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Finding the answers on rough sleeping

Jon Sparkes, chair of the Homelessness Action Group that is advising the housing and local government minister, reflects on its recommendations and explains the next phase of the work.

Winter is on the way and across towns and cities in Wales – and many parts of the UK – there’s a rough sleeping emergency. I’m currently chairing a Homelessness Action Group for the minister, Julie James AM, that is answering four questions that she has asked, including what to do immediately to help people sleeping rough this year and some longer-term questions about all forms of homelessness.

Picture: Sam Mellish

Working with the 12 other members (listed on the Welsh Government website along with the questions we’re addressing) we have given recommendations on what to do about rough sleeping this winter and what to do beyond that to prevent it altogether. It’s great that the Minister’s response to our first report is positive, setting out her next steps with partners in local government and public services.

In short, we’ve recommended each of the focus areas has an assertive outreach response, empowered with the budgets and tools to work across public services on a daily basis to help people away from the street into suitable emergency accommodation. The Action Group report includes details about how this can practically happen.

I want to extend my thanks both to people who have got involved already in our work and to my fellow Action Group members for working at such a pace to produce recommendations firmly based on evidence of what works, the feedback from our consultations, and their own expertise.

I’d also like to share five reflections on the process so far:

  1. The Action Group based its report on the belief that a home is a basic human need. However, what we’re all doing right now is clearly not working to meet this need. For our part, the Action Group members are all involved in some way in helping people to access housing and support. Therefore, we take a share of responsibility to fix this situation and, in this spirit, encourage others in public and support services to do their part too. I am pleased that the minister’s response has accepted the need to work quickly both to address rough sleeping now and broader forms of homelessness in the near future.
  2. Involvement of people beyond the Action Group is crucial to our work. We decided early on that we wanted to formally consult both people with experience of homelessness and people who work in housing and support roles. We’ve surveyed hundreds of people in these roles and circumstances and their input has been very valuable. Our report describes the main findings so far. The next phase of this will involve face to face sessions, to report back and explore in more detail the themes that have come up. A group of peer researchers led by Shelter Cymru will organise the sessions with people who have experience of homelessness. For people working in housing and support roles these discussions will happen at existing housing, support and public health themed events over autumn and winter.
  3. The recommendations both for short-term measures this winter and to end rough sleeping overall sit together as a programme and must be taken forward as such. A great example of this in practice is the recommendation to Welsh Government and its partners in social housing to agree a pact to ensure people are not evicted into homelessness. This pact needs to include reforms to allocation, so that people with experience of homelessness are given reasonable priority for housing and that reductions in eviction rates aren’t reductions in people being allocated this housing in the first place. And, of course, this is all dependent on agreeing an approach to social housing grant and agreement on new social housing supply and on making sure people can access support to access and stay in social housing under the Housing Support Grant. This chimes with a broader ‘pact then Act’ approach in the Action Group’s work, where we’ve looked first at the changes that need to happen in practice and voluntary flexibility within the bounds of the law and regulation. We’ve not rushed to recommend legislative or regulatory change but there are some areas in our work where this will almost certainly be needed.
  4. At every stage of our work we’ve been open and transparent about our work. A widespread sense of ownership of the recommendations is crucial. As well as the ongoing consultation work I’ve been giving a chair’s update, posted on the Crisis website within 24 hours of each meeting. My most recent blog looks ahead at the next steps for the Action Group’s work. All Action Group members are also taking opportunities to meet people to talk about our work and I’m very keen to hear to hear from you about your work in homelessness (you can email me here).
  5. The Action Group has only answered one question out of four so far. The evidence is clear that the best way to end rough sleeping is to prevent it happening at all – and to maximise prevention work at an even earlier stage for people starting to experience pressures that could eventually make them homeless. Along with that we need a rapid response available, across public services, so that any experience of homelessness is brief and a one-off.

I’m looking forward to the next stage of the Action Group’s work, particularly the opportunities to discuss what we’ve recommended so far and what needs to happen next. As winter approaches, we’ll be keeping an eye on the delivery of the short-term measures but also answering the minister’s question of what ending homelessness actually looks like.

Jon Sparkes is chair of the Homelessness Action Group and chief executive of Crisis

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