Prevention is better than cure
There’s a clear evidence base that demonstrates the truth of the old adage “prevention is better than cure”. Crisis (and DCLG) have produced research that shows failing to prevent homelessness costs the public purse thousands of pounds more per individual than timely interventions – and can lead to lives that are ruined for decades. Preventing homelessness is not only cheaper but more humane than waiting until someone is in crisis – perhaps facing sleeping rough – before offering help.
It’s great news, therefore, that the government seems to understand this – and has made a clear commitment to investing in and supporting work to prevent homelessness:
In its statement of 17 December 2015 the government pledged to:
- maintain Homelessness Prevention funding – with a total of £315 million committed to this purpose until 2019/20
- spend £139 million on homelessness programmes over the next four years
- invest £40 million with Department of Health to improve hostels to reduce the time rough sleepers spend in hospital, and to make available more shared housing for young homeless people
- consider legislation to make preventing homelessness for all a requirement for local authorities
This is very welcome news – especially the recognition of the need to strengthen the current homelessness duty. At the moment, most people who face homelessness in England and who do not fit within tightly defined “priority need” categories get very little help from their local council.
What works is well established. There have been tool kits, good practice guides and evaluation reports into homelessness prevention published by central government, Shelter, Homeless Link and Crisis since 2006. Advice and best practice has been developed to help prevent youth homelessness, family homelessness and rough sleeping, through interventions such as home visits; family mediation; schools based education; support with practical help, one-off costs associated with setting up home, and repairs; peer support; housing related support; education and training; crash pads and night stop services; co-location with other statutory services; accessible and safe emergency accommodation followed by well-designed pathways through supported housing; individual budgets and “housing-first” options for those with complex needs, and a case management approach to ensure vulnerable people were supported and helped to navigate the range of housing options and homelessness prevention services.
What has remained lacking, however, is a duty for local authorities to fully implement the approaches that have been developed over the last 10 years. Introducing legislation – along the lines of what has been done in Wales that would introduce a duty to prevent homelessness – is vital to ensure there is a meaningful safety net for people who face homelessness.
Legislation will be even more important in the current “age of austerity”. Many of the best practice approaches promoted by central government between 2006 and 2009 appear aspirational a decade on.
Good practice in the first decade of the 21st century included identifying those most at risk of homelessness – often people who were vulnerable because of poor mental health, drug or alcohol needs, people leaving prison or care, and individuals who lacked the resilience to cope with risk factors. In 2015/16 – the groups at risk of homelessness have expanded as a result of welfare reform to include people affected by the bedroom tax; people sanctioned by JCP for not fully complying with their job seeker’s agreement; people affected by the benefit cap; and most people under the age of 35 – who are entitled only to a Single Room Rate for the cheapest 30% of accommodation in the area they live. Many will face exclusion from social and supported housing – if the stated intention to extend local housing allowance rates to social housing goes ahead.
Strategies developed in the past recognised housing options could not prevent homelessness in isolation – and recommended ensuring good joint working with other key services – Adult and Children’s’ Social Services, the National Offender Management Service, DWP where it provided Community Care Grants and Social Fund Loans to help people set up home, hospital discharge co-ordinators, debt advice services, mental health and drug and alcohol treatment services and voluntary sector groups providing housing related support.
These vital partner services may still exist – but many have tightened eligibility criteria in the last few years to manage demands and resources, and many charities and floating support providers – formerly funded through Supporting People grants – have faced cuts year on year. Will they be on hand (as in earlier times) to take referrals of vulnerable people, facing problems with arrears, difficulties with neighbours, and the general stresses of managing a home and a very tight budget, with little social capital to fall back on?
As another old adage goes, the devil will be in the detail…
We know what works to prevent homelessness – but we may need to develop new ways of working in an era of reduced services to be able to deliver on prevention.
It makes sense to prevent homelessness – we warmly welcome the governments’ acknowledgement of this – and we will work collaboratively with all those committed to end homelessness too.