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When everyone has a home

028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

Housing First because learning to swim is much easier in water

Nicola McCrudden, Policy Manager with Housing Rights Service, reflects on her recent attendance at a European Housing conference and what can be applied to Northern Ireland.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend a European conference on tackling homelessness organised by Feantsa,  the European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless.

“Housing First – What’s Second?” took place in Berlin and was packed with delegates from across Europe and beyond. Eager to share experiences and learn about good practice in other countries, the room was energised by like minded people passionate about ending homelessness.

The event was opened by Dr. Sam Tsemberis from New York. An inspirational speaker, and individual, Sam pioneered the Housing First approach in the 1990s. This model promotes immediate access to permanent, affordable housing for homeless people with wraparound case management services. Many people housed by this approach would be considered as chronic homeless. The program uses a person-centered harm reduction approach and doesn’t require participation in treatment as a precondition for housing. It is an alternative system to emergency shelter and transitional housing programmes.

Everyone should have the right to decent, safe and affordable housing. So providing housing first, then wrapping around the support, is something which I agree with wholeheartedly. In Northern Ireland there is a tendency, albeit well intentioned, to make sure homeless people are ‘housing ready’ - but who are we to make this decision for others?

What comes next?

So what’s after housing? The basic underlying principle of Housing First is that people are better able to move forward with their lives if they are first housed. Health and well being; finding employment; managing finances; managing addictions and avoiding evictions – all are issues that need to be considered and addressed. Housing First is the beginning of a new journey. As the pioneer himself pointed out the story can be positive or negative; after all change can be stressful for anyone.

While the majority of people do well and hang onto their housing, overall the response is complex. That’s why a range of accommodation options is still necessary. However, to give it the best possible chance of success there are some essential ingredients. An adequate supply of affordable and secure housing is paramount, requiring understanding and supportive ‘community’ landlords. Of equal importance, responsive and co-ordinated support services need a buy-in from a range of statutory and voluntary providers. Government support and investment is also needed. However, with an ever decreasing pot, this is likely to mean a re-organisation of funds and better targeting of current resources.

Does it work?

There is a mature evidence base that Housing First is a positive intervention. I took comfort in hearing that most homeless people can sustain ordinary housing, if given the right support. The key to a house is the start of a transformation process. I would like to see more people beginning that journey in Northern Ireland.

Housing Rights Service commissioned research into the use of the private rented sector to house vulnerable homeless people. It explored the Housing First model and its applicability in Northern Ireland. It is available on the Housing Rights Service website.

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