15938 Homelife Cover Star July 2022

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Looking beyond our shores for an answer to homelessness

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Andy Hayes, operations manager, specialising in homelessness

Learning from the best and tweaking their plans may be the answer to our homelessness dilemma, writes Andy Hayes.

With the continued rise in homelessness rates across the UK, opinions on how we solve this growing issue have been dialled up, especially so as we move closer to a general election.

Views abound about the best plan of action, with arguably none standing out above the other. Yet, if we look beyond our shores a solution may already exist.

In Finland, since launching their first concerted efforts to tackle the issue in 1987, when the country had 18,000 people experiencing homelessness - out of a population of 5.5 million - they have seen a monumental decline.

At the end of 2022, around 3,500 people were classed as homeless. Of those only 492 had spent the night outside.

This outstanding effort boils down to a single conscious change in approach.

Until the 1990s, Finland had relied on a traditional treatment-first approach, making people address any issues they might be facing, such as poor mental health or addictions, before being eligible for a home.

But leaders felt a lot could be gained by flipping this, and in 2008 set up their ‘Housing First’ principle – the idea that a person did not have to change their life around to earn the basic right to a home. Instead, housing would be immediately provided and serve as the foundation from which they could safely and effectively tackle these issues.

Variations of this model have been adopted in parts of the UK but without, I feel, a key ingredient.

At Home Group, we took a similar approach to the Finnish model but we adapted it to match the experience we have picked up along the way. Put simply, it is introducing a person-centred approach.

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We found you still needed that range of housing options available, including single units and also elements of shared living that can help with isolation, loneliness and skills development.

And without a doubt, building strong relationships with commissioners and local authorities are key. Both have been impactful in our success to date.

Last year we were commissioned to deliver just under 400 bed spaces for the homeless. We directly delivered 174 of those bed spaces, working closely with trusted partners to provide the remainder.

We supported around 250 customers into our Home Group services, with all types of needs and backgrounds. We also saw 228 customers supported into a positive outcome. These were customers who presented to us as homeless, who were successfully helped into a general needs property, private rented or local authority accommodation, or into another supported accommodation service which better delivered the support they needed.

Much like they saw in Finland, providing a customer with housing initially helps to stabilise them. It provides structure and safety from where they can begin to address the challenges they are facing and which may have fed into their homelessness initially.

But where we at Home Group differ from this model we aren’t just working from a general template where we provide a bed or a set of keys to a customer and say job done. We recognise that every customer we see is first and foremost an individual. They have specific needs, challenges, and aspirations – and that means they need tailored support which can get them settled in a home with a brighter future ahead of them.

Now, our duty is not to treat the customer. There are trained professionals who should be involved to address challenges a customer might face. Our role is to ensure the customer feels they have a safe and secure place to live and to help connect them to said professionals.

Our extended role is to provide practical and emotional support which will enable our customers to take positive steps. We will work with customers to learn and develop key life skills; things as simple as how to pay a bill, cooking skills and money management. All vital life lessons that will help them sustain their new tenancy.

But people dealing with such complex issues understandably relapse and we are there to support our customers if, or when they do.

If stabilising a customer’s life is the aim of the game with our homelessness services, then the idea that we are there ready with a safety net to catch them even in the good times can be a huge burden lifted from their shoulders.

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We’ve numerous examples where we have helped sustain a customer’s tenancy and kept it open for them as they got the necessary support they needed.

And from that we have seen many positive outcomes. Among them are people who I now proudly get to call my colleagues. One now helps lead the delivery of the very service they entered as street homeless as a young adult, who like many suffered their own relapses and challenges during their time with us as a customer, but with the right support came through the other end and is now thriving and helping others on their own journeys. Their ability to use that first-hand lived experience is so valuable in connecting with the customers we support.

Just as Finland found, many of our customers would have been unable to make those journeys had they been required to address their issues prior to being given a home. It was the stability of a place to live that provided the springboard.

But unlike Finland, who have an abundance of local municipally homes, the UK is in the midst of a housing shortage. That’s why it’s even more important that we are there to support our customers out of homelessness. Losing a tenancy can be even more impactful these days, as there aren’t the homes available to move back into once a customer has addressed their difficulties.

With that in mind that’s why we need to retain the mixed tenure properties I mentioned earlier to ensure that those customers, already vulnerable, remain safe and stable while we work to find them a suitable forever home.

Without our strong relationships with commissioners, the local authority and partners I’m not sure we would be where we are today. However, adopting this person-centred approach, as simple and obvious as it sounds, is one of the key reasons we have enjoyed so much success. It might not be success on as grand a scale as Finland, but it is making a genuine difference in the lives of our customers and is a direction we’d like to see adopted more by others across the country.

Andy Hayes is an operations manager at Home Group, specialising in homelessness.

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