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Housing

‘We tried to throw the rule book out’: How a trailblazing housing scheme will help rough sleepers

Could this innovative new accommodation lead the way when it comes to tackling homelessness?

A trailblazing new housing project aims to transform the lives of rough sleepers by offering them a home, support and a community all under one roof.

Some of London’s most vulnerable people will be helped to get back on their feet thanks to the landmark scheme in Islington, north London, which welcomes its first residents this week.

Launched as a collaboration between Islington Council, the Greater London Authority, and charity the Single Homeless Project, the 30-room former nursing home will offer a range of vital services and a specialist women’s wing.

Each section of the building is colour-coded, while outside there are potato and tomato plants already in the garden. There will be health and wellbeing activities, including yoga sessions, and dogs are welcome.

It features individual rooms, with communal kitchens and lounges and is consciously not like other homeless accommodation – which often takes the form of hostels or ‘pepper potted’ single houses.

homeless shelter
The women’s kitchen inside the hub. Image: Keith Emmitt/Islington Council

After the capital managed to – officially, at least – get all rough sleepers off the streets with the Everyone In scheme during the pandemic, the focus has now turned to longer-term solutions. The scheme is similar to the progressive Housing First model, which Single Homeless Project has successfully trialled in London.

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“As a country, if we house a homeless person during the pandemic, we can do it all the time, if we have the will to do it” said Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn, who attended the opening ceremony.

“This is an example of what can be done.” 

Rough sleepers, many of whom are living in hostels in the aftermath of the Everyone In scheme, will be referred by Islington Council’s homeless outreach teams.

Toni Warner of the Single Homeless Project, which will provide the support services, said the accommodation is a great opportunity to make meaningful progress when it comes to tackling homelessness.

“It is very rare to have it. We could do with more of it,” said Warner.

homeless shelter
A communal lounge area inside the new project. Image: Keith Emmitt/Islington Council

“We tried to throw the rule book out as far as supported housing is concerned,” said Georgina Earthy, complex needs and homelessness manager at Islington Council.

“Having it all under one roof will be groundbreaking, really. It is just going to be life changing for so many people.”

Domestic abuse is a significant cause of homelessness among women. Along with women’s only rooms and specialist support groups, one approach being taken is the option for couples to both move in and receive support. 

It may seem counterintuitive, but people can be coerced into going back onto the streets if they are offered a hostel but their abusive partner isn’t, the service manager says.

“It actually makes things less risky,” said service manager Scarlett. “It’s all about control, and if you’re seeing the survivor get lots of help and you’re getting no help, it heightens situations whereas if you’re both getting help, we’ve got to recognise that that person has vulnerabilities as well. 

“If we’re helping both of them, we’re helping the woman.”

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The unit is part of wider efforts in London to tackle rough sleeping. Tom Copley, deputy mayor of London for housing, told The Big Issue it’s a vital – but not final – tool in the capital’s fight against homelessness, which will ultimately require more social housing.

He also said the cost of living crisis is already pushing people to the brink.

“​​I think it’s going to be absolutely catastrophic,” he said. “Already I’m hearing cases of people who are on full benefits not being able to access accommodation and being turned down by housing associations for social housing because they won’t pass an affordability check because of energy bills.“

He added: “I just don’t think it is sustainable for the government to keep burying its head in the sand and do nothing about it.”

Islington North MP Corbyn said he worried about the number of concealed homeless people, pushed into their situation by a frantic rental market.

“It can only intensify because we don’t have sufficiently inclusive social policies in Britain, particularly for single homeless people,” he said.

Neither of the main parties has the tools or ideas to deal with the crisis, Corbyn said.

“I don’t think they’ve got enough, [or] anyone’s got enough on it. There has to be a national effort on it. Everybody deserves somewhere to live.”

He added: “We shouldn’t tolerate rough sleeping, homelessness. We didn’t during Covid, we showed we can do it. Let’s do it permanently.”

This summer has seen a swell grassroots action to tackle the cost of living crisis, as soaring bills and stagnant wages threaten people across the country.

But the former Labour leader criticised the current party leadership’s stance on supporting striking workers, following the sacking of shadow transport minister Sam Tarry last week.

“I can see the idea that you say little and do not very much, and that way you get yourself into office,” he said. “It doesn’t always work.”

By contrast, Corbyn’s own Peace and Justice project has intensified recently, and he has thrown his support behind Just Stop Oil, advocating direct action. With rumours swirling that he intends to return to frontline politics, Corbyn twice refused to deny the prospect of running for mayor of London.

“A lot of people have made a lot of ambitions on my behalf,” he said, but added: “We’ll see what happens.”

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