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Winter is coming and with it stark choices about tackling homelessness

Ex-servicemen living in Veterans Aid’s New Belvedere House learn cookery skills in the facility’s bespoke training kitchen (*Pre-COVID): Photograph © Glyn Strong/Veterans Aid.

Veterans Aid

8 min read Partner content

COVID-19 has been a gamechanger for everyone, but for the homeless it is a spectre to be doubly feared. As the MCHLG prepares to implement measures to tackle it, CEO of Veterans Aid, Dr Hugh Milroy, talks to Glyn Strong about the potential pitfalls and possibilities.

Last week the team at Veterans Aid was approached by a father and son facing first time homelessness – potentially, the streets.

We immediately arranged hotel accommodation for them until a longer term solution could be brokered. They are now safe in a flat and they will never need to spend time in a community dormitory. It took a week!

We have been making these kinds of interventions effectively for decades as part of a wider appeal for prevention.

Homelessness and rough sleeping are not the same thing, but the one can swiftly lead to the other. As more people lose their jobs, incomes and homes the speed of transition may well accelerate, with the collateral damage from the crisis being multi-generational.

The latest MCHLG measures, while welcome, must be viewed with a cautionary eye. Many interesting ideas are being proposed as alternatives to dormitory accommodation, and it’s right that local provision is being utilised, but I feel that a warning note should be sounded before we rush to embrace novel or even traditional ‘quick fixes’.

There should be an honest debate about what works and what does not work.  

Doing the bare minimum won’t promote the changes that are needed to end homelessness, but this singular time of crisis offers an opportunity for reflection and adoption of a more strategic approach to the issue.

I applaud the fact that the MCHLG is looking ahead but believe that three phases of action are required. The proposals relate to the pressing need for immediate, emergency measures that will offer a safe alternative to the streets.

Far from ideal, they represent at least a starting point, but they should be implemented in tandem with complementary medium and longer term initiatives such as involving re-incorporation of empty housing stock and longer term investment in high quality bespoke facilities. If ever there was a moment to embrace change it is now.

I know there are presently many voices contributing to the debate, but I offer thoughts based on this charity’s extensive experience in tackling homelessness and the demonstrable achievements that come from building a successful model.

The visible impact of getting rough sleepers off the streets quickly is attractive and measurable  in the short term; but the issue of where they go afterwards, and how they are subsequently supported, has never been more important. It must be evident to all that crowded, multi-occupancy shelters can offer no more than a reactive and inadequate stop-gap.  

I’m not a health expert but neither am I alone in the view that possible provision of multi-occupancy rooms for the homeless, such as those offered by some night-shelters, would seem to be contrary to everything the Government is trying to do to control the infection.

Nor can it be humane to place rough sleepers in communal dormitories at any time, let alone during a pandemic. 

The entrenched and the newly street homeless do not form an homogenous group; their needs and situations vary significantly. 

Cold and infection are not the only issues and addressing them bluntly without a strategy for dealing with longer term implications is not going to be enough. 

The entrenched and the newly street homeless do not form an homogenous group; their needs and situations vary significantly. 

Some could be kept off the streets by swift and targeted intervention. Some are itinerant, unwell and addicted with  behavioural problems that require very special solutions. 

Many of the ex-servicemen and women who have received help from Veterans Aid over the years have actively eschewed such communal facilities in favour of the streets, recounting tales of places that are regarded as actively dangerous.

That may or may not be the case, but it’s a claim we hear frequently. And the ‘night’ designation attached to so many shelters only serves to reinforce the sticking plaster nature of their value. Virus transmission is active 24/7 and the inevitable movement between shelters should be a real concern.

The rough sleepers package is a financial enabler that will only be effective if the money is spent wisely and as part of a wider, more nuanced investment package.

It will not be appropriate for all and in some cases providing speedy, financial support to individuals who have lost their homes due to falling through furlough gaps will deliver far better outcomes than hasty investment in cold weather shelters that are regarded as merely ‘better than nothing’.  

Self-contained accommodation is probably the gold standard if it is sustainable - but as we know from those who seek our help at Veterans Aid, entrenched social isolation and lack of income often conspire to set up for failure those who are simply provided with a roof. And even that simplistic process is frequently driven by a belief that new builds are the only answer.

The current situation offers an opportunity to explore more cost-effective medium term solutions. 

Why not take a risk and introduce a refurbishment and/or occupancy loan or grant scheme for empty properties that could provide both employment and accommodation? 

It seems incredible that in the 21st Century, when there are reputedly 650,000 empty homes, we can’t better link them with the many fewer people requiring decent sustainable housing. The latest MHCLG figures put the number of empty homes in England on 7 October 2019 at 648,114, an increase of 13,661 (2.2%) from 634,453 on 1 October 2018. Vacant dwellings account for  2.6 per cent of the housing stock.

Put this against the numbers known to sleep rough and the sums don’t add up. Latest 2020 figures for street homeless on a single ‘typical' night are  4,266  - which represents a fall of 9% on 2018 but an increase of 141% on the 2010 count (1,768). London continues to be the region with the highest number of people sleeping rough, with a total of 1,136 people sleeping rough on a single ‘typical’ night.

The Government has crafted speedy and innovative support packages such as “everybody In” - so why can’t it join these two dots?

Why not take this a step further and apply it to homelessness prevention? There are existing programmes that can be utilised and adapted.

Housing First has a clear place in the scheme of things, as do projects such as the novel direct cash giving scheme in Canada and the work in Glasgow to ensure delivery of speedy housing.  Why not take these onto the next level?

Longer term provisions for endling homelessness will inevitably require some construction of new accommodation, but not exclusively in the form of homes for sale or rent. There is a clear place for investment in creation of bespoke, high quality facilities where the most vulnerable can be cared for according to their needs.

This will represent a quantum leap to many in the sector, but our experience at Veterans Aid demonstrates that it’s an effective approach that could offer the best way to end street homelessness for good. 

It is predicated on the premise that prevention is prime and rapid action circuit-breaks the inexorable cycle of decline that leads potentially homeless people to the streets in the first place

We have a manned operations room that deals with urgent calls on a national scale. 

Through swift delivery of our person-centred Welfare to Wellbeing© model we keep people off the streets. In addition our £8.4m facility gives those that need it time and a quality of life to move forward with confidence.

I accept that our methodology may differ from the general sector perspective but what can’t be ignored is its high and externally validated success rate. To dismiss it as having only limited application because we are dealing solely with veterans would be a very questionable response. 

It may be only one element of the answer, but I believe it to be a sound working model. We’ve been resolving homelessness-related problems in the ex-service community for nearly 90 years and the low numbers of veterans now on the streets speak to our success.

Homeless people should not be reliant on night-shelters, communal dormitories, holding pens – or facilities that are no better than warehouses for human beings.

For this reason alone I believe there’s a strong case for the Charity’s model to be considered for replication as a longer term solution to rough sleeping. Hence our strategic partnership with the GLA and Westminster City Council! Being non-traditional isn’t a reason for dismissing a possible option.

GLA and Covenant investment helped Veterans Aid rebuild and refurbish New Belvedere House to a standard that future-proofed it against (then) unforeseen eventualities like the pandemic. 

Despite high-levels of occupancy, 90% of the graduates moving on from this interim step accommodation go on to thrive.

This isn’t because of their military background - which is minimal in many cases - but through the application of a unique methodology delivered in a high-quality facility.

We have demonstrated, in microcosm, that a holistic, hand-up approach can work.

Surely there has never been a better time to be bold and embrace innovative solutions, such as ours, rather than carry on funding what has come to be regarded as inevitable and normal?

Homeless people should not be reliant on night-shelters, communal dormitories, holding pens – or facilities that are no better than warehouses for human beings.

These are unprecedented times calling for quick and innovative responses, but before this well-intentioned funding is directed towards sweeping homeless people off the streets and into short-term emergency facilities, perhaps we should all pause for thought – about alternatives that actually work?

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