Ipswich tried a radical new approach to cut homelessness. Did it work?

Support is available for homeless people in Ipswich this Christmas. Picture: IAN BURT

Housing First was brought into Ipswich in 2018 - Credit: Archant

It was clear something different had to be done.

To have people living rough on our streets in cold, harsh winters - where, as we've seen recently, temperatures can plunge to below -10C - feels wrong in any civilised 21st century society.

Yet despite the very best efforts of support and outreach workers, some of Ipswich's most entrenched and long-term homeless could not turn the corner and build a new life.

Sometimes, they would make progress. But then, they would fall ill or get in trouble with the law - and their cycle of destruction would begin again, in some cases costing taxpayers more than £25,000 a year.

So the question was, how could Ipswich end the vicious circle and give its very poorest residents a second chance?

There are fears places like Ipswich will see a rise in homelessness this winter, following the coron

Housing First works on the principle that rough sleepers are given keys to their own home, no strings attached - Credit: Archant

Housing First - a radical new solution

The answer, charity and community leaders in Suffolk's county town decided, was a scheme that been successful in cutting homelessness in America, Finland and Canada - but was still little used across the rest of the world.

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"Housing First" was invented in New York in the 1990s with the principle that homeless people are given a home that is theirs, with no strings attached - regardless of their history or addiction problems.

It had a strong track record of success in various places around the world.

Yet, it is still a fairly novel idea, as homeless people are usually only allowed their own property as a ‘reward’ for engaging with support services and shelters first.

Representatives from Ipswich council visited Thurrock and Haringey to see how similar programmes had worked there before embarking on a Housing First pilot in late 2018, with funding from Ipswich and East Suffolk Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG).

Neil MacDonald, the council's portfolio holder for housing and health, said: "When we started, there was scepticism because we were doing a new thing."

Ipswich Housing Action Group (IHAG), who joined forces with Ipswich Borough Council and Anglia Care Trust on the plan, admitted at the time that Housing First meant a "considerable shift in attitude and behaviour by staff and systems".

But they were determined to make it work, with Jane Simpson - ACT's director of business support - saying at the time: “By supporting someone to live in their own home in a healthy and productive environment, it stops them being in and out of hospital every week."

A passer by shares his food with a homeless man. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

One of the most important parts of Housing First is the intensive support residents receive - Credit: Archant

How does it work?

Housing First is nowhere near as simple as just giving a rough sleeper keys to their own home and letting them get on with their life.

That, organisers believe, would not be very successful - as the root causes of someone's homelessness wouldn't be addressed, and they would just fall back into a vicious circle.

Giving someone a home is therefore only a single part of Housing First - even more important is the one-to-one support given to clients to help them rebuild their lives.

"Housing First promises a lifetime of support," said Mr MacDonald.

"There's a great deal of engagement from support workers upfront."

It started looking after five residents when the pilot started in late 2018, growing to about 10 a year or so later.

Mr MacDonald says there is a "low ratio of cases to case workers" - about five or seven per worker - so they can give each person under their care maximum attention.

Given the residents have not lived in their home for a long period of time, the focus to start with is helping them learn the basics of life as any other tenant.

"In the early days, it's about helping them to look after the house and attend appointments," said Mr MacDonald.

"We make sure there is control over who comes to visit them and who stays with them."

Over time, Mr MacDonald hopes that people "will be able to get a circle of friends without having to rely on support workers".

But there is no doubt - intensive support is there for the long-term, and a support worker will always be available when needed.

Neil MacDonald, Ipswich Borough Council's portfolio holder for housing and health, has pledged that the authority and...

Neil MacDonald, Ipswich council's portfolio holder for housing and health, believes Housing First has been a success - Credit: Archant

How successful has it been?

Despite the scepticism about the project to begin with, Mr MacDonald believes Housing First has been shown to have both ethical benefits in helping the most vulnerable in society, as well as financial benefits to the taxpayer.

The year-long pilot was expanded in late 2019 and came in valuable in keeping people safe from the spread of coronavirus.

"We can see in statements how people are more comfortable in their homes," he said.

"People have come from a dark place and they are really being helped.

"It's made a big difference to those particular individuals. They want to get out into the community and do more stuff.

"One of the things I've noticed is that they are healthier. It's certainly reduced a lot of pressure on the police and health services."

One rough sleeper who has benefited from Housing First, he said, was costing the taxpayer £25,500 a year in police calls-outs, hospital admissions and prison stays.

Being part of Housing First has greatly reduced those problems and had a huge knock-on benefit to the taxpayer, Mr MacDonald said.

It is also said the programme has had a "real impact on numbers rough sleeping, especially entrenched rough sleepers and people with multiple morbidities".

And despite the early scepticism, there have been no examples of serious damage caused to properties as a result of Housing First.

In a document prepared for the All Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness' inquiry into Housing First, Ipswich Borough Council added: "The benefit is that better housing improves lives so tenants can then give back to the community, as well as reducing the cost to the public sector."

Rough sleeping and homeless families are both problems in Colchester Picture: THINKSTOCK

Housing First will now provide support to 18 rough sleepers in Ipswich - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

What happens next?

Due to success of the scheme, Housing First is being expanded to now help 18 people in Ipswich - with a total of three case workers providing support.

While intensive support is perhaps the most significant part of Housing First, Mr MacDonald said giving rough sleepers the keys to their own home was still a huge motivator in changing their lives.

"When they do move to their own place, it's something they can lose," he said.

"They realise they have something to live for - that's what makes a big difference.

"It's certainly proved that if you can give people their own front door, they will respond to it - but you need to provide that support as well."