Just over a year ago Shelter Cymru researchers interviewed 100 street homeless people in three parts of Wales. The results of that study were stark: people were literally trapped on the streets, partly by their own ill health and partly by the inability of services to reach out and offer the right kind of help.
Last week we spent some time in one of the three areas speaking to people sleeping rough to see how we could help and what, if anything, has changed.
In many ways, the stories we heard were the same. People told us of frustration with the system; difficulties chasing homelessness applications and gathering all the evidence that councils said people needed to produce, such as forms of ID or letters from the GP. We heard about the difficulty of trying to battle addiction while street homeless, with limited treatment services available.
We heard from people who’d been excluded from hostels and from people who were afraid of going into large-scale emergency accommodation. We also saw first-hand the work that’s taking place on the front line and heard from professionals how frustrating it can be to work with such a complex system.
We heard from professionals and homeless people, and what was shockingly clear was that what we are currently offering is not enough.
People are often expected to move through a complex system of different types of emergency accommodation before they are able to get a room in a hostel. They often don’t know from one day to the next whether they’ll have a space that night. We heard how destabilising this is for people and it was explained to us how a tent offers more stability and certainty than a space on the floor in emergency accommodation.
Rough sleeping is the most visible and acute form of homelessness, but Wales is experiencing high levels of homelessness of all types including people living in temporary accommodation, people sofa-surfing, and many more living in insecure housing situations that could easily lead to homelessness.
So what does this tell us? We need change… a big change. We need to make sure that we are offering people stable and secure homes; and we need to provide the right support at the right time.
We need to build social housing – especially one- and two-bed homes, for which there is massive demand.
We need to get services working together in a joined up way so that evictions are genuinely a last resort and when they do happen, they don’t lead to homelessness.
For people with complex unmet needs, we know that Housing First works. This has been done elsewhere successfully and is starting to take off in Wales but we need it at scale. The biggest argument against Housing First is cost: however we know it saves money elsewhere, such as the NHS. There still hasn’t been an assessment of what it would cost to meet the full scale of need in Wales, but we are talking about hundreds, not thousands of households.
We also need to learn from services within Wales that achieve high success rates by rapidly rehousing people into their own homes, rather than pushing everybody through the hostel system.
Because of welfare reform and austerity, it is harder for homeless people to find homes than it has been for many years. This situation was not created within Wales, but we have the tools to address it. We should be aiming to end homelessness, not merely to manage it.