-social behaviours that leave the person with little hope of managing a tenancy effectively, even if a landlord would be willing to let to them in the first place.

We are all glad to see people off the street for the time being, but for this to become the norm we need to have sustainable pathways out for rough sleepers. With each person there is a uniquely human story that needs to be heard.

Housing First is the model that is often held up as the solution, a model where the housing is provided first and then a package of individually tailored support is put in place. In Reading, we have implemented this model and have had some success.

John (not his real name) had been rough sleeping for nearly 10 years. Due to early trauma in his life, he became addicted to alcohol and cannabis at age 15. At 25, he progressed to heroin and then began a cycle of offending to fund his drug habit, setting him on a revolving door of prison, homeless hostels, eviction and rough sleeping repeatedly.

Two years ago, we implemented Housing First in Reading and John was one of the first to benefit from this. By this stage he was suffering from extreme self-neglect, malnutrition and significant mental health problems. He was provided with council accommodation and a high level of support was provided by one of our commissioned partners, St Mungo’s.

The support linked him in with drug and alcohol services and he is now successfully managing his substance misuse issues more effectively, learning to take care of his home and is now tentatively beginning to engage with mental health services. Most importantly, John has managed to keep the home that he loves.

This journey has been fraught with difficulty and would not have been possible without the intensive, targeted support that has engaged with John on his level as and when he has needed it.

Unfortunately, the funding is not available to scale this approach up to make a significant impact for more people. We need to move away from generic support and invest in the provision of trauma-informed, wrap-around support that is very personal to the individual.

This should involve identifying historical trauma and the provision of specialist support to deal with this, effective management of mental health and PTSD, substance misuse recovery that works, appropriate education, training and employment, social care and health provision, and tenancy sustainment support alongside the provision of decent affordable housing.

“This is not just a bricks and mortar issue”

This should be available for all those sleeping rough whether they have recourse to public funds or not. We need to move away from groups of people with similar needs living together in hostels. This can create environments where risky behaviour and co-dependency issues can prevent people from moving forwards with their lives.

Local authorities have met the targets to get people off the streets and keep everyone safe, but will the Government now commit to keep them off the streets for good?

The Government has announced some funding for specialist support services, but more is needed to help vulnerable adults who need very specific services tailored to their individual needs that can work with them at the pace they need.

Trying to fit this group of people into existing services is an uphill struggle as they may not be able to act in the way that is expected. They cannot turn off their substance misuse overnight to access mental health services, they cannot manage their properties without support if no one has ever shown them how to, they cannot stop the pain of a past because someone asks them to do so.

At Reading Borough Council, we are lucky to have good partnerships in the homelessness arena involving local and national charities such as Launchpad, the Salvation Army and St Mungo’s, the faith sector and NHS outreach nurses. Their support and dedication is unquestionable, but this alone will not solve the problem.

We recognise that Dame Louise Casey has set up a taskforce to move forward with the rough sleeping agenda and we would hope to be involved. This is a moment when we could make a once in a lifetime change and end rough sleeping for good across the country, and people who have no recourse to public funds should not be excluded from this ambition.

However, it requires the right type of systems thinking, and significant government investment in a trauma-informed approach to the provision of services that address the fundamental issues these individuals face, and the acceptance that this is not just a bricks and mortar issue. Without that we will not succeed. 

To find out more about Reading’s work on homelessness, please email zelda.wolfle@reading.gov.uk.

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