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Homelessness Is A Choice - But It's One Made By Society, Not The Individual

07/05/2017 21:07 BST | Updated 08/05/2017 09:40 BST
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'A nation's greatness can be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members'. Or so the maxim goes. Yet walking through the streets of London it is hard not to conclude that, on this basis, Britain is less great than its name would have us believe.

In the capital alone more than 8,000 people slept rough last year - a 6% rise on the previous year, and more than double the number a decade ago. Moreover, increases across the rest of England have been even more severe.

I've often heard people make the argument that homelessness is a choice. And, they are right. It's just that, as it turns out, it's a choice made by society and the state rather than by the individual. Indeed, there is now overwhelming evidence that ending homelessness is not only achievable but affordable.

This is the message from a ground breaking scheme called Housing First. Pioneered in the United States in the early 90's, in response to spiralling police and social service bills, the idea behind Housing First is strikingly simple: give homes to the homeless. This puts addictions, mental health problems and joblessness to one side and takes housing as a basic human right.

It differs significantly from our existing approach (sometimes referred to as Treatment First) which provides accommodation to those willing to engage with treatment services, whilst more permanent moves are available only upon graduation from treatment.

The problem with this system is that invariably it requires people to address complex issues, such as drug addiction and poor mental health, whilst still sleeping rough in a chaotic and unstable environment. That is not to say that it never works - but the evidence from Housing First schemes is convincing.

Back in 2006, the Netherlands adopted Housing First across its major cities, all of which were suffering from high levels of street homelessness. Within two years the numbers had fallen by 65 per cent and drug use in the cities had been halved.

When the financial crisis hit in 2007/2008 their government cut back on this provision with the aim of saving money. Within a few years rates of homelessness had hit an all time high again, whilst a subsequent assessment revealed that it ended up costing nearly three times as much, with social services and the police having to pick up the slack.

Similar results have been recorded by some small scale trials in England. An assessment by the University of York found that, given a house under Housing First schemes, nine out of ten people remained in accommodation for at least two years, compared to less than half in the 'treatment first' model. Moreover, although rates of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction were comparable, the cost to the state was halved.

So, how can this be, you ask? It goes against everything we have been told. How will we create an incentive for people to move into recovery if we give them a house before they stop using? Surely, if we give these homeless individuals money, they will waste it on drugs or alcohol? Poor people struggle because they make bad decisions and don't want to work, right?

Well, actually, no. It turns out that these narratives are misguided - something that SCT, the homelessness and addictions charity I work for, has long known. If you leave people out on the street, in abusive relationships, without support for mental health problems, they will struggle to make good decisions. But, more often than not, if they're given the right support and a stable environment, they can and they will.

So, amongst all the to-ing and fro-ing over Brexit and the debates about a 'coalition of chaos' or 'strong and stable government', let us make one life changing pledge during this election. Let's agree - whether Labour or Conservative - to abolish homelessness, once and for all, during the next parliament.

Harry Quilter-Pinner is Director of Strategy at SCT, a charity working with people who are homeless and in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction in East London, and a Research Fellow at IPPR, the UK's progressive think tank. This article is written in a personal capacity - all views are his own.