What’s really needed to make Housing First work

8,855 people slept on London’s streets last year alone. This represented an 18% rise over previous years. It is almost inconceivable that now, in the most peaceful and prosperous era in history, in one of the world’s most developed countries, so many people are sleeping on pavement. 

This crisis is not for lack of solutions. Housing First, a policy idea first developed in New York by clinical psychologist Sam Tsemberis, has proven immensely successful and entirely rethinks traditional approaches to homelessness. Typically, housing programmes involve offering temporary, often not private, housing only on certain conditions; a person can only gain access to shelter after proving themselves ‘worthy’. These conditions often include proving budgeting skills or addressing mental health problems or addictions. Housing First does the exact opposite. It provides (semi-)permanent accommodation to those in need—prioritising the chronically homeless and those with the most damaging physical and mental illnesses and vulnerabilities—with no strings attached. It is rooted in the belief of housing as a right, not a reward, and an understanding that once a person has their dignity in the form of a safe, stable environment and a place to call their own, they are then much more capable of addressing other barriers to improving their lives, such as addictions and health issues. The end goal is eventually employment and an independent, stable life.

Housing First has proven extremely effective and become policy in places from Finland to Utah, nearly eliminating chronic homelessness, as discussed by the ASI previously here. The UK has followed in Finland’s footsteps and instituted Housing First as part of its ‘Homelessness Reduction Act’, passed on 27 April, 2017 and coming into law in one year later. In a one-year inquiry held on 23 April of this year however, the results were positive, but extremely limited for two reasons.

Firstly, largely because of the limited application of the programme, very few people actually knew how their rights to housing had changed under the Act. The inquiry concluded that only 6% of people approached their local council for housing help directly because of the Act (Q3). Secondly, the inquiry emphasised that “you cannot relieve homelessness unless you have a home to offer somebody or to help them into” (Q2). Where the Act was implemented, there was already a lack of social housing available—putting upward pressure on prices—and few alternatives for even relatively short-term accommodation. Thus, while the UK has taken the first proper steps towards addressing this crisis of basic rights, a much more holistic approach needs investment - something which I see being enacted through the investment in large-scale housing blocks or ‘villages’ of micro-homes. Similar ideas have been enacted across the US, including outside Ithaca, in San Francisco, and in Boston, to significant success. 

Invest in the construction of a large number of micro homes or apartments, clustered in ‘villages’ and with spaces to emphasize a sense of community and social involvement, but close to city centers and local resources to prevent a larger sense of social exclusion. Inexpensive architecture options such as pop-up ‘pods’ can help keep costs down. Each tenant is given their own space, complete with necessary amenities, and larger units are available for families. All the principles of Housing First are applied: tenants have contracts, pay up to 30% of their income towards their rent, and are never under threat of eviction. They are granted the dignity of their own safe and stable home, a community of others who have been through what they have, and, most crucially, access to support services including a GP, mental health services, a jobcentre, further tenancy support, and assistance with documentation such as obtaining an NI number, applying for jobs, and other steps towards independence. The housing would be ‘semi-permanent’, having no set end date, but with the explicit understanding that tenants will either move into social housing or the private rented market when able. 

By providing people with their most basic need—that of private shelter—we allow people a chance to reenter society as an active participant, not an observer from street level. And by providing people with the support they need, from a relatable community to social services all within accessible range, we provide them the best possible opportunity to do so. Much research has been done on the economics of this, and the costs always outweigh the benefits of increased economic output, a reduced drain on public resources such as NHS services, and fewer people going endlessly through ‘the system’. If the government invested in ‘villages’ such as these in all major cities across the country, they could join the club of societies which have all but eradicated homelessness through a compassionate and realistic approach; if people do not have homes, give them homes. Everything else will follow. 

Melissa Owens is a research intern at the Adam Smith Institute.