Tackling homelessness US-style

By Andrew Vaux | 03 April 2024

Michael is nearly 50 and spent three decades living on the streets, apart from brief stays in homeless shelters, which invariably didn’t work out because of his behaviour problems.

He had a very difficult start in life which was mostly spent in care homes, where he experienced abuse.

But now, as a client of Bradford’s Housing First project, he’s managed to hold down his tenancy for two years and receive treatment for mental health issues and alcohol dependency. Michael now attends a day centre where he’s made new friends and interests and has just started volunteering as he has a strong desire to put something back into the community.

So, what exactly is Bradford’s homelessness project? Housing First is a partnership between local charity the Bridge Project, Bradford City Council, and housing providers. It’s based on an international model, first developed in New York that is proving successful in helping rough sleepers with complex needs turn their lives around.

Rather than the traditional approach, which is often to place rough sleepers in homeless hostels, Housing First provides the individual with their own home and tenancy, with intensive open-ended support. It aims to give people back control of their own lives and having a stable home provides them with an environment to tackle their demons and adapt to independent living.

Chief executive of the Bridge Project Jon Royle explains: ‘The service has operated in Bradford since August 2018, and so far we’ve helped over 30 people with the most complex lives. Investing in this way saves the public purse money in the long run, because many of our beneficiaries have spent decades in and out of hospital, prison, and homeless hostels without making substantial progress.

‘It’s a compassionate, humane response to help a small group of people who’ve had incredibly difficult and challenging lives fulfil their potential and gain a level of dignity that most of us take for granted.’

Housing First service manager John Robinson explains the key factors contributing to the project’s ongoing success.

He comments: ‘The principle of granting people accommodation without the need to fulfil any conditions is essential for people with multiple disadvantages. Residents have the space to get their basic needs met, process any trauma they may have, think about what they want in life based on their own terms, and start establishing boundaries.

‘Owning a home is truly a springboard upon which other positive outcomes can emerge – for example residents being able to think about budgeting, and not having to rely on shoplifting to meet their needs, which reduces their offending and criminal behaviour. Residents feel valued, respected, and have a sense of belonging to wider society.

‘The principle of providing flexible and long-term support for as long as it’s needed is befitting for people with chronic history of homelessness and with multiple support needs.

‘Finding accommodation for residents, management of tenancy and everyday upkeep of the home, and adjustment to their new homes takes time and requires extra support. Residents have been let down from services previously, especially where there is a time limit to engage. In Housing First, without the time pressure, frontline workers can provide flexible, sustained support to residents building the relationships and security they so desperately need.’

Active engagement by support workers plays an important role. Robinson adds:Workers are allowed to “meet the residents where they’re at” which reflects a person-centred approach. Active engagement recognises that intervention and support in the initial phase are timely and urgent, and there’s a need to respond accordingly to clients’ needs which ebb and flow throughout their time with Housing First.

‘Small caseload allows for workers to be proactive in their engagement with residents and allows them to focus on building relationships with the residents and serve more as a supportive presence for them.

‘Quite simply, frontline workers are the heart of Housing First and lifeline for the residents. Having workers by their side as a strong advocate and be their voice when the need arise, instils in them hope and confidence that their lives can get better. Workers also serve as role models in many aspects in life, such as how to perform everyday tasks, how to communicate with others and set boundaries, and how to form safe, healthy, and trusting relationships.’

In the past year, of the 31 people in the scheme 19 are now maintaining their own tenancies, four are housed with other partner agencies and eight are waiting to be housed.

The project workers have assisted clients with various aspects of lifestyle changes ranging from offending behaviour, financial improvement, to reinstating family connections:

Key successes include:

  • Reduced Offending - 69% have reduced their offending behaviour
  • Financial stability - 21% have secured reliable/legal source of income
  • Re-establishing relationship – 65% report improvements in their relationships with family, friends, and development of positive networks of support
  • Substance misuse - 37% of those with a treatment need have engaged with services to address their misuse of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Physical Health - 69% have engaged with appropriate services
  • Mental Health – 54% have accessed appropriate emotional and mental health services

Of the 31 in the scheme:

  • 26 are in their own tenancies (84%)
  • 5 are housed by other partner services with Housing First support (16%)

Of those in their own tenancies

  • 12 have lasted more than two years (46%)
  • 5 have lasted more than one year (19%)
  • 7 have lasted more than 6 months (27%)

Bradford City Council’s portfolio holder for regeneration, transport and planning Cllr Alex Ross-Shaw concludes: ‘As awareness of the Housing First model and its success has become more widespread, more councils are considering how they might offer the service. We can say with certainty and with pride that Housing First has contributed to the reduction of rough sleeping and repeat homelessness in the Bradford District.

‘This approach offers people intensive, tailored, and wraparound support which emphasises control and choice. And there’s no doubt it works. We’ve seen significant improvements to people’s mental and physical health and 65 per cent of people also reported improvements in their relationships with family and friends. This shows people can engage again, and that they have the necessary support networks going forward.’

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