Housing First

What’s the simplest solution to homelessness? Giving people homes. But surely it couldn’t be that simple! In order to give people who are homeless homes we would, after all, have to pay for them. We would also need to give people who are homeless a strong network of support to help them achieve self sufficiency and find or maintain employment.

But what if just giving people housing and support paid for itself? The results of recent social experiments suggest that providing housing for everyone without conditions is a simple, effective, economically viable solution to homelessness.

The fact is it costs more to keep people in homelessness than it does to keep them in homes. The government recently estimated the average annual cost of one person facing homelessness to the government is between £24,000 and £30,000. This estimate takes into account costs to healthcare, (many people facing homelessness suffer from physical or mental illness as well as substance abuse issues), financial support (including income support, jobseeker’s allowance and employment support), criminal justice (crime and homelessness are “interwoven and mutually perpetuating”) and the cost to local authorities.

The basic cost of living, on the other hand, is much lower. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found the minimum annual cost for a single adult in the UK is just over £17,000. This includes not just housing but the entire cost of living. Notice the difference?

You might be thinking what I thought when I first heard this. Why isn’t the government just buying people accommodation and giving it to them? In fact, this is exactly what’s beginning to happen all around the world. The Housing First movement is based on the philosophy that housing is a fundamental human right, and should not be denied to anyone. The offer of robust support services, priority to those who are most disabled or vulnerable and tenant protections under the law are also part of the philosophy.

Projects in places such as Utah, Melbourne and Alberta have put Housing First into practice. The results have been overwhelmingly positive with drastic decreases in the number of people on the streets. A large majority of the people supported stayed in housing permanently and the drop in costs to public services has made these projects economically viable as well as effective.

The 3 year programme in Melbourne, Journey to Social Inclusion, involved two groups of 40 and 48 rough sleepers. Both groups were given long term free accommodation and support. The first group were provided with case workers who helped them once a week over three years, whilst the second group were supported less frequently and over three months. After the three years, 75% of the first group were still in housing, compared with 58% of the second group. This shows that regular support is as important as housing, but even with regular support the cost saving was still significant. There was an 80% decline in the need to use health services in the participants. Sacred Heart Mission, the charity running the programme, concluded the government saved $17,000 per person each year of the study and the government would save $1.32 for every $1 invested in homelessness support.

In 2004, the State of Utah began a trial run of a similar programme giving housing to 17 people in Salt Lake City. A year later, 14 were still in housing. In 2008 Utah began a permanent supportive housing programme and makes an estimated $8,000 saving for every person on the programme.

The town of Medicine Hat, in Alberta, began a 5 year Housing First programme in 2009. Health care and legal services for people who are homeless costs Medicine Hat $80,000 a year, while the programme costs only $30,000 a year. As of March 2015, 885 people have benefited from the programme.

So what can we do to make Housing First a reality in the UK? There have been implementations of Housing First in the UK by various charities on a small scale. There has also been research into the Housing First model and whether it could be applied to the UK which looks promising. There are a number of things that can be done to make Housing First, and more generally social housing and accommodation, a higher priority. You can contact your local MP about social housing as well as spread the word about campaigns for social housing such as SHOUT. You can also get in touch with charities involved in finding accommodation for people who are homeless (such as New Hope) to find out how you can help.

Whether or not Housing First is the panacea some people think it is, the movement shows how real progress can be made in tackling homelessness. It also shows how homelessness is an issue everyone faces and which adversely affects society as a whole. If enough people realise how high the cost of homelessness is then real action will start to be undertaken to solve it. Then we can realistically hope for a world where everyone has the basic right to a home.

Alex Charlton