Housing First, Furniture Second?
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’re likely to have noticed that the UK is going through a homelessness crisis. The housing charity Shelter estimates there to be 320,000 homeless people across the country. For many people, the most obvious manifestation of the homelessness crisis is in the number of rough sleepers they spot on their local high street – which in 2018 was counted at 4,677 in England on a single night.
One of the most commonly advocated solutions in recent times is Housing First, a system designed to deliver a sustainable exit from homelessness by, as the name suggests, providing people with accommodation first and matching it with intensive support. Supporters of Housing First often point to the scheme’s impressive record in Finland, where it is credited with shrinking the country’s number of long-term homeless. Indeed, the idea has caught the attention of government in the UK, where £27m has been allocated for Housing First trials in three pilot areas.
The scheme is a radical departure from the received wisdom, abandoning the traditional staircase approach to homelessness, whereby a service user is required to move through stages of treatment before progressing toward permanent accommodation. There are no conditions about proving ‘housing readiness’ before providing someone with a home; instead, secure housing is seen as a platform from which other issues can be addressed with ‘wrap around’ support provided to tackle any addiction or health problems. The typical service user is often much more vulnerable than in mainstream housing.
Housing First, so the theory goes, is designed to break the typical cycle of homelessness by taking people off the streets, providing rapid housing. This in turn should help people become settled which in turn helps them to stabilise their lives. From this new secure place, they are able to sustain their tenancies, work to battle their problems and avoiding homelessness.
So far, so good?
Moving people off the streets into stable accommodation is certainly something to be welcomed. However, we at End Furniture Poverty are, as ever, concerned with the distinction between a house and a home. Moving from the streets to an unfurnished property can present a new set of challenges. We already know how tenants in mainstream housing struggle furnishing their new homes without taking into account the complex needs that many Housing First clients will have. We would strongly advocate that furniture plays a role in any Housing First schemes.
As Crisis said in their Housing First Feasibility Study for the Liverpool City Region, Housing First will ‘ensure someone is housed adequately and has the required range of household goods and furniture to live independently.’ Having furniture at the outset creates a positive start in a new home. Tenants are more likely to settle and put down roots in the local community.
As well as making people more likely to engage with support services, having a furnished home gives these tenants more confidence by removing the social stigmas that come with having no furniture. Being able to invite friends around for tea, having somewhere comfortable to sleep or sit, or a TV to keep you occupied and entertained. Having access to the Essential Items should go hand in hand with the intensive support clients receive. What’s the point in working to battle mental health issues if you return to a home of social isolation and loneliness? This is a theme explored in an evaluation of Scotland’s Housing First pilot produced by Turning Point, which found that “acquisition of furniture and furnishings should be prioritized given the role that ‘making a house a home’ appears to play in mitigating dips in mood.”
The evidence from previous trials across the UK is that furniture can be a significant factor in helping to make Housing First schemes a success. A University of Leeds evaluation of a pilot scheme in Yorkshire, where furnished flats were provided to all service users, found that “several women highlighted the importance of moving into housing which had white goods, carpet, furniture and other essential items like cutlery and crockery.” The Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York examined nine different schemes from across England. All had arrangements in place to help service users acquire the essential items of furniture or provided furnished housing at the outset. It is no coincidence that these schemes proved reasonably successful.
Housing First presents decision makers across the United Kingdom with an opportunity to radically shake up the way that homelessness is viewed and treated. In order for the scheme to make the most meaningful impact possible, it has to be a case of Housing First, furniture second.