By Becky Elton, Assistant Director

Housing First helps people from living on the streets, or who are caught in a cycle of hostels, sofa surfing, prison or hospital, straight into their own permanent accommodation. At Changing Lives we’ve been delivering a Housing First service since April 2012 in Newcastle.

Housing First doesn’t ask people to get clean or sober, doesn’t expect people to engage with any support other than to set up and manage their tenancy and doesn’t ask people to move on after a set length of time. It’s a different approach to most homelessness services and may seem counter intuitive, or even unfair. Surely if people haven’t even started to get help for the problems which led them to the street or into a chaotic life they can’t hold down a tenancy? Why should people be fast-tracked into housing while there are other people waiting? How come they get unlimited support when others are expected to become independent within 2 years or less?

Changing Lives has been leading a research project, delivered by the Centre for Housing policy at the University of York, to compare and evaluate nine Housing First Services in England. The findings found that the 60 service users who shared information with the researchers had been homeless for an estimated total of 872 years. That’s an average of 14 years homeless per person. And 80% had lived in homelessness services (hostels, nightshelters, temporary support housing) for two years or more, prior to using Housing First. The research also found that Housing First could make annual savings of up to £4,794 per person compared to the cost of high intensity supported accommodation.

So, for a particularly high needs, chronically homeless client group, Housing First is an approach that works, even if it delivers differently to an established ‘pathway’ model. This fits with the systems thinking we have been doing as part of our Big Lottery funded Fulfilling Lives work in Newcastle Gateshead. If we start with the person and build a personal ‘system’ for them, the services that are then part of that system are more likely to be used effectively.

Whilst the research was extremely positive about the impact of Housing First on people’s lives and on savings to the public purse, it was less certain about its future funding. The previous ‘Supporting People’ funding set the framework for commissioning Housing Related Support, which was to be time limited and focussed on helping people achieve independence. This is problematic for Housing First services, as support is not time bound, making measuring outcomes on exit difficult, as there may not be an exit.

Our Housing First service is the only one of the nine services in the study commissioned under a mainstream contract (as opposed to being a pilot project). Newcastle City Council, who we worked with closely when we set up our pilot, saw the value and included it in its retendering of all Housing Related Support services last year. Our good relationship with the City Council means that we have been able to work through the issues caused by the nature of the service and have an on-going dialogue about monitoring and referral. This demonstrates that commissioning Housing First can be done if local authorities are forward thinking and prepared to accept a degree of uncertainty when it comes to length of support. Some partners in the research are exploring commissioning Housing First using an Adult Social Care model, so taking a personal budget approach, which does not expect that support is time limited.

We think Housing First should become part of the suite of homelessness services for people. It’s not the only option, and won’t work for everyone, but for a small group of chronically excluded people it may well provide the first step in helping them to escape the cycle of chaos and go on to lead a fulfilling life.

Read the findings of our research >>