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Parliamentary inquiry into homelessness: lessons from the United States

Last week’s long awaited report from the Communities and Local Government Committee makes a number pertinent observations, including a call for a new Government strategy. Against a background of rising homelessness in most parts of England, the time is right to consider where we go from here and to look elsewhere for inspiration. There is much to learn from the United States.

Proportionately homelessness is a much bigger problem in the US and the phenomenon began in the 1980s with growth in homelessness that had not been seen since the Great Depression. On a single night in January 2015, 564,708 people were experiencing homelessness. Evictions are a huge social issue and the criminalisation of homeless people is a widespread problem.

In 2000 the National Alliance to End Homelessness (the Alliance) published A Plan, Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in Ten Years (NAEH, 2000). It boldly argued that homelessness, which at the time was seen as an intractable social problem, could be ended. It laid out a path forward that employed data, prioritised prevention and permanent housing solutions, and encouraged the engagement of mainstream systems.

The release of the plan instigated a shift in the debate, the movement gained momentum and the issue quickly rose up the political agenda, even becoming a bi-partisan issue. Over time a movement to end homelessness emerged, with sense of shared commitment and of collaboration.

For over a decade now the number of people experiencing homelessness across the United States has been declining, and this was the case even throughout the recession (between 2007 and 2012 the number of chronically homeless people dropped by 19%). The job is far from complete, but for the first time since the 1970s the eradication of homelessness is a real possibility.

So what’s missing here in the UK? What can we learn from what is currently happening in the United States?

Five clear lessons have emerged from the US:

  1. A grand vision, and a willingness to ask difficult questions. The Alliance’s Ten Year Plan challenged perceived wisdom and triggered a cultural shift in the sector. The Bush and Obama Administrations built on the success of the revolutionary campaign, creating a Federal Strategy for Ending Homelessness, thus embracing the movement and accelerating progress.
  1. Collective commitment. A shared sense of commitment and collaboration is key and often wanting in the UK. At the Alliance’s annual conference in Washington DC a couple of weeks ago, Shaun Donovan – who until recently was Obama’s Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) – compared the fight to end homelessness to the moon landing:

Together we launched out on moonshot on homelessness. And look how far we’ve come – nearly 30 cities and states have       ended veteran homelessness. … Now many of you may say we still have a long way to go. And you’re right. But let’s not forget that we didn’t get to the moon overnight. That journey took three presidents and 21 space flights. Back then the New York Times described the moon landing as ‘the realisation of centuries of dreams, the fulfilment of a decade of striving, a triumph of modern technology and personal courage, the most dramatic demonstration of what we can do if we apply our minds and resources with single-minded determination. And that’s why everyone in this room is so vital to our effort: your dreams, your striving, your courage, your determination’.

  1. Measurable outcomes. From the start the Obama Administration in particular has focused on unlocking data and evidence to identify and implement effective strategies, so they could do more of what works and less of what does not. The problem at stake also needs to be well defined and the role of the homelessness sector within it. So for instance a more comprehensive view of homelessness prevention should place the onus of keeping people housed on mainstream services tasked with taking care of vulnerable groups. This requires better engagement with the education, social care, criminal justice, and health and mental health systems to prevent people being supported by them becoming homeless. Crucially, the homelessness sector to try to fill in the gaps as it could do more harm than good.
  1. Invest in solutions that have been proven to work. The George W. Bush Administration revolutionised how homelessness was dealt with the US – whatever the cause of homelessness, the solution is… a home. The idea was pioneered by New York University psychiatrist Sam Tsemberis: ‘Housing First’ turned conventional wisdom on its head. Despite the sceptics evidence prevailed – Housing First worked from the start and it worked fast. Ever since the early 2000s efforts have increasingly shifted to a focus on permanent housing solutions, such as permanent supportive housing and rapid re-housing. Since 2007 permanent supportive housing capacity has grown 69 percent.
  1. Broadening leadership. A plan or data is only good as the people that drive it forward. The turn towards a Housing First approach during the Bush Administration might not have happened had it not been for the then homelessness czar, Philip Mangano, who doggedly pursued the idea despite initial resistance and sector interests (the new approach threatened jobs and budgets across the country). In 2003, the US Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution in response to a call from Mangano – then at the helm of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness – who challenged 100 cities to initiate ten year plans to end chronic homelessness. By 2004, about 100 had initiated planning efforts and, by 2006, ninety ten-year plans to end homelessness were complete. Strong leadership is however needed at all levels, from front line work, managers and chief executive and trustees level.

The CLG report is right to call for a new Government strategy, and to call for a change in legislation to prevent homelessness, but the lessons from the US point us towards much higher ambitions.  It is time for UK politicians to step up to their example.