Professor Paddy Grey, from the University of Ulster, examines a housing initiative which Depaul Ireland has recently piloted in Belfast
Housing First is a relatively new concept and has been developed to tackle homelessness and in particular those who are chronically homeless. Accordingly to Shelter UK the model was developed in the United States and has demonstrated high degrees of success in both housing and supporting those who are chronically street homeless with multiple and complex needs.
Shelter argues that it is founded on the principle of housing being a basic human right and as a result it provides permanent accommodation for people straight from the street. In a briefing paper it issued in 2008, it recognises that the model has no preconditions of addressing wider social care and support needs but recognises that many long-term and repeatedly homeless individuals have multiple and complex problems relating to drug and/or alcohol dependency, poor physical and mental health, contact with the criminal justice system, and histories of institutional care and traumatic life events.
In 2013, the University of York carried out an evaluation of the Housing First service in the London Borough of Camden. In the report, the authors acknowledged that Housing First approaches are based on the concept that a homeless individual’s first and primary need is to obtain stable housing and that other issues that may affect them can and should be addressed once housing is obtained. There is no requirement to demonstrate ‘housing readiness’ or to be abstinent from alcohol or other substances.
The report found that the Camden Housing First (CAMHF) achieved housing stability among a group of people with sustained and recurrent experiences of homelessness, high rates of severe mental illness and poor physical health, histories of anti-social behaviour, criminality and sustained worklessness and often highly problematic use of drugs and alcohol.
Many had not lived in their own home for many years or ever lived independently but had now been able to sustain their own tenancy for at least 12 months or longer. Clients also achieved gains in well-being with evidence of improvements in engagement with treatment for mental and physical health problems, reductions in drug and alcohol use and marked reductions in anti-social behaviour.
One of the major challenges, however, that the report found was the difficulty in finding suitable, adequate private rented accommodation within the rent limits that would be paid by Housing Benefit. This of course is one of the major barriers to the success of any such scheme.
In Northern Ireland, Depaul Ireland is currently piloting a Housing First scheme with the equivalent of three full time employees being funded through the Supporting People budget with a view to rolling out similar services throughout Northern Ireland.
The identified areas have been east Belfast, north Belfast, west Belfast and Dairyfarm. This is due for evaluation by March 2015. The questions that need to be asked, however, surround the availability of suitable accommodation and the support that is required. Indeed will properties be available particularly in the private rented sector, and will landlords allow their properties to be used for such purposes?
The Depaul scheme is being heavily subsidised by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive who also uses its own properties. But with a waiting list of nearly 40,000 households and nearly 20,000 presenting as homeless annually and half of these being accepted as statutorily homeless is there the capacity to roll this out?
Supporting People budgets across Britain have been decimated in recent years and Local Authorities have been forced to cut back on vital services. Although the budget has been ring fenced in Northern Ireland there is no guarantee that this will go on indefinitely as budgets are being squeezed across most government departments. Indeed there is a major campaign going on at present to protect this budget for future years.
In the University of York it was noted that CAMHF was slightly cheaper to run for 10 service users than the approximate average cost of funding support for 10 hostel bed spaces in a hostel designed to resettle lone homeless people for one year.
However, CAMHF appeared to deliver better outcomes in terms of housing sustainment and in terms of health, well-being and anti-social behaviour.
It concluded that CAMHF represented a potentially more efficient use of public expenditure in reducing chronic homelessness than alternative services. CAMHF had lower support costs than some higher intensity and specialist hostels for homeless people.
So realistically in the long term Housing First is working and has worked in other jurisdictions. To move to this approach across Northern Ireland, the government will have to commit to securing the appropriate accommodation that is required and to safeguard the supporting people budget if we are to rid ourselves of chronic homelessness.