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Turning homelessness on its head

Turning homelessness on its head

Housing First Operations and Implementation Manager Helen Murdoch talks to Melita Day-Lewis about a new approach to tackling homelessness in Scotland

IN five cities across Scotland, local authorities and service providers – including The Salvation Army – are implementing a Housing First approach to support hundreds of people out of homelessness.

This is in response to recommendations by the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group (Harsag), which was set up by the Scottish government to find short and long-term solutions for how to best eradicate rough sleeping.

Harsag highlighted Housing First as an effective model for providing rapid access to settled and secure housing for people who have experienced long-term and repeated homelessness and are in the most difficult and challenging situations.

This innovative approach is called ‘Housing First’ because it provides homes as a starting point rather than an end goal. The model is based on the idea that cycles of homelessness are more likely to be broken when people are quickly offered a settled home in a community without having to show abstinence or engagement with treatment, or go through training to live independently.

This philosophy is different to that of traditional homelessness services, which try to get people ‘housing ready’ before they are given tenancies. Research has shown that individuals can get ‘stuck’ in staircase services – where people are required to complete a series of steps, including treatment and abstinence, to access housing.

Housing First, however, allows service users to go straight into housing. They then receive support to sustain their tenancies, promote their health and integrate into communities at their own pace.

The model, which was developed by Sam Tsemberis in New York, has been successful in the USA, Canada and Finland. Just over a year ago The Salvation Army’s Homelessness Services team in Glasgow successfully implemented the model in conjunction with Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership (GHSCP), Wheatley Group and Social Bite. The project was commissioned to provide houses and support to 75 individuals who have experienced sustained or repeated homelessness. To date this model is already evidencing a 93 per cent tenancy sustainment rate. This has been achieved through a strong partnership and fidelity to the Housing First principles.

The Army is also involved in two new projects with a number of other service providers in Glasgow and Dundee. These are part of five Housing First pathfinding programmes across Scotland in an initiative that ultimately aims to support 800 people.

The Salvation Army’s Housing First projects aren’t limited to Scotland. The first one was set up in Wales. The team has been working closely with Cardiff county council to design, develop and implement the city’s first Housing First hub. 

Housing First Operations and Implementation Manager Helen Murdoch (Homelessness Services Unit, Scotland Region) is passionate about the model: ‘It offers something different for people whose needs are not being met by traditional models of service delivery and mainstream service provision. Sometimes, the conditions and criteria to remain within services and projects can be challenging and unrealistic.

‘It’s a great solution too for those who don’t thrive in Lifehouses or other hostel-type accommodations. Some people have found that communal living environments exacerbate the trauma they’ve experienced in residential childcare or home settings.

‘Housing First is an exciting option because people in complex and challenging situations are accepted..'

JOE: A 49-year-old from Glasgow, Joe has spent the majority of his life sleeping rough. He has complex health problems, including mobility issues. Joe was offered a house by Housing First in an area of his choosing. His home was adapted for his mobility needs, enabling him to be as independent as possible. He is delighted to have a place that feels safe and that he can call home.

For the first time in his adult life he feels part of the community because people acknowledge him and say hello – a sharp contrast to previous experiences, where he was either mocked and spoken to aggressively, or ignored and avoided.

This past winter Joe slipped and fell on an icy pavement. A group of secondary school pupils helped him up, ensured he was OK and offered to help him get where he was going. In spite of bruises from the fall, Joe felt this was a positive experience because strangers had shown him kindness. ‘I have never felt more valued in my life,’ he says.

Joe has been overwhelmed by the support he received from Housing First staff. He feels he now has some structure in his life and as a result has been able to attend appointments on his own. ‘I feel empowered to achieve most tasks in daily living,’ he adds.

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