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Why Housing First should be at the core of a mission-led Labour government

4 min read

Keir Starmer has vowed the next Labour government will be a ‘Mission Government’.

This approach will put an “end to short-term sticking plaster politics” through setting “ambitious goals and then tackle problems systematically and for the long-term”.

Nowhere is this approach more needed than in our response to homelessness and rough sleeping. Under the Tories we’ve seen rough sleeping rise to record levels in 2017, before dropping off due to the pandemic response. But rough sleeping rose by 27 per cent in 2023 and has risen by 60 per cent since 2021. Many in the homelessness sector are predicting the statistics for 2023, which are due to come out in late February, will rise even more steeply.

Through my past position as shadow homelessness minister and my new role as co-chair of the APPG for Ending Homelessness, I’ve spoken to many homelessness charities who bemoan the short-term sticking plaster approach of the current government. Funding for services can be as short as six months and very rarely spans across multiple years, with a focus on crisis interventions that don’t get to the root causes of people’s homelessness, leaving people stuck in a revolving door. To break free of this cycle, I firmly believe a mission focused Labour government must expand the provision of Housing First.

Housing First is an approach aimed towards people with a long history of sleeping rough alongside multiple and complex needs such as mental and/or physical health issues, drug and/or alcohol issues and a history of offending behaviour. Often these issues are rooted in childhood trauma, with more traditional routes out of homelessness not working for this group.

Housing First programmes give people their own home straight away, alongside intensive support to maintain it, with a tenancy sustainment rate of between 70-90 per cent. In Finland, it has all but eradicated rough sleeping.

To its credit, the government has funded three Housing First pilots in the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and Liverpool. But the funding for the pilots comes to an end in 2025. Elsewhere in the country, Housing First projects are set up through the passion and creativity of local authorities and charities, despite the funding system in which they operate.

But the importance of Housing First to a ‘Mission Government’ goes beyond simply reducing rough sleeping. New research by Homeless Link, the membership body for homelessness services in England, lays bare the long-term social benefits of the approach.

The research was based on a range of sources including a survey of Housing First providers, representing 934 residents, and peer research carried out with people with lived experience of Housing First.

After three years, it found 39 per cent of Housing First residents had improved physical health and a massive 55 per cent reported improved mental health. It also found Housing First residents shifted from being more likely to use extremely costly A&E services to engaging with preventative healthcare such as GP services, mental health support and drug and alcohol treatment. When you consider that people experiencing homelessness use A&E services three times more often on average than the general population, this is a big shift. It’s no wonder past research from the Centre for Social Justice found that for every £1 spent on Housing First. £1.56 is saved from the public purse in the long run.

Additionally, at the point of entry into Housing First 84 per cent of residents were engaged in antisocial or offending behaviour. This dropped by almost half by the end of the third year to 45 per cent. Consequently, there was a massive reduction in engagement with the criminal justice system, from 71 per cent to 39 per cent.

We currently live in a society where seemingly every day a different public service is at breaking point.

We currently live in a society where seemingly every day a different public service is at breaking point. Local authorities across the country are either filing for, or on the brink of bankruptcy. Each time the government’s response is to plunge more money in at the last moment in a desperate bid to patch up a broken system.

Approaches like Housing First are the antithesis to the sticking plaster approach which has left us lurching from one crisis to another. Its impact shows the power of addressing different problems holistically, demonstrating how only a cross government strategy can end homelessness.  

Housing First does require investment up front with Homeless Link calling for £150m per year to fund a national Housing First Programme. But in the long run it will save public money through creating healthier and happier people, which can only translate into a healthier and happier society.  

Paula Barker is Labour MP for Liverpool, Wavertree and co-chair of the APPG for Ending Homelessness

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