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Homelessness prevention: Finding the right balance

How well is the new homelessness prevention system working? Jennie Bibbings reports on findings from the first research to ask homeless people themselves.

Earlier this year, Jonah* ended up sleeping on the streets after losing his home. He’d had a cancer scare, and had struggled to cope with the stress due to his multiple mental health conditions. Because he didn’t always engage with his landlord or support workers during this period, they took him to court and eventually evicted him.

‘I shut myself away because I was terrified about my test results,’ he said. ‘The workers were rubbish. They were saying I had to work with them but I was just not answering the door. When I did, they would ask if I was OK and then they would go… they kicked me out in the end.’

After becoming homeless, Jonah went to see the doctor about his mental health and was referred to local authority homelessness services. He was in a bad state when he presented to the council: ‘I was a mess, I had been drinking loads and my mental and physical health was bad.’

Housing Solutions staff found him a place that day in a dry hostel and referred him for drug and alcohol support. When we spoke to Jonah he was still at the hostel, waiting to go into supported housing, and was very happy with how he’d been helped.

‘I have a drink problem but this place is doing me great,’ he said. ‘I am getting a lot of support. I am even volunteering.’

Having used homelessness services in the past, Jonah said his experiences this time were noticeably different.

‘Before, I would have had to take my sleeping bag, my flask because you would be there for the duration of the day,’ he said. ‘The staff would have faces down to their arses. In and out of rooms moaning, you know. This time, totally different. They speak to you on a personal level, a better basis. They get you.’

Jonah was one of 50 people we interviewed about their experiences of homelessness services since Wales changed the law in April 2015.

Encouraging early signs have emerged in the official statistics about how things are going – and the hype about the Welsh model has inspired England to introduce an almost identical system in the Homelessness Reduction Bill.

But until now there has been nothing from people themselves about how they’ve been helped.

With this report, called Reasonable Steps, Shelter Cymru is seeking to cut through some of that hype and bring the conversation back to people’s lived experiences.

What we found is a service that is still very much in transition. We spoke to people who felt they’d been helped effectively and people who felt they’d been brushed off with minimal help, despite having presented to the same authority at the same time.

Services often seemed extremely busy and not always able to dedicate enough time to identify and address root causes of homelessness.

Nevertheless, we found numerous examples that demonstrated the person-centred approach – often with excellent results. That staff managed to achieve this level of in-depth help with some people, given high caseloads, needs to be recognised and commended.

But amid this good practice there were enough examples of poor decision-making and legally incorrect advice to give us cause for concern.

We also found a clear tendency for councils to be falling back on a generic and limited range of interventions, usually consisting of a list of private landlords and the promise of help with rent in advance and bond. For some people this was all the help they required, but others told us they needed more than they got.

The task of reconfiguring homelessness services to focus on prevention was never going to be accomplished overnight. Having begun this journey in Wales we need to see it through to completion.

Perhaps in the early days we didn’t quite appreciate what a fundamental shift in job role the Housing (Wales) Act brought about. The new role of the Housing Solutions practitioner is less about the administration of tests and much more about the provision of support to help people get through their housing crisis and back on their feet.

While there was plenty of prevention work going on before the law changed, expectations were nowhere near the scale they are today.

Ultimately, too much responsibility is being placed on the shoulders of Housing Solutions. Homelessness prevention is not just about bricks and mortar: it’s about assessing people’s needs in the round and providing bespoke interventions. This goes beyond services’ current capacity.

We are recommending that staff need to be better supported to deliver on the Welsh Government’s ambitious agenda. This needs to include better training, and more guidance in key areas such as how to use Personal Housing Plans, which our study found are largely missing the mark as a tool for service user empowerment.

In terms of freeing up resources, there is much more potential to commission Supporting People-funded services that complement the work of Housing Solutions. There are already some good examples of short-term, flexible tenancy support services that work in a holistic way and earn outstanding feedback from service users.

Supporting People is not only about helping people within 56 days of homelessness, of course, and it wouldn’t be desirable to limit funding too closely to the requirements of the Act – but a balance can and should be found.

For Jonah, one of the biggest differences this time round was the attitude of staff. Because he was treated warmly, this helped him to engage with the service and get what he needed from it.

‘They have been brilliant,’ he said. ‘The people up the council have been great. They put me in here and by being friendly they have really helped me.’

Our report has helped to identify and describe what the person-centred approach to homelessness services looks like in practice.

For people like Jonah, this is not ‘soft stuff’ but is key to the likelihood of a successful outcome.

* Name changed

Jennie Bibbings is campaigns manager at Shelter Cymru


  • 90% of people using homelessness services said they were spoken to politely and respectfully
  • 57% were confident that the council listened to their housing problem and understood my situation. One in four (25%) said they felt the council hadn’t listened or understood their situation
  • Just under one in four (23%) felt they were not given an appropriate level of privacy to speak about their housing situation
  • Two in five (41%) said that written communication was clear and easy to understand, while 35% said that written communication wasn’t easy to understand
  • Half (49%) said that after their initial presentation the council had not kept them up to date with the progress of their application
  • More than half (53%) said they had not been given a Personal Housing Plan. Just over one in three (35%) said they were given one, and it was explained to them what this was and how it would be used
  • Eleven people said they were given a list of private landlords that was out of date and included a high proportion of landlords who didn’t accept housing benefit
  • In one council, three people said they were asked to make a written record of the time they spent house-hunting which put them under additional pressure
  • Four people who’d received a notice to quit their privately rented accommodation were told to go back and wait for the bailiffs – and were inaccurately advised that if they left before that time they would be found intentionally homeless.

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