Housing First: how are the Scottish pilots progressing?

First published by Inside Housing on 7 August 2019

When Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced last October that her government was investing £6.5m in a three-year Housing First pilot, she couldn’t have been more gushing. “Now is the time for action and to end homelessness in Scotland once and for all,” she said.

A bold claim – and one, it seems, the programme will struggle to live up to.

Housing First, which is being tested via ‘pathfinder programmes’ in Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling, was introduced in Scotland largely as a result of a fund-raising exercise led by the co-founder of social enterprise Social Bite.

Having established a sandwich shop and restaurant that offers jobs and food to homeless people, Josh Littlejohn extended the franchise to a mass sponsored sleepout in 2016. When that event exceeded expectations, Social Bite commissioned research on behalf of the government’s Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group to determine how money from future events could be best spent. Providing immediate housing and wrap-around support for rough sleepers with complex support needs via Housing First was one of its key recommendations.

Social researcher Mandy Littlewood, who was part of the Heriot-Watt University team that authored the Temporary Accommodation in Scotland report, says the idea was to address the “revolving door” aspect of homelessness that can lock many with chronic mental health or addiction needs into a lifetime on the streets.

“There’s a real problem, particularly in the cities, with deep-seated, long-standing experiences of homelessness,” Ms Littlewood says. “These are people who are rough sleeping and they have had a range of adverse childhood experiences or they have been in the Armed Forces. It was recognised that rough sleeping was pretty entrenched among this group of people, for whom whatever is available at the moment doesn’t help them get out of that cycle.”

Liz Littler, service manager at charity Turning Point Scotland (TPS), explains that Housing First can reach those people and break that cycle precisely because it “totally turns homelessness on its head”.

She says: “For 60 or 70 years, it was said that people couldn’t get a tenancy if they had an addiction because they wouldn’t know how to do things. Housing First proves that’s a fallacy.”

TPS, a member of the consortium operating the Glasgow project, has run a small-scale Housing First programme since 2010. Having originally started as a response to the high level of drug deaths among the city’s homeless population, the scheme has always focused on what Ms Littler terms the “hardest to reach people”.

Nine years in, it has proved to be a success. Though two people have voluntarily given up their tenancies because it was not possible to meet their specific needs, TPS currently supports 37 people in permanent tenancies across Glasgow, eight of whom have been involved with the project from the start.

“The major success is the fact that we have people who had been homeless for so many years and they now have a home of their own – that’s got to be a result for anybody,” Ms Littler says. “Some have gone to abstinence, but that’s not the main focus. This is about living the best life you can with whatever vulnerabilities you have.”

When it started, TPS was working with three social landlords, but now 13 are involved in the project, with more expected to get on board as the pathfinder scheme is rolled out.

Yet, as Norman Fitzpatrick, deputy director at New Gorbals Housing Association, explains, while many associations are on board when it comes to the provision of homes, many have doubts over whether the level of support required to ensure success can be provided from the start, let alone in the longer term.

“The issue with Housing First is that we’re willing and able and have housing available to dedicate to a number of people, but in an era of austerity, local authorities and health boards are cutting their budgets,” he says.

“With Housing First, the housing element and support element are separate things. We’re granting someone a permanent tenancy and that’s supposed to be a step forward but for that to succeed, there has to be support and that support has to be there for as long as it’s needed.”

Ms Littler agrees that “support can be difficult” and “counselling services are harder to get now”.

Mr Fitzpatrick adds: “If you look at that objectively, what local authority is going to say, ‘We will provide support for this group of individuals ad infinitum,’ when they are setting budgets on an annual basis? That’s a concern, and I don’t see how we would ever get a guarantee of that.”

Tony Cain, policy manager at the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers, says the public sector is also supportive of Housing First because it understands that for the particular client group it is designed to serve, it can deliver.

Yet he warns that launching it at a time when some mental health and support services have become thinly spread at best and non-existent at worst, could ultimately mean it is being set up for failure.

“There’s a lot of cheerleading around Housing First but not a lot of examination of it,” Mr Cain says. “It requires a co-ordinated and consistent high-level support response. If there’s a concern at the moment, it’s that the support is not there.”

Publicly, all Scottish councils are also on board with the scheme. Elena Whitham, community well-being spokesperson at umbrella organisation the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, says its member councils “agree that targeting the most vulnerable through Housing First is an essential starting point”.

“It is still early days, but the ambition is there in all the pathfinder authorities in Housing First to make a difference for the most vulnerable in our communities,” she adds.

Yet insiders share concerns about how successful the programme can be when the availability of both accommodation and funding for wrap-around care remain uncertain.

“Accommodation and availability is the issue,” one local authority source says. “There are bigger pressures in places like Glasgow and Edinburgh but it boils down to the availability of the type of accommodation that we want to move people into in order to get a start.

“If I’m honest, there’s not enough money to do this and then you’ve got the impact of a whole lot of other decisions, such as Brexit, that could have a financial impact. I’d like to think that some parts of the country will make some headway but in others it might just be the tip of the iceberg.”

On top of that, no one involved in Housing First seems to be clear on just how much money is being put into a scheme that is promising to have found permanent homes for 830 people across all pilot areas by 2021.

Scottish housing minister Kevin Stewart says that “up to half of our £50m Ending Homelessness Together Fund has already been earmarked for the implementation of rapid rehousing and Housing First”. Yet that £50m was pledged in 2017 to run over five years, while the Housing First pilot was established this year to run over three and the housing targets stretch to two. Understandably, there is confusion over exactly how much money will be allocated and when.

Although rapid rehousing and Housing First are related, it has not been made clear that they are two distinct programmes. Indeed, while the former is focused on rehousing people already living in temporary accommodation, the latter is aimed at those who have not been able to access rapid rehousing.

Far from having £25m to spend on Housing First, the five pilots will share just a fraction of that – the £6.5m announced by Ms Sturgeon, £3m from Social Bite, and £1.5m from the Health and Social Care Directorates.

Given these concerns, it is perhaps unsurprising that the pilots are falling behind on their targets. A total of 145 tenancies should have been awarded by the end of June, but the figure at the end of May was sitting at just 76.

In that respect it is clear that Housing First is unlikely to be able to “end homelessness once and for all” in Scotland, even for the target group it is specifically designed to serve. Meanwhile, some are worried that the publicity surrounding Housing First has led to a sense that homelessness is being dealt with, something that could ultimately divert attention away from finding ways of solving it.

As Mr Cain says: “Housing First is the right response for some homeless people, but to end homelessness we need to do more – we need to address it’s structural causes.”