Two months into the Homelessness Reduction Act - one council's story
How are local authorities dealing with the new duties encompassed in the Homelessness Reduction act? Faye Greaves visited Westminster City Council to find out.
It’s been two months since English local authorities became legally required, via the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, to provide more proactive and meaningful help to everyone who is eligible and homeless, or threatened with homelessness within 56 days. It’s going to take a bit of time to get a true sense of the impact of these progressive measures but I’m keen to understand councils’ approaches to implementation and what they mean for local approaches moving forward.
I visited Westminster’s growth, planning and housing team to find out how they’ve been gearing up to make the most out of the act and what their plans are for the future as a result. I was impressed by their pragmatic attitude to making what they consider necessary changes to transform the way homelessness is tackled in Westminster.
They shared lots of exciting information with me but for the sake of keeping it short and sweet, here are some of the highlights.
It’s an evolution, not a revolution
For Westminster, they’re comfortable admitting that it’s difficult to claim success or otherwise until the act has been in force for a while longer. And they’re not afraid to accept that further tweaks may be needed if they’re going to make a lasting difference.
They’ve already made big changes to how their statutory services are delivered. They’ve implemented a significant operational restructure with council staff working alongside an externally commissioned organisation (Places for People, RMG) who work with partners Shelter and The Passage to deliver four distinct ‘lots’ of service provision that strive to place prevention and early intervention at the centre of their practice:
1) Homelessness advice, prevention and support
2) Services for single people
3) Homelessness applications and allocations/ nominations
4) Temporary accommodation.
Getting the right culture starts from the top
Westminster demonstrates strong corporate support for the type of culture needed to get the most out of the new duties. They have political buy-in and the leadership team I met with couldn’t express enough how important it is for them to have the right culture so that people are dealt with in a more person-centred and holistic way.
They also talked a lot about how important professional relationships are when thinking about fostering the right culture. This includes individual relationships, not only within the council (across departments) but across other organisations too. They accept that they’ll need to develop and maintain many more partnerships than ever before but they’re committed to getting it right in the long term.
Taking prevention upstream
Westminster has ambitious plans for the future. They are bold, but if they get it right their lessons can ripple across all statutory provision. Ideally they aim to embed a collaborative and truly coordinated service process across all public services (adult and children’s social care, health and justice for example). A big challenge to achieving this though, is that thresholds for different statutory triggers are not aligned. This means that interventions are often uncoordinated and can be in conflict with each other. One action can be undermined by a failure to provide a complimentary service alongside it, for example.
Westminster are working on the principle that early intervention, through systems prevention is the best approach to reducing rising demand on all of these services. Systems prevention involves the recognition that there are often many ‘touch points’ a person can have before they eventually become homeless and that providing the right support, at the right time, can make a huge difference down the line.
So they want to work towards a shared commitment to providing services beyond statutory triggers - to ultimately address the underlying causes of homelessness. They acknowledge the hard work this would take but they are determined to achieve it – or something as close to it as possible at least.
Their homelessness trailblazer funding is being spent on some really interesting research to support this aim. They plan to use ethnographic and comparative studies to identify key triggers and protective factors amongst groups of households who have either become homeless, or who have approached their services for help but then went on to sort their own situations without the council’s help. They plan to use this information to target the right interventions, at the right time and at the right people i.e. those considered most at risk of homelessness at some point in the future.
A single homeless pathway to envy
Finally, I went to visit The Passage to see the work they do for single homeless people and it’s truly amazing. NHS staff attend to provide health care assessments/ treatment, there are visiting dentists, psychiatrists, and there’s yoga, homeopathy, a laundry room, a food canteen, a PRS access scheme, peer resettlement volunteers and 16 self-contained flats allocated based on the Housing First model.
They work really well with high profile businesses in London to get work placements and many lead to real jobs. They have dedicated immigration solicitors and someone who works with people who have no recourse to public funds. They have money advice, substance workers, welfare rights advisors, an employment and training team, pre-tenancy workshops……I could go on.
What The Passage also has, above all else, is a passion and overwhelming commitment to people. They are not prepared to compromise on their ethos that people lie at the heart of their reason for being, and Westminster City Council values this a lot. Which is good, because that’s the kind of commitment we need to see more of if we’re going to tackle homelessness for good.
Faye Greaves is policy and practice officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing.