Reflection of a building in a puddle

A practical guide to Housing First

By Steph Wood, Head of Supported Housing
September 2020
First published by HQN

Coronavirus prompted our government to do an incredible thing recently.

Around 15,000 people were taken off the streets - and away from sofa-surfing - as part of the ‘everyone in’ campaign that made sure that people experiencing homelessness were safe during the coronavirus lockdown.

This was more than double the number of people that the government was expecting to support. And now that lockdown is easing, how can we, at the nation’s housing associations, play our part in helping those with more complex needs?

For those who’ve been living on the streets - who might also be experiencing mental or physical health problems, or have issues with addiction - the pathway to finding a permanent home can be long and fraught, with the potential to ‘slip up’ ever present while living in hostels or other temporary accommodation. Traditional hostels and supported housing settings are not for everyone, especially those with more complex needs who may have had negative or traumatic experiences in hostels.

This is where Housing First comes in. Housing First does what it says on the tin – it gives people a place to live first, with wrap-around support that concentrating on the basics like managing a home and coping with the change of lifestyle, as well as tackling other issues like registering with a doctor, and accessing benefits.

Getting set up

A basic Housing First partnership involves:

  • A housing provider - to provide a home
  • A local authority - to commission and fund the service
  • A specialist provider - to deliver support

But we consider ourselves an ‘active landlord’ - we provide more than just a home. Residents in our Housing First homes have access to the services we offer to every one of our residents, including tenancy and benefits support advice, our employment and training service and a dedicated housing officer to ensure continuity of service.

And we work with our partners to provide further wrap-around support. We believe that each partner’s contribution is essential and that complete engagement from all three ensures that the model can work successfully. You can read more about this [insert hyperlink] in our ‘Guide for Local Authorities and partners’ on our website.

A small town balancing act

We’re the largest housing association in the south of England, with a geography that spreads from Surrey to Cornwall, down to the Isle of Wight and up to Bristol.

But we don’t have homes in London.

Rather, we cover urban areas like Bristol, Bournemouth, Exeter and Plymouth – and homes that are in market towns and rural communities like Newbury, Blandford and Alton. This means we work in small, tight-knit towns where people are familiar with local faces, as well as larger, more sprawling conurbations.

As we find somewhere for our Housing First customers to live we walk an interesting tightrope. The essential part is remembering to listen to our potential new residents as each solution is different. It’s not just about having an empty property and shoehorning someone into it. We make sure that potential new residents are committed to making a move, and then find the right home for them.

In small market towns our prospective residents might have previously been quite ‘visible’ in a negative way, having spent time sleeping in shop doorways, or asking for money in the town, or perhaps they might have appeared in the local paper due to criminal act.

On the flip side, they might have been regularly bought or given food or drinks, and be greeted by the same people passing by each day. Being ‘part of the scenery’ might make moving on tough, even if it is to a safe, furnished new home. We need to know which picture we are working within.

Some of our residents are looking for a ‘fresh start’. For some this will mean moving on from previous friends and social groups, which can be pretty difficult in a small town. Often people have to make the decision to move out to villages to create distance. But others want to stay close to their existing friend and family support networks.

This need to be close also applies to the services that each person might need to access. Services like addiction support or access to medical care tend to be concentrated in the centre of towns and need to be considered when a property is being allocated. It can be challenging for residents who choose to live in surrounding villages and then need to access support services on a regular basis.

We’ve had residents run up large fines for travelling on public transport without paying the fare and residents completely disengaging from services as it has required significant effort to get there. We tackle this by making sure that we work with our support partners to talk with the resident and find out what’s going on – for example making sure bus passes are provided if cost of travel is an issue.

The list of challenges can sometimes still continue once a place has been found. In a city, a person might be anonymous, but being in a small town and being well-known can occasionally influence new neighbours to make unwarranted malicious complaints. To tackle this scenario, we have, on occasion, needed to have ‘robust conversations’ with complainants, keeping a visible presence on estates in response to teething issues.

But regardless of the place, the most important factor is that we take the same care to work hand in hand with the local authority, and the right partners, enabling us to offer the best service to meet the unique needs of each person and their aspirations.

Get ‘buy in’ from colleagues

So the wheels have started turning – a local authority is interested, we’re ready and willing, perhaps a support partner has been engaged. But an important detail before getting to all of this is to make sure that the other employees within your housing association are ready too.

From initial conversations it seemed that employees at Sovereign understood the concept of Housing First, could visualise the outcomes and appeared to support the idea.

But when we came to roll out, some colleagues couldn’t get past what they thought might cause problems for them on a day to day basis. We heard things like: “Rent arrears will rise,” and “There’ll be more incidents of ASB,” or “We know that person is always in trouble with the law - why should they get a house above others on the list?”

It was important that our people felt comfortable enough to express doubts – and because we’d made a very conscious decision that the Housing First service was part of our supported housing team’s remit – we had capable, trained colleagues ready to reassure them, as well as evidenced success from a small trial.

Making sure that Housing First sits under our supported housing team means that we have the experience and skills in place to work with residents with complex needs. It means our Housing First residents are provided with a named housing officer, who works closely with them and their support provider to manage their new tenancy – and it means we spend time introducing each local team to all involved partners as we bring Housing First to a new area, tackling different fears.

Being flexible and adapting our service

The journey has not been plain sailing of course, we’ve had to learn and adapt as we go. We’ve seen the same kind of fears that came from our own teams, come from other landlords, who worry that doing Housing First is too difficult. We’re here to reassure other HAs that it can be done. Here are some of the key things we’ve learned:

Keep data collection simple: In line with a ‘trauma informed approach’ we no longer require everyone to separately meet and collect information from our potential new resident. Instead, our elected support provider completes a short referral form, moving away from concentrating on negative history and instead focusing on future hopes, trusting the support provider to accurately portray our new resident’s aspirations.

Right property, right person: We do work with our lettings teams to identify properties that we think might work for Housing First, but as mentioned before, we don’t force people to live somewhere that doesn’t work for them. We provide choice, but not through the choice based lettings service. Instead, we work with our prospective residents to find out what they need or are looking for from their new home.

For example they might want something that is not on the ground floor, and that is not near their usual neighbourhood and influences. We try to find something that matches this expectation and give them an opportunity to view the place. We also make our own checks, to be sure that the home is suitable in terms of the neighbours and local community, we want to give our residents the best possible opportunity to make it work for them.

Keep things informal: Many Housing First residents don’t want to have a formal meeting at our offices, as they can find it intimidating. Taking sign-ups as an example, we try to meet people around a week before sign-up at a neutral venue, with their support worker to talk about what a tenancy is and what the responsibilities will be in terms of signing up and paying, over a cup of tea. At this point, the Housing First resident can take the tenancy away and think about what it means for them and if they have any questions.

Manage expectations: Moving home is a stressful experience for anyone, but this can be more so for Housing First residents. As with most housing associations we start looking to let our homes during the notice period given by a previous resident, which can mean that there can be a long wait until the property is ready. This wait can cause considerable anxiety for some Housing First customers, so we ensure that we don’t talk to them about a potential property until they can view it, and complete all our suitability checks in advance of the viewing.

If the customer accepts the property we try to make the next steps as smooth as possible, by completing any outstanding work and safety checks before move-in. If decorating is required, we offer people the option of doing it themselves or having it done for them. We also work with our local authority partner and support partner to source furniture - smoothing the process and helping the resident transition into feeling like the property is their ‘proper home’.

Make paying rent easy: When it comes to paying the rent, we make sure we set up direct payments of Universal Credit (UC) from the start of the tenancy. However, the first payment is usually made to the resident before the direct payment is set up. Our housing officer works with our new resident and their support provider to make sure that the resident understands they are responsible for making this first payment – and does so! Then after they are settled, we further encourage money management skills, ultimately enabling them to move away from direct payments.

With this approach we’ve found that debts are no greater than other residents’ starting on UC - and we make sure that our income team is aware that someone is Housing First. This means that no arrears letters are sent and instead housing officers go and talk with the resident and support provider about any problems that might crop up with payments.

Be aware that even positive change can be difficult: When  someone new is moving in we make sure our Anti-Social Behaviour (ASB) team and general needs housing officers are aware that this is happening. This is to ensure that if there are any challenges we are all working together to resolve the issue. We also ask our local authorities to keep aside a pot of money to assist with costs that the residents may not be able to cover, that could impact on the tenancy, just in case something like rechargeable repairs are needed. So far, we’ve not accessed any of this funding and we have not seen any difference in ASB levels than with normal tenancies.

What does all of this mean?

What all of this means is stability.

Homes that mean people can get on with ‘normal life’, whatever that may mean for them. The funding comes via the local authority from government, the day-to-day support from a specialist provider, and the home and help to keep that home come from us – or potentially from other housing associations.

For more bespoke advice on Housing First or other homelessness services, please get in touch with our team