To solve homelessness, we need Housing First

If we’re to end destitution, we need a new approach to homelessness. A new select committee report provides part of the answer – but MPs have missed an opportunity to back the evidence-based Housing First approach, says Brian Robson.

JRF’s recent report on the scale of destitution in the UK was a real wake-up call: 1.25 million people are experiencing the most severe form of poverty. One of the principles behind our forthcoming plan to solve UK poverty is to ensure that, within a generation, no one in the UK is ever destitute. That will involve tackling England’s homelessness problem, which is large and has been growing.

Last week’s report on homelessness from the cross-party Communities and Local Government Select Committee is right to recognise that the scale of the homelessness problem requires a new approach. However, the Committee’s proposed solutions don’t go far enough, and MPs have missed an important opportunity to support the scaling-up of the Housing First model.

The more prevention-focused approach the Committee proposes is the right solution for the vast majority of ‘mainstream’ homelessness cases. It should mean people receive meaningful help before they lose their home, and a similar approach has worked well in Wales. It’s encouraging to hear the Committee will be supporting a private members’ bill to make this a reality in England, too. So far, so good.

However, we also need a new approach for the smaller group of homeless adults with additional complex needs, such as mental health conditions, or substance misuse. That’s where the Housing First model comes in.

Housing First provides this smaller group of homeless people who have additional complex needs with rapid access to settled rented housing, coupled with intensive and flexible support, provided on an open-ended basis. It enables people to choose to live in mainstream housing, integrated with society, rather than being institutionalised in hostels, which homeless people often strongly dislike.

There’s robust evidence to support this new approach. International studies show impressively high housing retention rates in Housing First projects (often 90% at the one-year mark). The Committee’s report acknowledges the positive impact of Housing First in Finland.

Some European projects also claim considerable cost savings for Housing First. These have been demonstrated convincingly in the USA, and are consistent with findings in the more limited UK evidence base. JRF estimates scaling up Housing First in the UK could save around £200m per annum after two years in relation to the current group of homeless adults with the most complex needs.

Given the strong international evidence to support Housing First, and the potential cost savings it offers, JRF’s comprehensive strategy to solve UK poverty will recommend scaling up the Housing First model as the default option for homeless adults with complex needs in the UK. Hostels would still be there for those who the model isn’t suitable, and of course, Housing First would require work with landlords to identify suitable accommodation.

We can solve homelessness, but we need national leadership on this issue. The select committee report has some of the solutions. But by rejecting Housing First in favour of what the MPs call ‘more mainstream methods’ the Committee's report has missed an opportunity to make a real difference to homeless adults with complex needs.