Homelessness Strategy Must Address Root Causes Of Rough Sleeping

31/08/2016 15:30 | Updated 31 August 2016

The recovery in house prices since the credit crisis has brought with it an increase in homelessness and rough sleeping, as high housing costs and insecure tenancies push people into economic uncertainty.

Around 30,000 people made homeless applications to their local council last year. The number of families living in temporary accommodation at the start of 2016 was 71,540, an increase of 11% compared to last year, and 49% higher than the record low figure of 48,010 seen in late 2010.

The Government has taken encouraging steps to try and resolve this problem. They established the first cross-departmental working group on homelessness. Funding of £18.5 million was given to local councils to provide emergency accommodation. Additional investment is being made in training and support to create a more joined-up approach, so homelessness teams in different local authorities can learn from each other. A £40 million capital funding programme for hostel refurbishment has begun.

In his final budget, George Osborne announced a further £100 million to combat homelessness, including 2,000 accommodation places for rough sleepers and £10 million for early intervention and prevention projects. Bob Blackman, a Conservative MP, has also introduced the Homelessness Reduction Bill aimed at supporting people who are in need of somewhere to stay but not classed as a priority case.

However, the result of this will not be seen immediately. What is also required is a strategy to improve prospects for those already in the homeless system - reducing the length of time that people need to stay in emergency accommodation, and giving them the skills and confidence they need to go back out into the world and live independently.

While there has rightly been a focus on the need to deliver more housing stock and emergency shelters, more difficult to resolve are the barriers faced by individuals in short-term accommodation. Many rough sleepers suffer with multiple challenges, such as mental health problems or drug misuse. They are more likely to have been the victims of violence or abuse, and have poor education outcomes or few transferable skills. This makes it difficult to move into employment or secure longer-term tenancies that provide a greater degree of stability.

Too often, getting people off the streets is only the first step in a long transition towards independent living - and very few homeless people get the opportunity to complete the journey.

As with most social problems, it is the charitable sector that is leading the way on the most innovative solutions. One example of this is Caritas Anchor House, an award winning charity which has been pioneering a new approach focusing on improving outcomes through education, counselling and personal rehabilitation.

Although Anchor House provides a bed and roof over the heads of its residents, the real difference is made through its aspirations programme. This helps residents address all aspects of their life, including health and wellbeing, relationship guidance, teaching financial management, giving educational opportunities through volunteering and training, and providing back to work preparation. Caritas takes the view that the solution to resolving homelessness is not just through providing a place to stay - it is about equipping people with the confidence to take control of their own lives.

The outcomes have been impressive. Last year they helped 58 residents move on to independent living, and supported 36 into employment. They provided support to 12,000 people accessing their services. In the first quarter of 2016, 28% of Anchor House residents were in employment, double the average of 14% seen across the homeless sector. A study by Oxford Economics has suggested that for every £1 invested in Anchor House's operations, they provide £3.98 in benefits to society - an almost 400% return on social investment.

It is this innovation and dynamism that will be key to helping those in immediate need, as well as reducing homelessness over the longer term. The Cabinet Office are now considering a funding application for a new project from Caritas called the Global NoticeBoard, a service that could provide a better return than investment in bricks and mortar by better matching supply and demand for accommodation, resources, mentoring, donations and expertise.

Caritas have put in a proposal for £2.5 million of funding and estimate that their approach could free up about 10% of 38,000 hostel beds around the country, allowing an extra 3,800 homeless people a year to be taken off the streets and supported back into independent living. Whereas HM Treasury has committed £100 million for 2,000 accommodation places, Caritas believe the Global NoticeBoard could provide almost double that support at a fraction of the cost.

This is just one example of the way in which innovation and technology can transform the way we help the most vulnerable in society. The key challenge will be to ensure that the resources which have been allocated to help tackle homelessness do more than simply put money towards new houses. The Government also needs to replicate the outcomes-based approach pioneered by Caritas. Only by doing so can they build people up to create employment and training opportunities for themselves, and address the root causes of poverty and rough sleeping.