With social problems expected to soar in coming months, Dr Lígia Teixeira of the Centre for Homelessness Impact examines what is needed to help tackle homelessness more effectively in the UK.
The Centre for Homelessness Impact (CHI) aims to inspire government at all levels to make more and better use of data and evidence when making important decisions about tackling homelessness. Since launching two years ago, we have engaged in a whirlwind of activity towards this end, including the recent publication of a new book with Policy Press, Using Evidence to End Homelessness. The book contains contributions by an experienced group of thought leaders from homelessness and related fields and across the political spectrum to advocate for a radically new approach to tackling homelessness, by finding and funding solutions backed by evidence and data.
Why now? Over 50 years on from the landmark film Cathy Come Home, a lot of smart people and institutions have been trying to work out how to end homelessness in the UK and elsewhere. Billions of pounds were invested in different waves of policy reform and innovation that shaped the efforts of statutory and voluntary agencies in the intervening decades. While the situation has improved significantly since the mid-1960s, too many people remained without a home.
In fact, the pandemic came at a time when homelessness remained stubbornly high in many parts of the country. But then on March 27, Westminster called for all street homeless people to be housed by the weekend, and an ambition long-held by the entire homelessness sector was achieved almost overnight.
While this was only a temporary solution to a complex problem, the crisis in which we find ourselves offers a rare opportunity to transform the homelessness system. 2020 could mark a definitive turning point, but only if we use the coronavirus pandemic to step up the ambition to end rough sleeping and embrace the opportunity to tackle all forms of homelessness more effectively.
An effective way of achieving a step change would be focusing on what works by finding and funding solutions backed by evidence and data. As we highlight in Using Evidence to End Homelessness, the United Kingdom spends a significant amount on homelessness services, but very little resource is allocated to learning which homelessness policies and interventions do and don’t work. Rigorous evaluations of homelessness policy are exceedingly rare. The vast majority of the 227 studies in our Evidence and Gap Map of Effectiveness studies are from the US and only 12 of them are from the UK.
At the moment, leaders at all levels of national and local government across the UK are rightly focused on the pandemic and its consequences. But just as we know that the race to find a vaccine is as important as public health interventions and the availability of medical treatment, when it comes to homelessness, we know we must respond to the immediate emergency while maximising this opportunity to achieve a step change in the longer term.
The contributors to this volume envisage a future in which data and rigorous evidence is created efficiently, as a routine part of government operations, and used to drive improvements to policies and services aimed at helping people access and maintain stable, affordable housing. The good news is that even before COVID-19, governments across the UK had already taken important steps towards accomplishing this vision, but much work remains. And given that ‘business as usual’ would not be good enough post-pandemic, our agenda is now of even greater significance.
So how do we ensure that ‘business as usual’ doesn’t continue? How might we bring about a transformation of the homelessness sector? Our proposed methods are threefold:
1. Improve the speed and quality of response by strengthening data foundations and data practices. The establishment of better data foundations around data collection, architecture and analysis would allow better insight into the phenomenon of homelessness and improve our ability to predict for whom, when, where and why homelessness may be an issue. It would enable us to respond faster and target efforts more effectively. We need to figure out what data is needed to support evaluation, research and development, and programme management, and advocate for collecting it.
In England, this work would build on the efforts that the MHCLG (Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government) has made to improve the quality of homelessness data through the H-CLIC (Homelessness Case Level Information Collection) system, which creates opportunities for linking personal-level data with other administrative data to better understand the impact of policy interventions at a lower cost.
2. Enable smarter decision making by building evidence about the policies and interventions that will achieve the most effective and efficient results. Today there’s surprisingly little rigorous research on homelessness policy and programmes. Though some things we do and pay for are effective, there is a lot we don’t know. That’s inevitable. What isn’t inevitable — and where the real problems lie — is assuming, without evidence, that something works. In the UK, there has been very limited use of rigorous evaluations. Examples of evaluation using experimental and quasi-experimental methods, like the Troubled Families and Rough Sleepers Initiatives, are still rare. We need more and better experiments and systematic reviews, to identify which interventions are effective and cost-effective in addressing homelessness.
3. Upskill the workforce and nurture evidence-based leadership to strengthen our capacity to act on robust evidence and insight. It’s hard to rid ourselves of practices that are informed by little more than wishful thinking and to end policies that don’t work. But that is what we must do to ensure that our efforts are effective. The first step would be to do more rigorous policy evaluations. The next would be to heed them. This will require a shift in culture and mindsets; developing new behaviours around the use of data and evidence and a deep appreciation for learning.
Shifting the homelessness system towards a ‘what works’ approach will not be easy or happen overnight. Other things will also need to happen: alongside the need for housing reforms, addressing the root causes of poverty, and protecting our social safety, evidence-based approaches are an important part of the solution to homelessness.
The crisis is almost certainly still deepening around us. Levels of homelessness may rise later on this year, and it's possible that the numbers may be worse in a year’s time than they are today unless decisive action by government at local and national level and others continues. But we have before us a very rare opportunity to reboot the entire homelessness system and revolutionise it for the better. The worst thing we could do now would be to simply return to the way things were before, rather than build better.
It’s no surprise that currently there is public skepticism about the sector’s ability to end or even significantly reduce homelessness, or positively engage with people affected by homelessness who refuse ‘standard offers’ for help. Making policy and funding decisions based on the best possible evidence and holding mainstream services accountable will help restore confidence. The authors of the chapters in Using Evidence to End Homelessness and I believe that we can achieve something substantial for everyone in our society if more and better data and evidence is used to guide the vital investments we make in children, their families, individuals and communities.
This book is just the beginning. We must come together to grow a ‘what works’ movement in homelessness with bipartisan support, informed by the best possible data, evidence and evaluation about what works. Buy the book and join us.
Dr Ligia Teixeira is CEO of Centre for Homelessness Impact and editor of Using Evidence to End Homelessness. You can buy the book on the Policy Press or Centre for Homelessness Impact websites and online booksellers.