Beyond Covid - why funding homeless prevention makes sense
The homelessness problems we deal with are unrelated to military service and our clients are as diverse as the solutions we broker, says Dr Hugh Milroy | Credit: PA Images
During the pandemic, the GLA put 1,400 homeless people into hotel accommodation. It recently confirmed that just 19 of them (1.4%) claimed to have served in HM Armed Forces. CEO of Veterans Aid Dr Hugh Milroy was not surprised at the low number. In a discussion with Glyn Strong he explains what role prevention has played in successfully tackling rough sleeping among veterans and makes a plea for stronger investment in an area that could have a much wider and enduring impact on the problem.
As emergency measures come to an end the debate about numbers, policies and finance will ramp up. Indeed there are already calls for clarification and greater transparency about the size of the homelessness community. Statistics aside, the real issue is about solutions.
Traditional initiatives to end homelessness tend to be reactive and have been driven by the belief that it can be eradicated by provision of accommodation. A roof, a bed or a place to stay has had a key place in any strategy.
“That’s all very well” says Hugh Milroy, “but our experience indicates that rolling homelessness back upstream can also be effective in a way that isn’t always obvious or that attracts funding. I’m making a plea to move into the building of barriers to homelessness. I’m delighted that a Homelessness Task Force has been established and even more pleased that it plans to plug into local resources – something we at Veterans Aid have been doing for some considerable time – but I believe that the key to any long term solution is investment in prevention.”
Veterans Aid has been operational throughout lockdown, providing accommodation for ex-servicemen and women in crisis from London to Cambodia.
Prevention always seems to be the least talked about option in financial terms, yet it is where I believe there should be specific investment
“Yes, literally – one of our first calls after lockdown was from a former serviceman working in Phnom Pen who faced losing his income and his home when the university closed down.We had already moved to remote working so keeping him safe was not a major challenge,” says Milroy.
“We are used to crisis and were delighted to see how rapidly the GLA, for example, acted to get rough sleepers off the streets, but the elephant in the room will always be ‘What next?’.”
Dame Louise Casey’s taskforce has been backed financially ‘to help councils get as many people off the streets as possible, with additional funding for councils to help them continue to respond to the pandemic and support their communities – including their vital work helping those sleeping rough’. But is it enough?
“It’s a start, but there’s a real window of opportunity here, to rethink where effort and funding is best targeted. It’s easy to count ‘heads on beds’. The benefit of keeping people off the streets and preventing homelessness is harder to evaluate, but we have proved that it can be done.
"The superficial argument against investment in prevention is that it is difficult to measure outcomes. I get that, but we managed and we proved that success was possible and that savings to the taxpayer could be made as an added incentive. Prevention always seems to be the least talked about option in financial terms, yet it is where I believe there should be specific investment – perhaps through the establishment of a government Homelessness Prevention Innovation Fund (HPIF).”
“At Veterans Aid we been actively preventing homeless for many years, through swift and flexible interventions and investment in resilience. There are multiple aspects to this; we have our own operations room for initial contact, a state-of-the-art accommodation facility and a holistic system that tailors a pathway bespoke to the needs of each individual. That’s why our recidivism rate is so low (around 10%) and why there are so few (genuine) veterans rough sleeping in London. The GLA figures reflect this.”
The homelessness problems we deal with are unrelated to military service and our clients are as diverse as the solutions we broker.
Veterans Aid has enjoyed a working partnership with the London Borough of Westminster since 2016 to identify homeless and at-risk veterans in the area. More recently, during lockdown, the Charity launched a homelessness prevention scheme with Transport for London so that station staff could fast-track vulnerable veterans directly to Veterans Aid. The GLA has also invested much in its work.
“We try to prevent the person getting on the streets in the first place and if we can’t, we bring them in to our facility where the average stay is 9.5 months and the success rate hovers around 90%. Prevention is at the heart of our modus operandi.
I appreciate that some will say ‘veterans are different, they’re a small group’ but that is wrong on so many levels. The homelessness problems we deal with are unrelated to military service and our clients are as diverse as the solutions we broker.”
But surely having a home is pivotal? No-one can rebuild a life if s/he is a rough sleeper?
In a post-Covid world it will be tempting for the Government to chase quick-wins. But homelessness, for many, cannot be resolved with a single intervention and many traditional providers of accommodation will no longer be part of the landscape.
“Of course it’s part of the solution, and the provision of 3,300 new homes is a start, but our clients (like many homeless individuals) have multiple problems which require complex, ongoing responses. Warehousing rough sleepers without a comprehensively funded support mechanism in place, so that they can sustain independent living and enjoy a quality of life that supports their resolve to protect it, would be a moral blight on this country and a waste of this unique opportunity. But the issue is bigger than that. I’d like to see high profile investment to prevent homelessness on a grand scale; in areas and in ways that will guarantee knock-on improvement.
And if that means allocation of more funding for detox and rehab facilities, for example, then so be it. But please don’t do this by handing out ad hoc grants . . . which only lead to a need for yet more ad hoc grants.”
In a post-Covid world it will be tempting for the Government to chase quick-wins. But homelessness, for many, cannot be resolved with a single intervention and many traditional providers of accommodation will no longer be part of the landscape. The newly unemployed may swell the ranks of the already known street dwellers. So can the new task force spend its way out of the problem? Milroy’s thoughts for funding are focused on prevention and predicated on the three things that were instrumental in radically reducing numbers of veterans on the streets.
“We need to finance practices that enable swift intervention, minimal bureaucracy and programmes that set individuals up for success – whatever that involves and for however long it takes; in other words a ‘Welfare to Wellbeing©’ approach. The thread running through all three is a flexible approach to funding and the courage to allocate money in a different way. Having flexible resources that can be used to tailor holistic responses to individual problems makes sense and is directly related to Veterans Aid’s success in reducing homelessness among ex-servicemen and women – an achievement that represents significant savings for the taxpayer.”
Many donors are rightfully wary of giving unrestricted funds; indeed some regard it as reckless. Government funding is also traditionally allocated for specific purposes, so how can risk be mitigated?
“Willingness to invest in seemingly open-ended development of individuals is rare among traditional funders and we have found very few that are geared toward the encouragement of prevention; because of this many of the solutions we broker are funded initially from our internal funds. Of course there will always be a place for donations made to match a provider’s idea of what constitutes a need, but in today’s climate that kind of giving is a ‘nice to have’. To seriously tackle homelessness a radical and flexible approach is needed; one that puts the homeless individual’s unique needs at the heart of the process. Courageous, innovative, non-traditional funding is key.
Our experience at Veterans Aid is that sustainable solutions to homelessness among our clients rely upon multiple interventions
“Perhaps funding by results should become the ‘new normal’ - the quantum leap forward that encourages innovation among providers?
If our experience is anything to go by, this could add significantly to the effectiveness of the sector. Is it too radical to say that the current mechanisms of funding streams don’t encourage innovative thinking?
Maybe the time has come to loosen the reins and to stimulate non-traditional approaches?
Our experience at Veterans Aid is that sustainable solutions to homelessness among our clients rely upon multiple interventions; investment in the whole client, up to and including access to skills training, education, job opportunities and decent, sustainable accommodation.
Given that each individual who appears has differing needs, which are only exposed over time, traditional funding for projects may always be incapable of providing a total solution.
“I’m keen to broaden the possibilities of funding streams because I’m not convinced that this is simply a problem for Government.
"If this type of innovation funding relates to success it may attract significant philanthropic investment, something that, as far as I can see, isn’t presently the game-changer that it could be. If we can encourage philanthropists by freeing them from the burden of tradition/politics and showing them that they can be effect force multipliers, then homelessness may well be blasted out of the water forever.
“As the Government’s taskforce starts to work on plans to end rough sleeping, these thoughts are meant to sound a cautionary note. Many organisations will be clamouring for support - and cash - when Covid measures are relaxed. But let’s also embrace a paradigm shift from handout to hand-up. Evidence of an enduring commitment to prevention rather than ‘patching’, should be the criteria for applications.
"This country has innovation at its heart and I can’t think of a better use for it now. We should actively encourage those who are stopping homelessness to begin with or have programmes that demonstrably work to break the cycle - not just in one or two cases but consistently.
"Funding the same old things won’t work. If we are to consign homelessness to the pages of history in the UK the sector needs to be smarter: it needs a ring-fenced Homelessness Prevention Innovation Fund that engages philanthropic entrepreneurs . . . and pays by results.”