Inside Housing | The community taking on homelessness


15 November 2016 7:30 am

The community taking on homelessness

Housing minister Gavin Barwell’s Croydon constituency has a homelessness crisis. Now members of the community are taking matters into their own hands to find a solution. Martin Hilditch reports

For use in Inside Housing, 18 November 2016

CATHY AT 50 200px

It is the wrong side of midnight and the A&E department at Croydon University Hospital is a picture of well-lit gloom.

A handful of patients sit on plastic chairs, silently contemplating the dramas that have brought them here in the depths of the night. Their peace is broken by the entry of a small group of men and women, all wearing identical blue cagoules that proclaim their arrival from the European End Street Homelessness Campaign in big letters on the back. It has been a disappointing night for the volunteers so far. They have been charged with engaging with homeless people on the streets of Croydon as part of a massive project that is the first step of a campaign to end rough sleeping in the London borough.

Thus far, they have traipsed around parks, alleyways and lock-ups, shining torches into dark corners like Croydon’s answer to the Scooby-Doo gang. Despite visiting many of the borough’s well-known rough sleeping ‘hotspots’, after a couple of hours they have little to show for their efforts beyond tired legs. They have popped into the A&E department for a comfort break, but it is about to provide them with a depressing insight into the realities of life on the streets.

Major campaign

Moments after walking through the doors, the group are approached by a young man with an amputated foot, who has come to A&E for treatment.

“I’m homeless,” he says. He is accompanied by a friend, who is also homeless, and has made his own trip to the hospital in recent weeks. “I had pneumonia,” he says. “I had three blood transfusions.”

I was genuinely shocked by some of the data – really, really shocked. It should be a wakeup call to the citizens of Croydon.”

Lee Buss, director of operations, Evolve Housing + Support

They strike up a conversation with Deborah Ives, head of operations at homelessness charity Evolve Housing + Support, who is leading the team tonight. Elsewhere, a young woman who says she was homeless up until a couple of weeks ago approaches and has a chat with one of the volunteers, Mary Blamires. She is concerned society tends to think all homeless people are alcoholics. “She said: ‘I just wanted to let you know we are not’,” Ms Blamires reports afterwards.

It is all a powerful reminder that when housing professionals talk about the strain and cost that housing problems place on other services, or when homelessness professionals discuss tri-morbidity (the combination of mental and physical ill health and drug or alcohol misuse), this is the back story. To put it another way, if you are looking to find rough sleepers, an A&

For use in Inside Housing, 18 November 2016
A&E department in the middle of the night is a very good place to start.

The group is part of a bigger picture, however. Tonight, Croydon’s streets are covered with a patchwork quilt of volunteers. Their work is the start of the CR Zero 2020 campaign, which is led by Evolve, Crisis, Expert Link, Homeless Link and Thames Reach, to end rough sleeping in the borough. This sprang out of a wider European End Street Homelessness Campaign, which is being developed by the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) and FEANTSA, the European network of organisations working with homeless people.

The Croydon project’s ambition is clear. But what learning has it picked up already? And can it really succeed in eradicating rough sleeping?

Fast forward a few days, and some of the answers start to emerge. Over the course of the week, groups of volunteers speak to street homeless people in Croydon and get them to complete in-depth questionnaires. The aim is to build up the most detailed picture ever of the men and women living on the borough’s streets, which contain the eighth-highest number of people sleeping rough in the UK.

People sleeping rough on our streets is probably the most visible indicator of the profound housing problems we have got in this country that it is my job to try to tackle.

Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon and housing minister

On a Saturday morning, just days after the last group of volunteers reports back, the information contained on the questionnaires has been analysed and the initial findings are to be presented to members of the Croydon community, including constituency MP and housing minister, Gavin Barwell.

The volunteers engaged with 64 homeless people over the course of the week (more than the 53 people recorded in the last street count); 42 of them completed a survey. Straight away, it is obvious the A&E department the volunteers visited earlier in the week has been a familiar destination for many of Croydon’s rough sleepers. In fact, half of the rough sleepers who completed a questionnaire had been in an A&E department in the past six months.

Collectively, there had been 53 attendances to A&E departments in that time, with 19 separate occasions in which people had been taken in by ambulance. There were a further 23 cases in which people had been in hospital as an in-patient.

For use in Inside Housing, 18 November 2016
Filling in a questionnaire

Grim events

The rest of the statistics make pretty grim reading, too. More than half of the respondents said they had been attacked or beaten up while on the streets. Weeks after this meeting, the Croydon Advertiser reported the story of a homeless man who has disappeared after a gang of “laughing thugs” attacked him in a doorway and set his belongings on fire.

And there are hundreds of other statistics, each with their own depressing back stories. Two of the six women who filled out forms were pregnant, 60% of the respondents had not been in permanent or sustainable housing for six months or more and 70% said there were no activities in their life that made them feel happy and fulfilled other than just surviving. Lee Buss, director of operations at Evolve Housing + Support, admits: “I was genuinely shocked by some of the data – really, really shocked. It should be a wakeup call to the citizens of Croydon.”

What of Mr Barwell, who says he has hotfooted it to the morning’s event “from my surgery, dealing with a number of housing issues”?

We are asking the entire community to work together to find a solution to chronic rough sleeping on the streets of Croydon.

Lee Buss, director of operations, Evolve Housing + Support

Croydon’s MP is certainly not shying away from the problem. “People sleeping rough on our streets is probably the most visible indicator of the profound housing problems we have got in this country that it is my job to try to tackle,” he tells the audience. He later adds: “I look forward to hearing what I can do, what the council can do and what the community can do to solve this great moral stain on our times.” He promises to resource any potential new responsibilities placed on councils as a result of the forthcoming Homelessness Reduction Bill.

The members of the Croydon community in attendance are not here to demand solutions from the housing minister, however. Instead, the aim is for local people, charities and businesses to take matters into their own hands.

For use in Inside Housing, 18 November 2016

Collective effort

“We are asking the entire community to work together to find a solution to chronic rough sleeping on the streets of Croydon,” Mr Buss explains. “Now we have the information, we need to do something with it. Croydon has the answers. I don’t mean Croydon the local authority – although they play a vital role. I mean us, everyone in this room.”

The next step is to form a “community solutions” focus group, whereby local people and organisations will work together to develop answers. This could involve asking existing services to work differently or developing new services or methods.

Only a few weeks later, Inside Housing drops in on the initial meeting of the group in a community centre. Members of local homelessness charities and drop-in centres have turned up, alongside local residents and council staff. Mark McPherson, director of strategy, partnership and innovation at Homeless Link and who is chairing, states that the purpose of the group is to “understand why people live on the streets”, “identify the things that stop them getting off the streets” and “find solutions”.

It might be that we don’t get some of those people in the room… But we can come up with an ask for them.”

Mark McPherson, director of strategy, partnership and innovation, Homeless Link

The group begins by working in teams to identify points of contact and sources of help for homeless people in the borough. A chart of faith groups, night shelters and drop-in centres emerges. Over the next few weeks the information will be pulled together into a “systems map”. The next step will be to pinpoint barriers in the system and “who do we have to influence to remove them”.

“It might be that we don’t get some of those people in the room,” Mr McPherson says. “But we can come up with an ask for them.” He reminds the attendees that all solutions have to be “about housing” – “the solutions must mean they are no longer living on the streets”.

It is early days yet, but the mood in the room is optimistic. Rough sleeping might be on the rise nationally, but the group here today are determined they can reverse the trend and, indeed, eradicate it in Croydon by 2020. So far they have attracted more than 100 volunteers, had the ear of the housing minister and collected more detail about the borough’s homeless population than anyone before. They are likely to have plenty of learning to pass on to the housing sector – and do not bet against them achieving the seemingly impossible while they are at it.

Campaign origins

The work in Croydon to end homelessness can trace its roots back to the 100,000 Homes campaign in the USA.

This was a national grassroots movement working to find and permanently house 100,000 of the most vulnerable homeless people in the nation – with communities taking the lead. It won a World Habitat Award, organised by the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF), in 2013.

David Ireland, director of the BSHF, says after the award win “there was a real interest in seeing if we could use some of the methods and adapt them into Europe”. This led to the birth of the European End Street Homelessness Campaign, co-ordinated by BSHF. Identical questionnaires have been filled out by homeless people in various cities, such as Barcelona and Valencia, and Croydon is the latest area to launch its own campaign.

Inside Housing | Helping the homeless



14 November 2016

Helping the homeless


A few hours after deciding to write about homelessness in this blog, my friend, Trevor Smith, said this to me: “Homelessness is centre stage in the induction programme I am designing. If new entrants to the housing sector don’t ‘get’ homelessness, they won’t understand what we’re about.”

Trevor runs the support programme for the Centre for Partnership’s GEM (Graduate Employment and Mentoring) Programme. His comment started me thinking about the extent to which homelessness – and finding solutions for it – remains at the heart of what we do or whether, at times, we forget about it in the rush to keep step with the government’s latest housing initiative (I understand that it’s ‘buy as you go’ this week).

I touch base regularly with Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis. Two years ago we were discussing how homelessness was increasing, and that measures such as the overall benefits cap would only make it worse. He said he thought that the pendulum would swing back by 2017. The fantastic work that he and the Crisis team have done to promote the Homelessness Reduction Bill is a strong indicator that he got it right. Two or three years ago the government was so busy weakening the safety net for homeless people it would have been inconceivable that such a measure could have succeeded. Now the bill, which was taken forward by Conservative MP Bob Blackman, has the support of the Communities and Local Government, local authorities and, we hope, parliament. That is an astonishing result.

We also have a housing minister who is bothered about homelessness. He says he is, and I choose to believe him. Recently he stated that “solving our housing crisis is a moral priority”. Homelessness is back on the radar.

There is the fantastic work that David Bogle and the Homes for Cathy group are doing which will be showcased in parliament in February, and which has spawned a myriad of national and regional events. South Yorkshire Housing Association (SYHA) showed the original Cathy Come Home at our local independent cinema last week, and it was followed by a panel debate which included the housing lead on the local council, a homelessness agency and a young woman who had experienced homelessness. Next week we are reprising this as part of a programme for local schools. Then, in a couple of months, the brilliant Cardboard Citizens theatre company (which includes homeless actors) is coming to the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, with an updated version of Cathy. The Homes for Cathy group of associations are also sponsoring Inside Housing’s competition for young filmmakers to produce a ‘Cathy’ for the 21st century.

So what else are associations doing? There are the obvious answers such as increasing housing supply (40% of all new homes last year, for example), working hard to sustain existing tenancies and working closely with local authorities to support their homeless strategies. The two performance indicators I look for first at SYHA are the number of tenants we have evicted and the proportion of new tenants who have been homeless or at risk.

There is another dimension to this – the way in which we work with our tenants as individuals. Every time we intervene to support one of our customers into a training or employment programme, we take them one step further away from homelessness. Every intervention to support someone’s health, well-being and self-esteem does the same. Placeshapers associations do loads of this stuff.  Its We Work programme is a great showcase for the tens of thousands of people who have been supported in this way. Immediate examples at SYHA include our arts programme, Moments of Joy, and our Ageing Better project which tackles loneliness and isolation.

I have tried – and failed – to track the origin of the much-quoted statement that any one of us is only two bad decisions away from homelessness. If we are better connected, better informed and better supported, we will be less likely to make these mistakes.

At the end of every meeting our board assesses the decisions we have just taken against our risk framework. We think about how each decision has affected our risk profile, risk appetite etc. A lot of associations do this. Perhaps we should also be thinking about the impact of our decisions on homelessness in the same way. To what extent are the decisions we take on, for example, new developments, tenure, or sales strategies likely to improve or damage prospects for homelessness locally? Like those GEM graduates, we need to ensure we still ‘get’ it.

Tony Stacey, chief executive, South Yorkshire Housing Association

Inside Housing launches homelessness campaign


14 November 2016 

Inside Housing launches homelessness campaign


Inside Housing has launched a campaign to tackle rough sleeping to mark this week’s 50th anniversary of the landmark film Cathy Come Home.

The Cathy at 50 campaign will raise awareness and promote innovative practice to help end rough sleeping. We will also be launching a competition – Reel Homes – to produce a film about homelessness or the housing crisis and deliver a Cathy Come Home for the 21st century.

As part of the campaign, Inside Housing will be running in-depth investigations and analysis every day this week, examining the current homelessness landscape and providing ideas for the government and the housing sector about how to reduce the currently soaring levels of rough sleeping.

Cathy at 50 will call for some practical action too. It asks councils, housing providers and the government to look at adopting a Housing First approach to tackle rough sleeping.

The model, which involves providing permanent housing backed up by tailored support, appears to have been successful in tackling rough sleeping in other countries and the campaign argues it should be rolled out more widely in the UK. To kick things off, today our research looks at the impact Housing First has had in Finland and Canada.

The campaign is also calling on the Government to commit to ending rough sleeping, and halve it by 2020 as a staging post.

Cathy at 50 campaign aims:

  • To launch a film competition to produce a finished work about homelessness or the impact of the housing crisis.
  • A week of detailed research and stories from the frontline to mark the 50th anniversary of Cathy Come Home and promote a wider debate about the current homelessness crisis.
  • Calls for councils to explore Housing First as a default option for long-term rough sleepers and commission Housing First schemes. Calls for housing associations to identify additional stock for Housing First schemes and for government to support five Housing First projects, collect evidence and distribute best practice.
  • Calls for the government to commit to ending rough sleeping, and to halve rough sleeping by 2020 as the first step to achieving this.

Senior sector figures have already lent their support to the campaign.

Terrie Alafat, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), said: “The 50th anniversary of Cathy Come Home is a chance to reflect on an issue which has worsened steadily since 2010.”

Ms Alafat added that the current Homelessness Reduction Bill represents a historic opportunity to tackle the issue, but as well as the new law the Government “needs to commit to a strategy on homelessness which tackles the root causes and gives more support to local authorities”.

She added that the CIH supports Housing First “as part of a wider effort to tackle homelessness”.

Jeremy Swain, chief executive of homelessness charity Thames Reach, said that it has “long advocated the mainstreaming of the Housing First model in the UK to assist long-term rough sleepers with multiple needs and we are pleased to be able to give our strong backing to the Inside Housing campaign that seeks to achieve this.”

He added: “There are many approaches to helping homeless people which sound fine but cannot demonstrate that they successfully help people to escape homelessness. In contrast, the Housing First model has been scrutinised and evaluated very carefully and has a proven track record in helping people come off the street, stay housed and get their lives back. In short: Housing First works and we need more of it.”