Amy Varle: How Housing First can bring lasting change to UK homelessness

The independent social housing strategist calls for a national roll-out of the approach after her report on homelessness prevention caught the eye of Prime Minister Theresa May

Britain is heading towards a homelessness crisis of epidemic stature. In 2017, a National Audit Office survey recorded 4,134 people sleeping outdoors – an increase of 134 per cent since 2010 – and the government estimates that 307,000 people are currently homeless, or living in inadequate, temporary accommodation.

In 2000, at the age of 16, I lived for 10 months in a temporary accommodation unit for displaced teenagers. I became homeless as the result of a not-uncommon crisis: the breakdown of my family unit. I am one of the lucky ones. I was immediately placed within a self-contained, semi-supported living complex; a ‘halfway-house’ for young adults in similar positions to myself. I made friends and learnt how to maintain my home, saw counsellors and was encouraged to undertake life-skills training. Less than 12 months later, I held an independent tenancy and had commenced my career in the field of supportive housing. I trained to assist individuals challenged by severe mental health issues to live more accomplished lives.

Over the years, I’ve often wondered what my fate might have been. The UK now has 3.9 million citizens in “persistent poverty” – people with less than 60% of national average disposable income for two of the past three years – and 58,000 individuals in England are in contact each year with homelessness, substance misuse and offending services. Today, it would be almost unheard of for a single homeless person to receive a similar standard of services and intensive, personalised care.

Amy Varle USA
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Amy Varle was awarded a Travelling Fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust in May 2016 that allowed her to travel to the US to assess the Housing First approach across the Atlantic

So, why is it that we are unable to respond to homelessness appropriately in 21st century Britain? Why is it that instances of homelessness are rising – and why is it that homelessness is being sustained?

Since 2013, I’ve worked independently to identify and explore economical solutions to the crisis of modern homelessness and housing instability for vulnerable groups, whilst campaigning against costly, inhumane, or ineffective techniques.

Research robustly supports the theory that homelessness is primarily a housing crisis, and therefore should be addressed through housing.

Pioneered in New York in the 1990s, Housing First – the provision of permanent, stable accommodation, combined with specialised, person-centred support – is an evidence-based practice now widely cited as the most effective approach to ending all types of homelessness.

In May 2016, I was awarded a Travelling Fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust in partnership with the National Housing Federation. This afforded me the opportunity to connect with – and learn from – industry pioneers and leaders across the globe. It was an incredible learning experience.

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I’ve channelled much of my energy into promoting a movement of Housing First-led approaches towards homelessness in Britain, encouraging increased confidence in new practice across the public, private, and third sectors. The UK government recently announcing £28 million in funding to support the launch of Housing First pilots across three major cities. Temporary accommodation placements – mainly payments to hostels, bed and breakfast-type establishments and hotels – cost the UK £700 million a year; or £2 million a day.

The transition from street homelessness to independent living for those with complex needs often resembles a ‘staircase’ model, with individuals being required to meet specific criteria before they can progress step-by-step towards practical homelessness assistance – and ultimately, an independent tenancy. This process can involve:

  • Contact with outreach workers, day centres or treatment services
  • A move into direct-access hostels
  • A further move into second stage or specialist hostels (relating to support needs)
  • Progression to semi-independent or shared accommodation
  • Ultimately – once deemed ‘housing ready’ – taking an independent tenancy, with or without support

It can be challenging for a person who may be dealing with mental health and/or substance abuse issues to make progress.

The official trial of Housing First coincides with plans contained in my Fellowship report to independently create the UK’s first open-source ‘Street-to-Home’ resolution platform, the ‘Housing First Hub’. The hub aims to effectively connect, educate and empower a diverse range of professionals, practitioners and volunteers.

Is a short, uncertain period spent within a chaotic temporary unit an appropriate environment for recovery from issues relating to historical trauma, domestic violence or substance misuse? How easy is it to rebuild your life if you don’t have a registered address, a regular income, or even know when you will next sleep deeply for an uninterrupted period?

Amy Varle USA
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Amy's Social Property Investment report from her findings has even caught the attention of the Prime Minister

I am hopeful that the evolution of Housing First in Britain will be the beginning of positive and lasting change for people sleeping rough and I feel optimistic that the online community resource centre we are creating will enhance the future delivery of official Housing First schemes, as well as providing grassroots groups, on-the-ground practitioners, community-led initiatives and their volunteers an opportunity to explore Housing First-inspired strategies. Housing Link evaluated nine UK-based Housing First projects, finding that between 70-90% of participants had sustained their accommodation and were living more fulfilling and productive lives.

Now is the time for us collectively to get behind Housing First, explore the practices in depth and begin to adapt our methods and practices in order to suit the (surely inevitable?) national roll-out at a later date. As world-leading affordable housing provider and street-to-home resolution service Breaking Ground, New York, states: “Bringing a homeless person inside – or preventing them from sleeping outdoors in the first place – is not only effective, as well as cost-effective; it’s also the right thing to do”.

Social Property Investment: Pioneering Strategies For 21st Century Homelessness Prevention and Response by Amy Varle is available to read at wcmt.org.uk

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