The past few months have been an incredibly challenging time for many but one positive to have come out of the period is a commitment from government, in the short term at least, to house all homeless people. Around 15,000 rough sleepers across the country have been taken off the streets and out of crowded night shelters and instead provided with their own self-contained accommodation where they can see out lockdown safely.
In Portsmouth around 200 people are currently accommodated through this scheme across a number of hotels. It is worth noting this figure is at least double the number the council had been expecting to help initially. The night shelter had provision for just under 60 people each night and it was estimated another 20-30 slept rough most nights. The additional homeless people in need of accommodation during lockdown seem to have come from the ‘hidden homeless’ population – those who were sofa surfing, staying temporarily with friends or family, or in other living arrangements that were no longer an option during the pandemic. Which just goes to show that rough sleeping – as visibly shocking and outrageous it is – is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to homelessness. There are always many more people without accommodation of their own hidden away out of public view and thought.
Before lockdown it was common to hear the refrain that many homeless people choose to be homeless. It was said that support and accommodation was there for those who wanted it but you cannot force people to accept help. I always found this a troubling concept and not one that chimed with my experience of supporting homeless people. Just because someone has turned down a bed on a floor in a room shared with various other random people, or had to leave a homeless hostel due to the chaotic environment, or been unable to engage with mental health services while worrying about where they were going to sleep that night doesn’t mean they have chosen to remain homeless, but rather they haven’t been offered the support and housing that is suited to their needs and wishes. Anyway this suggestion that many homeless people simply don’t want to get housed has been well and truly blown out the water by the fact that the vast majority of rough sleepers have moved into temporary housing during lockdown. All that was needed was an offer of decent quality, self-contained accommodation where people have their own space and front door and street homelessness could be more or less abolished overnight – who’d have known?..
Despite the overwhelming success of the ‘everyone in’ policy in getting thousands of people off the streets there are still a relatively small number who sleep out each night. Some of these did initially take the offer of a hotel room but then had to leave either through being unable to cope in the environment or being asked to leave due to putting others at risk. Others simply didn’t feel comfortable in going into such a setting in the first place and decided to stay out. Homelessness is a complex issue and each individual has their own set of issues and needs. As successful as opening up hotel rooms to any rough sleeper who wants one has been, this kind of one size fits all policy is never going to suit everyone’s situation. That’s why any long term solution to the homelessness crisis has to be one that recognises individual requirements and can be tailored to them.
The obvious question on many people’s lips is now: what next? The emergency hotel provision is clearly not sustainable, nor preferable, in the longer term so what can councils do to support people into settled accommodation. The answer to this has to start with resources. Local authorities have seen their budgets cut massively since the onset of austerity a decade ago. There simply isn’t the spare cash floating around council accounts to support and accommodate all rough sleepers. So it falls to government to provide new resources.
In Portsmouth the cost of the hotel provision for rough sleepers has so far been met from the council’s share of the coronavirus emergency funding for local government. That can continue for a few months if necessary but of course there are also lots of other competing priorities for that budget. At the end of May the Housing Minister, Robert Jenrick, outlined his plan for moving people on from the emergency accommodation provided during lockdown: 6,000 new supported homes funded by £433m of government cash. To date no detail has been provided about how that funding will be distributed and how it is expected for it to be spent.
In recognition that any initiative for the long term rehousing of rough sleepers is going to take at least several months to design and implement, the government has more recently announced further funding intended to be used by councils to provide ‘interim’ accommodation. In Portsmouth it’s unclear how that funding will be spent and probably at least in part depends on when the hotel providers want to end the council contracts and return to their normal business.
The council administration has indicated its plans to present a paper on the local rough sleeper accommodation situation at a Cabinet meeting in mid-July. This paper should give some idea of the direction in which the council is heading in terms of the plans it will ask the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to support. There are of course a number of different routes it could go down, and in reality a mixture of several different options is likely to be what’s needed.
One form of long term housing being considered is the use of Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs). Otherwise known as shared houses this would see a number of people accommodated in one property and expected to share amenities such as bathrooms and kitchens. Given the circumstances and needs of many of the rough sleepers currently accommodated in the hotels the use of HMOs is unlikely to be a successful way of ending cycles of homelessness for many. Put simply, housing multiple people, many of whom have histories of mental health and substance misuse issues in a shared house is more often than not a recipe for disharmony and will result in a high tenancy failure rate.
Instead, the council should look to house rough sleepers in their own self-contained accommodation. The success of the hotel provision in getting so many people, lots of whom have been homeless for many years, off the streets and into some form of settled accommodation shows that when this type of housing is offered it will be taken up by those in need and they will then stay there. Issues at the hotels are arisen due to the behaviour and health needs of a small number. In a setting where vulnerable people are surrounded by lots of other vulnerable people then such issues cascade. That is why self-contained accommodation which is spread throughout the city, across different blocks and estates is essential.
A further reason for tenancy failure in supported housing can be the failure of residents to engage with the support on offer. Requirements to engage with support and abide by other ‘house rules’ are written into tenancy (or license) agreements and those unwilling or unable to do so are in breach of the agreement and often find themselves back out on the streets. Engaging with support and adhering to restrictive house rules tend to be preconditions of being able to move on from supported to independent housing. This requirement to accept support before being allowed to access long term, settled accommodation is often an insurmountable barrier for homeless people with complex needs.
The issues with shared accommodation and supported housing as detailed in the previous paragraphs are exactly those which the innovative model known as Housing First seeks to address. Housing First starts with the basic principle that the primary issues facing homeless people is their lack of access to long term settled accommodation. It is little wonder that individuals with complex needs and troubled pasts often struggle to cope when surrounded by others with similar issues. So Housing First proponents advocate the rehousing of rough sleepers into their own long term settled accommodation where they are able to access support if needed but are not required to do so as part of any agreement. The model makes clear that such housing units must be dispersed across different areas so as not to concentrate people with histories of homelessness in one place. This security of tenure has consistently been shown to produce outstanding results and remarkable tenancy success rates. For those with complex and multiple needs it is the way to go if you are serious about breaking long term cycles of homelessness.
The Housing First model could have a transformative impact on homelessness in Portsmouth and help scores of vulnerable people with long histories of homelessness to find and sustain long term housing. What is needed to make that happen is the right mix of political will and government funding. The administration must be ambitious in the plans it puts to government for approval. If it says our local issues can be resolved through HMOs and hostels then that is what government will fund. But if it instead proposes the roll out of Housing First across the city then we have a much better chance of achieving positive outcomes.
As the Labour spokesperson for Housing and a member of the Rough Sleeping and Street Homelessness Partnership Board I will continue to work constructively with the council administration to encourage them to put together a radical plan that can make major progress towards our shared goal of ending homelessness in the city.