“At the moment, there is very little scrutiny of how housing associations fulfil their legal duties to help people experiencing homelessness.”

Jon Sparkes,  Chief Executive of Crisis 

One of our strategic goals at Bromford is to improve social justice and play our part in reducing homelessness. We’re looking at how we might best go about this. As part of this early work, we thought that it would be good to open up the discussion in a live lunchtime edition of our Bromford Lab twitter chat, based around the provocation: 

IS IT REALLY POSSIBLE TO END HOMELESSNESS?

Last Friday, we combined our online #blabchat with a live panel discussion and inspiration session which we linked together with a live streamed broadcast.

Here's a roundup of the conversation from both sessions . . .

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The most visible form of homelessness is street homelessness. When most of us think about the homeless, we think of rough sleepers. It’s perhaps not surprising therefore that most interventions feel like they are aimed at this group; supporting the most vulnerable people to stay safe, warm, dry and nourished. But whilst rough sleeping is arguably the most severe form of homelessness, it isn’t the only form. People in temporary accommodation and those who don’t meet the government’s statutory measure of homelessness make up a far greater proportion of the homeless population. So, with this broad spectrum of homelessness in mind, is trying to end homelessness the right place to start or is there something more fundamental we should focus on first?

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Much of the conversation seemed to focus on the relative importance of prevention or intervention. In many ways, the debate represents a false choice; a well-functioning housing system requires both prevention and treatment. But how do you strike the right balance?

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Perhaps the current balance is tilted in  favour of quick fixes rather than looking for long-term systemic solutions?

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On the whole, people tended to agree that more homes were needed, but looking at this alone will always fail in the long run. A mix of approaches is needed otherwise the problem of homelessness would simply reassert itself.

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Homelessness is a wicked problem. As such, it’s difficult or perhaps even impossible to solve. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of other problems, so seeking to address homelessness can’t fall to any single organisation or body. Having a broad definition of homelessness enables all of us to participate in preventing and solving it.

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Contributors seemed clear - we need to respond with innovation, creativity and most of all, by involving everyone we can think of and more besides.

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A number of people commented that partisan politics was getting in the way of solving the actual problem. More unity and action is needed rather than trying to apportion blame. Mike Lewis agreed with Amy and commented that the reasons for homelessness are so broad that local or central government alone will never ever be able to solve it in isolation. As Mike said “It’s a societal issue and that's where the ability to address homelessness will be.”

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Homelessness represents a complex ecosystem with many different facets. It’s therefore hard to recognise one single solution that could have a major impact when deployed in isolation. However, looking at policy might be the best place to start. Serena suggested that allocations policies are a big problem and racing to codify people’s needs is toxic!

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Many people agreed with Jen. Cathryn made the point that providers are not here to add additional pressure on already over stretched statutory services. Perhaps we need to work harder and be far more creative in how we engage and develop our customer relationships?

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This need for personalisation feels like it is important here. We know that one size fit all services fit no-one. We know that we can't reduce people to a convenient series of boxes. We can't solve one issue in isolation as it is often influenced by everything surrounding it.

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The importance of housing people in the right place, with the right connections was made time after time. The need to be flexible and ‘do the right thing’ for people in precarious housing situations was also mentioned. Perhaps Housing Association’s have contributed to the problem through strict interpretation of lettings and allocation policies?

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Jen again stressed the importance of creative thinking across teams - of doing what we can “with insufficient funding and a healthy social conscience.”


When it came to creativity, a lot of people mentioned the Finnish principle of Housing First; Finland is the only country on earth where homelessness is in decline. In the Housing First model, a dwelling is not a reward that a homeless person receives once their life is back on track. Instead, a dwelling is the foundation on which the rest of life is put back together.

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Reflecting on the comments around modular construction, Paul wondered what happened with the US experiment of placing tiny homes in people’s back gardens to house the homeless and make a social connection with the homeowner. 


Clearly modular build plays a part, as do the numerous innovations to help rough sleepers. As the panel discussed during the live Periscope, homelessness won’t be solved by one single thing,

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“Society equates living in a permanent structure, even a shack, as having value as a person.”

Becky Blanton, The Year I Was Homeless. 


Just along the corridor from the Twitter chat panel discussion, 13 colleagues from across the business took part in a workshop designed to uncover inspiration from a range of interesting blogs, articles, videos and podcasts on the same topic. There is no right or wrong answer in an inspiration session; you might love some of the content, you might hate it, but that doesn’t matter so long as it generates a good discussion. You can find out more about the catalysts we used for our conversation by checking out the inspiration session reading list.

In summary, the conversation felt like it centred around 4 broad themes:

  • Types of Homelessness

  • Policy

  • Support

  • Solutions

Types of Homelessness

As The Connection at St Martins explain on their website, homelessness takes different forms. All forms of homelessness damage people’s health and well-being, both immediately and over the long term, and stop them from achieving their potential. This is at odds with the Bromford strategy which aims to ‘invest in homes and relationships so that people can thrive.

No one comes into the world wanting to be homeless; homelessness top trumps is a game that no one wants to play. Becky Blanton had a successful career, but following an unfortunate life event she embarked upon a journey in which she became unintentionally homeless and gained an insight into how homeless people were treated by society. Whilst we might place a value on four walls and a roof, people are much more than where they sleep.

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Policy

Some of the policies that are adopted at both government and organisational level mean that agencies can often end up removing choice from people who need the most support; doing to them rather than doing with them. When someone is able to buy a property they have the choice to replace the carpets if or when they wish. They are able to make adult decisions around whether they can afford to change them now, or whether they can make do until they are a little more financially stable. Many Housing Associations automatically remove that choice for new social housing tenants, regardless of the carpet condition. This puts a strain on customer finances at the beginning of their tenancy or forces them to live in situations where their house doesn’t feel like a home. When coupled with other policy decisions such as the requirement to stay a month’s rent in credit and issues around the roll-out of universal credit, it can often feel like customers are being setup to fail. 

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A skip full of carpets should work like a canary in the mine for Housing Association colleagues -  If we get to the point where skipping a house full of carpets that are in good condition seems OK, it’s a warning sign for us to step off the treadmill and gather our thoughts.

Support

Interventions aimed at reducing homelessness are often targeted at rough sleeping, but what happens when people finally get off the streets? What services are there to support them. Colleagues reflected that going from ‘tent to home’ often doesn't end well.   

  • People lose their tenancy because the home wasn’t right for them

  • Customers still sleep rough from time to time because they don’t have the networks to support them in their new home

  • People aren’t always in the right space of don’t always have the right life skills needed to maintain a tenancy


We need to be looking closely at the journeys people take through the housing system in order to identify gaps in provision. How might we gain insight into what it’s like to be homeless and what support homeless people really need? 

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Solutions

We’re going to be using the output from both the #blabchat and inspiration session along with the other research we are currently undertaking in order to shape a Hackathon later in the summer. Please keep an eye on the Bromford Lab blog for more info.


As always, thank you to everyone who contributed!


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@simon_penny

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