Spotlight on… homelessness
Speech at Oxfordshire Homelessness Movement Webinar| May 2021
Thank you very much Adrian. First of all congratulations to you and the Oxford Homeless Movement for putting together this event and most importantly your incredible efforts in the most difficult of times.
It’s been truly inspiring to follow your journey in the past two years, and to play a small role in it, so I was delighted to be asked to comment on developments in Oxfordshire and the role of evidence and data within those efforts.
The Centre for Homelessness Impact is an independent organisation that supports the use of reliable data and evidence in bringing about a sustainable end to homelessness. We support leaders and organisations in homelessness and related fields to make evidence-led decisions and adopt evidence-led practices to maximise the positive impact of their work.
Since launching three years ago, we have engaged in a whirlwind of activity towards this end, including the publication of our book Using Evidence to End Homelessness, and more recently our campaign End It With Evidence, which advocates for a new culture of evidence-mindedness in local areas across the UK.
I’m pleased to say that the Oxfordshire Homeless Movement was knocking at our door from day one. Despite all this great work and significant investment in tackling homelessness in Oxfordshire over the years too many people remained without a home. One thing was certain — there was lots to be proud of. But good was no longer good enough. It became clear that it was time for a new approach… Because if you kept doing the same things, with the same people, with the same world views, same disciplines, social backgrounds and life experiences, what do the next decade look like?
Soon after than the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in the UK, policymakers, practitioners and campaigners alike feared a catastrophic outbreak among people experiencing homelessness. But Governments, both local and national, and the wider homelessness sector listened to the evidence and responded to the pandemic at speed. A raft of emergency measures were introduced to strengthen the welfare safety net in light of COVID-19, and as of January 2021, more than 26,000 people had been helped into settled housing or supported accommodation; over 11,000 are still in self-contained emergency accommodation.
In Oxfordshire street homelessness more than halved between 2017–2020. In fact the numbers are at their lowest since 2012. The number of households in temporary accommodation have increased by 10%, similar to other parts of England. While this highlights the good work being done, there is also a growing awareness that the crisis is almost certainly still deepening around us. 86% of people across the UK consider homelessness to be a serious problem and only 4% expect it to decrease in the next 12 months, 6% over the next 2 years.
So decisive, evidence-informed action is as needed now as it was in March.
This makes developments in Oxfordshire especially significant to me. Your commitment to move away from the current homelessness system and replace it by a model where people are rehoused in settled, mainstream housing as quickly as possible is timely and groundbreaking. Congratulations!
At the Centre we’ve seen first hand how Covid19 is changing communities’ approach to homelessness. But as yet you are one of a handful of local areas making a public commitment to design out emergency accommodation locally. The evidence certainly suggests that moving people into settled accommodation quickly is a desirable outcome in itself, and may have other impacts like reducing repeat homelessness and improving employment and income, health and wellbeing, educational attainment of children, among others.
So today I would like if I may to share 3–5 things I would urge you to heed as you embark on the next phase…
First, moving towards a housing-led system is the right thing to do, BUT it won’t be easy.
You need to oversee the delivery of a significant commitment, under time pressure, for a population that is insufficiently understood by current data-collection systems, and with insufficient reliable evidence on what will work, at what cost, where, when and for whom in preventing and responding to homelessness.
In 2018 the Scottish Government pledged to move away from the current homelessness system and replace it by a model where people are rehoused in settled, mainstream housing as quickly as possible. Despite this commitment, there are still unanswered questions about what we mean by ‘transitioning to Rapid Rehousing’ and how to track progress towards that goal.
The challenges there are relevant to what you are trying to do in Oxfordshire.
Second, start with a clear definition of what success looks like: how will Oxfordshire be different in 10 years time as a result of the things you are putting in place today? With this foundation you can then start developing metrics that allow the gathering of performance data and the setting of targets and trajectories.
A lot is known about the evidence behind the successful delivery of policy commitments and these two strategies are key, as are maintaining routines — reports, stocktakes, assessments, etc — that support and enable dialogues around progress and around the resolution of problems.
Third, alongside these performance-management disciplines, successful delivery also requires insight into what statutory and VCS organisations in a sector or system need to do, and how to do it, in order to generate the required results cost-effectively; and it also requires sector capacity to adopt evidence-based interventions and practices.
Greater experimentation is needed — surprisingly little empirical evidence exists currently and even if something works, other things may work better and be more cost effective. E.g. Food banks, free school meals: they’re all helping people in crisis. But are they really solving hunger? No. While simple interventions like cash transfers may well help address all sorts of social issues and improve people’s life chances. We can also be doing more to open up the private rented sector to households in housing need by working better with landlords as one of our recent studies highlighted.
Finally, leaders at all levels of organisations and communities need help to understand and harness the power of data and evidence.
Take the huge perception challenge we face: according to our recent Ipsos MORI survey the public believe that 11% of adults are currently homeless in the UK (perception) vs reality 0.5%. People were more accurate for poverty and housing costs. But it is encouraging that 86% of the public agree that homelessness is a serious problem and that 71% say not enough attention is paid to it.
To help address these and wider issues I touched upon earlier we launched the End It With Evidence campaign. Because, at this time of great change, we need to fully embrace experimentation and evidence-led innovation — and have the courage to test strongly-held assumptions.
The campaign calls on all of us to:
- Build the evidence of the policies, practices and programmes that achieve the most effective results to improve the lives of people who are homeless or at risk
- Build the capacity needed to act promptly on the best knowledge available to improve decisions and help limited resources go further
- Use evidence-led communications to change the conversation around homelessness, challenge stereotypes, and make sure that homelessness is not a defining factor in anyone’s life.
So to conclude: Looking back over the past few decades, it’s possible to identify some of what is needed for us to defeat homelessness sustainably in the UK. We stand on the shoulders of giants. And we are doing really well in comparison to other countries.
But the solutions of the past will never be the solutions for the future. For instance, the systems and services of the last twenty years are rightly criticized for allowing too little agency to individuals experiencing homelessness, and for wrongly and inappropriately blaming them if they don’t engage.
It seems to us that the pattern of support for the future will need to work much more closely with people experiencing homelessness as partners in identifying solutions, alongside mainstream services, communities, neighbourhoods and families.
There is no doubt that there is still a lot of work to do and big challenges to face, but Oxfordshire is heading in the right direction, and with continued support and collaboration across all levels I am confident that you can continue on the evidence-led road to ending homelessness for good in Oxfordshire.