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New year wishes? Five great ideas the Government has already had

Matt Downie MBE, Chief Executive

We are sometimes accused of wanting too much policy-change on homelessness. Civil servants especially, can find lists of principled demands exasperating when set against the realities and political limitations they face. Perhaps a good question to ask in the new year is whether there are policies, successes that can be built on?

This is a new years’ wish list of things the government in Westminster has either done before, already started, or is actively considering. Each of the five items would help the government achieve its target to end rough sleeping in England by 2024.

1. Protecting people from coronavirus

The Everyone In scheme has saved the lives of hundreds of people who are homeless, and prevented over 20,000 infections. The new variant of the virus is more easily spread, and is wreaking it havoc in the height of winter, leading to grave concerns within the medical community and homelessness sector who are unable to operate some hostels and night shelters with shared facilities.

The good news is that local councils and charity partners now know how to arrange self-contained accommodation, how to identify and cohort those most at risk and provide socially distanced support. The homelessness sector stands ready to go again. For a time-limited period until a vaccine is distributed, the government can and should sanction the final phase of Everyone In.

2. ‘Next Steps’ into housing

It is stating the obvious, but worth saying, that people remain homeless until they have a home. Back in September, councils in England were allocated much needed funds to help find accommodation for rough sleepers helped during the pandemic. This ‘next steps’ programme also included the first tranche of funding for 3,300 ‘longer-term homes’, with an ambition for 6,000 over four years.

To build on this progress the government can think bigger, and the estimated 29,000 people helped since the pandemic began certainly suggests much more is needed. In the end, mainstream housing will always be cheaper than paying for lengthy stays in homelessness accommodation.

2020 also showed us that simply changing local housing allocations policy can help dramatically reduce rough sleeping. Councils like Liverpool and Newcastle have led the way on this, with exceptional allocations agreed with social landlords. With government backing, this could become widespread and make a huge difference.

3. Mental health and addiction

We all know that there is a dearth of drug and alcohol services and mental health support for, or accessible to, people who are homeless. The government has recognised and responded with £23m funding for 43 areas announced in December, and more to follow.

The government’s own study into the support needs of rough sleepers shows the size of the task here, with 82% of 563 respondents reporting mental health needs, and 60% with drug or alcohol problems. Similarly, the recently published Housing First evaluation report shows how a lack of mental health provision is leading to schemes having to set up their own.

Further investment in these services can only assist every other government policy on homelessness.

4. An end to criminalisation

Last year the government completed its (yet unpublished) review into whether and how the Vagrancy Act of 1824 should be removed from the statute book. The arguments on this are well rehearsed. Yes, it is abhorrent and counter-productive to criminalise homelessness and destitution. And yes, if the Act is repealed, police will need a better, trauma informed but also decisive mechanism for dealing with some forms of begging.

It is time. 197 years is a long time to wait to do the right thing and, together with police contacts and specialist lawyers, Crisis has a ‘Repeal Bill’ ready to offer Ministers for immediate consideration.

5. Housing First

The government is already investing in pilots of the proven Housing First model. The big question now is what a national roll-out can and should look like? Without pre-empting the 2021 outputs from the Centre for Social Justice or the APPG inquiry, both of which are dedicated to this question, it is clear that government funding and oversight of fidelity will be key. This year Crisis will also publish a feasibility study into how additional housing can be delivered for Housing First, and we look forward to presenting findings to ministers.

There are, of course, bigger and more politically difficult solutions to add to this list. Nothing outlined above negates the need for action on welfare, immigration policy and broader housing supply. However, 2021 can and should be a year when successes in the five areas create an appetite for ever bolder solutions.

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