Shoppers pass a homeless man in Manchester
Image: © Eamonn and James Clarke / Eamonn and James Clarke/PA Images

Homelessness is costing society big time. Is it time for a different approach?

Conrad Bower looks at the UK's homelessness problem, how much it costs society and whether a different approach being tried in Manchester might be a solution

On any given night, 3659 people slept rough across England last year. That’s more than double what it was five years ago. But why, in one of the richest countries in the world does this problem still exist, and what can be done about it?

And those numbers refer only to what’s called ‘rough sleeping’. The actual numbers of people without homes are far greater. Here’s three things to consider:

  • Those who are ‘statutory homeless’ - that means they’ve met the criteria for being registered as homeless by the local authority
  • Those who have no home of their own in which to live, apply, but do not meet the criteria
  • Those who don’t even register (often called the ‘hidden homeless’)

Last year, in England alone, 114,790 households applied as homeless, and 57,750 were accepted. There are no figures for the rest, who may be in hostels, B&Bs, staying with friends or family, or in other temporary situations.

So what’s causing it?

Of course, it’s a very complex problem. Every individual’s situation is unique and involves issues specific to his or her life, but there are some external economic factors that also contribute. In the UK, these include:

Beyond this, the situation has been made worse by the government's austerity agenda which has meant significant cuts to public services.

What homelessness costs society

The rise in homelessness has economic as well as social costs. Providing benefits, support, temporary accommodation, and healthcare all costs the public money. Pinpointing the exact nature of this cost is extremely difficult, but there have been efforts to do so.

The charity Crisis released a report called ‘At What Cost?’ last year, which estimates the amount of required to support homeless people, depending on the specific situation of the person involved and the kind of support they require. In one example scenario, just 30 people sleeping rough for one year costs the public an additional $790,000 a year.

An earlier report by the UK government again stresses the difficulty of coming up with an exact figure, and surveys numerous other reports conducted over the last 10 years. Perhaps the most shocking of these settles on an estimated total gross figure of $1.3bn a year spent on preventing and dealing with homelessness.

What can be done about it?

Again, it’s incredibly difficult. Complex problems require complex solutions. First up, some of the broader economic causes need to be considered. This means taking a look, for example, at the problem of spiralling rental costs, and deciding whether they’re sustainable in the long-term. The same goes for building more housing. There are a lot of competing interests involved, so we need to take collective decisions to commit to proper development programmes, so that we have the number of houses we need.

Second, in terms of taking care of those in need, I believe we need to shift the model from one where housing is effectively a reward, something that’s provided only after passing through numerous stages in the ‘homelessness system’ (the current way) to where housing is considered a basic right, and provided up front.

A system like this has been used successfully in the US for some time now. It’s called ‘Housing First’, and it’s actually being trialled in my hometown of Manchester. Curious to find out more, I went along to talk to some of the people involved.

I was placed into a council property, but I brought the streets with me, that mentality, because there wasn’t that wrap-around service provided that Housing First is offering…

Housing First - a different approach

Sarah Walters, Development Manager for Inspiring Change Manchester, is leading the pilot, which started in April 2016. According to her, one of the main reasons for its success is: “Previously you only kept your accommodation if you were prepared to engage with the support... it might be abstinence based. So unless you were able not to drink or not take drugs you would lose your accommodation.”

She continues: “What Housing First does is separate those two things out. You have your own tenancy, and only lose it in the same way you or I would lose our tenancies, if we didn't pay our rent, if we trashed the place completely or if we upset the neighbours.”

The trial is offered to those who have three of the four eligibility needs: homelessness, mental health problems, substance misuse and offending behaviour. All will have varying needs of support, which are provided for by a service team with one key housing officer as a main point of contact.

Dylan Stratton is fully aware of how important having a home is, having been homeless for around 10 years. During that time he had substance abuse, health, and behavioural issues. He paid countless visits to A&E and had many brushes with the law.

Stratton has turned his life around since the bad old days when he thought of himself as a, “homeless, drunken, junkie bum... I just felt like a ghost.” He’s been clean for over three years, and in his own privately rented flat for two and a half years. He now puts his experience of the streets to use as a volunteer with Inspiring Change.

Stratton says: “I was a frequent flyer to Manchester Royal Infirmary... I was that frequent, you might think I had shares in the place, to tell you the truth. But I was flagged up as problematic. Since coming through the services I went through detox in prison. I came out and because I didn't fit the criteria for rehabs, I was back onto the streets.”

But he’s had to travel a rocky road to get where he is now. His first tenancy didn’t go to plan: “I was placed into a council property, but I brought the streets with me, that mentality, because there wasn't that wrap-around service provided that Housing First is offering... So I was still in deep shit, with no support to access services to address that.”

“I think the most positive side of having my own property is I haven't actually stayed in A&E for over three years,” says Stratton.

Spending is an investment, not a cost

Both Sarah and Dylan agree that this approach is an improvement on the current system. In fact, Sarah puts the success rate of Housing First at 80-90%, compared to the 40% success rate of the traditional temporary accommodation route.

In the US, studies carried out by Pathways to Housing, US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Seattle authorities have all demonstrated that Housing First can reduce homelessness and save money at the same time. Over here in the UK, a report by housing expert Nicholas Pleace estimates that the potential overall savings to public expenditure could be in excess of $20,000 per person each year.

But the problem, as Pleace’s report makes clear, is funding (isn’t it always?). If Housing First is to progress, it’s going to need political will and money behind it. Spending on housing for the homeless is essential if we want to allow this most vulnerable group of people to regain their lives. Public money spent on preventing homelessness should be seen as an investment, not a cost.

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