Hackney Rough Sleeping Summit: Housing First trial announced – government expert says tents and soup runs not helpful

A homeless person sleeping rough in a doorway in London. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire

A homeless person sleeping rough in a doorway in London. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

A pilot of an innovative housing scheme was announced at Hackney Council’s Rough Sleeper Summit in Haggerston today – and a government expert said soup runs and tent donations were not helping efforts to get homeless people off the street.

Jeremy Swain speaks at the summit. Picture: Hackney Council

Jeremy Swain speaks at the summit. Picture: Hackney Council - Credit: Archant

Hackney housing chief Cllr Rebecca Rennison said the NHS-funded Housing First trial for 20 people was underway, and officers are now looking for accommodation ahead of a tender process set to take place next month.

Housing First is founded on the belief that a home is a basic human right. It gives the most vulnerable people in society an unconditional roof over their heads, rather than as a reward for engaging with services or on the premise that they then do so.

The belief is it will give them the platform to recover and rebuild their lives. The idea was born in New York in the 1990s and has proved successful across Europe.

The announcement came during a talk by Jeremy Swain, the former CEO of homelessness charity Thames Reach who is now deputy director of homelessness and rough sleeping at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Mayor Phil Glanville at the event. Picture: Hackney Council

Mayor Phil Glanville at the event. Picture: Hackney Council - Credit: Archant

The government is backing the rollout of Housing First and last year a £28million pilot for Greater Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands was announced, although Mr Swain said it was making “slow progress” and that the three regions needed to show “more drive”.

He said: “They [the pilots] are fundamentally important because if they work the government wants to do more and I very much hope one of the places they want to do more is right here in London.”

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When asked why it was moving so slowly, Mr Swain said: “To be fair to the authorities what they’re asking their registered advisers to do is to provide units for people with a high level of need who have been rough sleepers and the model means you don’t do a lot of assessment of people.

“You can see how a landlord or registered provider would think: ‘Yeah great, you’re asking us to take in some of the most troubled people straight into flats’. And that’s the challenge.”

Mr Swain said within the government Brexit “trumped everything” and was slowing down the process of getting new schemes signed off. But he labelled last year’s Homelessness Reduction Act as “the most progressive bit of homelessness legislation for at least 30 years”, though he acknowledged it was still a “real struggle” to tackle the problem and indicated the target of ending rough sleeping by 2027 was not likely to happen.

Based on official figures obtained in November’s homelessness count, a snapshot number based on one night, rough sleeping has risen in Hackney from 18 to 23 and in London from 1,137 to 1,283, or 13 per cent. The capital accounts for 26pc of the national figure of 4,677, which has reduced by 2pc from 4,751 but is still 165pc up on the 2010 figure of 1,768. The methodology of the count has been criticised by outreach groups such as Streets Kitchen in Islington: it doesn’t include anyone sleeping on public transport, or who happens to be spending the night in a hostel or on a sofa.

Mr Swain said that, although he would like “more commitment” from other government departments, Downing Street had “an obsession with rough sleeping”.

He said the Department of Health and Social Care was putting in £2million to help people access and navigate health services, and £30m over five years for an NHS long-term plan.

“There’s a very strong emphasis on safeguarding and safety on the street,” he said. “I am deeply worried by some of the situations very vulnerable people are in and how we have to do better in addressing that. Not helped actually by a phenomenon that’s over the last three or four years blown up which is tents on the street.

“I was in Westminster at midnight two weeks ago and the tents just off The Strand were all the same colour and brand and had clearly been given out by a group who thought they were doing the right thing and in those tents there were people injecting, and the potential for abuse is immense.”

Last year tents were set up in Mare Street, and there is one now at Hackney Central station. Over the border in Islington tents have been commonplace in the Stroud Green Road bridge underpass for three years, and the council is now going to the High Court to address the issues of begging and anti-social behaviour after someone was stabbed.

Someone pointed out that without tents the drug use would simply be taking place on the streets, to which Mr Swain said: “That is true but tents do hide quite a lot. It’s easier for outreach workers to deal with the problem when the tents are not there. When there’s been some close investigation of people in tents, not just in London, quite a few have actually got accommodation. There’s the whole issue of why they are there and whether them having a tent leads to them being there for longer. What appears to be the case is people are in the tents and then begging and involved in low level crime and it’s much more difficult for there to be any engagement.

“In places where everybody can be made an offer of accommodation, like Liverpool, people are still choosing to be in tents and it’s a very complex issue.

He later added: “The safety on the streets issue really disturbs me. Some of the stories I’m hearing I feel like it’s the kind of collusion that took place around young women in care being abused. I just think there’s so much coming out of what we’ve seen on the street I feel like I’m part of that collusion and I want to do something to help people out of those really awful situations, and the tents is part of that.”

Mr Swain also said soup runs to rough sleepers were “counterproductive”, when talking about the role faith groups play in tackling the issue.

“Faith groups can either be incredibly productive in running shelters, Hackney Night Shelter being one, or they can be working against us,” he said. “But we have to find a way of working with them that’s a collaboration to help people off the street.

“There’s 30 soup runs going to The Strand at the moment giving food out to people which is clearly counterproductive overall but there’s no point me getting too cross with the soup runs. We have to find a way of helping them to see that if they provide that food in a different setting it will be more productive.”

Mayor Phil Glanville welcomed more than 50 people from housing charities and organisations to The Tomlinson Centre in Queensbridge Road for the summit. He said the number of people on the street was “23 too many” and mentioned the fact Hackney had not been awarded any of the government’s Rough Sleeping Initiative Fund.

Mr Swain explained the cash had gone to the 83 authorities with the highest figures of rough sleepers based on the 2017 count.

But he conceded: “The street counts take us so far but to some degree can be seen as slightly artificial. I can think of three London boroughs who are getting money who have probably got lower figures than Hackney.”

He also revealed Hackney’s bid for cash from the Private Rented Sector Access Fund was set to be approved.

He said: “The PRS access fund is there to open up the private rented sector for the group we’re talking about. And as you know private rented sector landlords are not always going to say: ‘Please give us more people with a background of rough sleeping, we’d just love to take those people.’

“There’s a process and an advocacy and a drive and incentive you need to deal with to get those landlords to do that.”

Hackney’s own housing needs chief Andrew Coucher was not so impressed by the Homelessness Reduction Act, and listed aspects it failed in.

He said: “It doesn’t increase the number of case workers out on the street or in the offices working with clients. It doesn’t make access to support services easier. It doesn’t increase the supply of affordable accommodation. It’s seeing a lot more people come through a door – we’ve seen the homelessness approaches up by 36 per cent.

“We’ve seen temporary accommodation placements increase by 14pc from January 2018.

“Singles account for 66pc of our approaches now – 60pc male, 40pc female; 54pc of our applications are from 25- to 44-year-olds.

“This causes significant problems looking at the way we deliver our service and reacting to the increase in demand. An example of that is yesterday at 9am at The Greenhouse [the council’s homelessness hub] there were 16 clients outside waiting to be seen. The normal capacity is between six and nine applicants a day.”

He said Universal Credit had “exacerbated” the problems for rough sleepers, due to the barriers in accessing it and prospects of sanctions. He added: “It’s a continuing challenge for the residents and ourselves to navigate that problem. Combined with welfare reform you’ve got issues around housing allowance and the cost of accommodation in the borough. Housing supply is a huge issue in Hackney. We have a robust property market and that combined with welfare reform has given us a perfect storm. The fallout is rising homelessness, increased overcrowding, and increased housing waiting list.”