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The social landlords making Housing First work

Homes for Cathy hears from three member organisations that have played a role in getting Housing First schemes off the ground to discover the challenges housing associations face in making the model a success.

Developed in the US in the 80s and adopted with widespread success in mainland Europe, Housing First is an evidence-based approach to homelessness intervention that has gained significant momentum in the UK over the past three years.

Heralded as a solution to our growing rough sleeping crisis, the approach takes entrenched rough sleepers with high and complex needs off the streets and into permanent accommodation with intensive, tailored and open-ended support.  Unlike traditional approaches to homelessness intervention, with Housing First no preconditions are placed on individuals, only a willingness to maintain their tenancy agreement.  Individuals are not required to address any other needs they might have, or engage with other services, in order to keep their home.

The model has attracted high profile support; in 2017 Theresa May pledged £28 million to fund three regional Housing First pilots in Greater Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands, the Scottish government is investing £6.5 million in a three year Housing First roll-out and in Wales, £700,000 has been allocated by the government for Housing First schemes.  

Aside from these pilots, many more Housing First schemes have been launched at local level – around two thirds of these have been funded by local authorities, usually through Housing Related Support budgets, according to Housing First England.

Social landlords have been called upon to help get schemes off the ground, by providing both accommodation and in some cases the wraparound support that is intrinsic to making the model work.  However, the relative infancy of Housing First in the UK means the model represents uncharted waters for most housing associations, and many face a steep learning curve in establishing schemes. 

Securing funding and pilot projects

Gaining board approval and securing funding is only the tip of the iceberg in what can be a lengthy process.  Homes for Cathy member, Soha Housing, worked with its key local authority, South Oxfordshire District Council (SODC), which put up joint funding for a pilot project of six properties from Soha’s housing stock. 

Maureen Adams, Soha’s Director of Services and Communities, comments:

“SODC helped establish a Project Board and provided access to homeless people with complex needs, suggesting ways to manage the risks and establish a framework that would be acceptable to homeless people, the local community, and politicians alike.

“We then worked with Aspire, a local specialist charity with expertise in homelessness and staff skilled in handling vulnerability and substance misuse, who provided extensive pre-engagement activity with service users.”

Stephanie Wood, Head of Supported Housing at Homes for Cathy member Sovereign Housing, which is involved with Housing First schemes in West Berkshire and on the Isle of Wight in partnership with charity Two Saints, says:

“Housing associations need to consider that it can take a very long time to get Housing First schemes up and running.  A lot of work happens to get everyone on the same page before a person is housed, from identifying suitable people through to building their trust and getting their buy in.  Every stakeholder in the project needs to be realistic about the timescales involved, particularly as there are usually multiple agencies working together.”

Establishing eligibility

Establishing eligibility is an important part of the process.  While stakeholders involved in setting up schemes may have a good knowledge of individuals who would be suitable, in a multi-agency approach, ideas can differ. 

Daniel Revell-Wiseman, Care and Supported Housing Contracts Manager for Hightown Housing Association, which is working with both St Albans District Council and Dacorum Borough Council in Hemel Hempstead to launch a Housing First scheme, comments:

“Working across areas can be a challenge, as in each area there can be differing needs in terms of who is a priority for housing. Having a strong criteria for the service is therefore essential in order to easily assess the individuals who could benefit the most.”

The longer timescales necessary to identify suitable tenants and carry out pre-engagement work can have ramifications for landlords in terms of the accommodation they have identified for schemes. 

Daniel adds:

“To be true to the Housing First model, we should identify the service user first and then find suitable property.  However, in reality, we have found possible properties before we have had referrals.  It can be a challenge to have homes available at the point you need them – registered providers need to be prepared for longer void periods as a result.”

Flexible approach

Indeed, flexibility is key to making the model work – for Sovereign this was a matter of re-thinking pre-conceived ideas of what type of accommodation would be suitable.

Stephanie Wood says:

“Previously, we had set principles of what our Housing First homes should look like – for example, not in a town centre so service users could not go back to their old way of life.  However, we’ve come to realise that the best type of accommodation is always very specific to the resident.  Now we take time to match the accommodation to the individual, and although they don’t go through choice based lettings, we do offer them some flexibility about where they want to go.”

One of the biggest learning curves for housing associations is around formalising new processes and systems that meet the Housing First approach, establishing what is and what isn’t needed and adapting the existing mindset within their organisation.

Sovereign reviewed its tenancy agreement and tenancy sign up processes to better suit the Housing First model, making the meeting to go through the tenancy agreement a different day to the sign up itself.  This approach has minimised potential distractions and allowed staff time to spend setting expectations, while giving tenants the opportunity to process the information and ask questions. 

Sign up takes place in a neutral place other than Sovereign’s offices or the accommodation, to provide a less intimidating, less formal environment.

Stephanie adds:

“It’s all about gaining the trust of the tenant; they may have had a bad experience with a housing association or other service provider in the past, for example in a hostel the service provider runs.”

Once Housing First tenants are in their accommodation, flexibility around rent is also crucial to making the model work. 

Comments Stephanie:

“We’re offering fixed term tenancies, so we’re carrying a big chunk of risk.  Despite this, we have had to be more relaxed in terms of collecting rent.  For example, we recently had a hiccup with a Universal Credit application – our income team reported that no application had been processed, but because the tenant was flagged up on our system as Housing First, we did not pursue the normal income recovery procedures.”

Measuring success

So far, all three housing associations report positive feedback from the Housing First schemes in which they’re involved, however with a model that centres on open-ended support, continued funding remains a key consideration.   

Soha’s Maureen Adams concludes:

“Several months after the scheme was launched, Soha has housed 13 nominations and is moving people who would be difficult to house through traditional choice based lettings routes into homes where they want to live. 

“It’s been an important new venture that staff and residents are backing, including our chief executive, who helped steer it through at board level.  However, gathering evidence of the scheme’s success will be imperative, particularly as we plan to approach other public funded bodies to seek additional funding in order to extend the project. To this end, we have commissioned an independent evaluation by a social research agency to ensure we are adhering to the Housing First principles.”

For more information on Housing First, including guidance and toolkits for social landlords, visit Housing First England.

Is your organisation involved in a Housing First scheme?  We would love to hear about your experiences, the challenges you have faced and advice you would give to other organisations looking to implement the approach.  Email us at homesfor.cathy@hightownha.org.uk.