Research published by Herriot Watt university reveals for the first time the alarming number of adults in England facing a combination of homelessness, substance misuse and offending behaviour.
250,000 reasons to break down boundaries
Everyone’s an expert. We work in our niche fields, supporting niche groups of people within our professionalised niche sectors. But what happens when people don’t fit conveniently into our sector pigeonholes? The reality is that many people cross over, or fall between, the services provided by homelessness and other sectors. The result is they are often excluded from the very services set up to help them.
That is why Homeless Link, back in 2009, formed the Making Every Adult Matter Coalition with three other national membership organisations – Clinks, Drugscope and Mind – representing criminal justice, substance use and mental health. The aim was to promote policy and develop a practical approach for people experiencing disproportionate levels of poverty, poor health and isolation and who often have a shared experience of being excluded from mainstream services.
250,000 people in England have contact with at least two out of three of the homelessness, substance misuse and criminal justice systems. At least 58,000 people have contact with all three.
Nearly six years on, new research has brought the situation into clearer focus. Hard Edges, published by Lankelly Chase in partnership with Heriot Watt University, paints an accurate picture of the number of adults facing a combination of homelessness, substance misuse, mental ill health and offending behaviour. 250,000 people in England have contact with at least two out of three of the homelessness, substance misuse and criminal justice systems. At least 58,000 people have contact with all three.
This will come as no surprise to anyone working in homelessness. Loss of accommodation is rarely the only reason someone becomes homeless. It can rarely be solved just by addressing their housing situation.
This new report shows just how early many of the risk factors which can lead to these problems are present in the lives of the 58,000 people facing the greatest combination of these needs. Two fifths ran away from home as children, many had serious problems at school, and almost a third had violent parents. Is there any better argument for earlier intervention to support people with these issues?
The report also shows clearly what happens to people facing this combination of needs. Poverty and ill-health are more prevalent, and the more needs you have, the worse deal you get from services
While Hard Edges is a positive step towards greater recognition and action on multiple needs, it is also a depressing reminder of the persistent failures and problems in systems set up to support vulnerable people. It is a call to rethink the way we identify, measure and talk about people and their ‘problems’.
We need to move away from structures that focus on single issues alone. Within homelessness this shift has already started, but the singular and separate systems we often operate in can make this hard. Many services, governed by rigid funding streams, thresholds and inflexible reporting, still want to deal with one ‘problem’ or condition at a time. We often end up reinforcing in this, at the expense of the person as a whole.
It is a call to rethink the way we identify, measure and talk about people and their ‘problems’.
Data often underpins this. The things that are seen to be easier to measure – such as the needs people have – can reduce individuals to a set of problems, overlooking their goals and aspirations. This, says the report, is the inherent challenge of data that is generated to meet the needs of systems, not people. We’ve stepped up our efforts to improve this within the homelessness sector. The recommendation to improve it further is a welcome one.
Another major wake-up call in the report is the widespread nature of the issue – an average 1,470 cases per local authority per year. Attributing costs can be a challenge, but the report estimates a staggering £45-58bn of these cases to date. From an economic perspective alone, it is impossible for local areas to ignore this.
With an election looming and increased pressure on public service budgets, the timing of this report could not be better. The report presents a clear challenge to government, as well as frontline services.
Last week Homeless Link launched our new manifesto – five priority actions for the next Government to end homelessness. One of these actions calls for a greater focus on multiple needs, and to make local areas accountable for delivering effective, joined up services for this group.
As we encourage Government to rise to this challenge, Hard Edges is a timely reminder for the homelessness sector that it’s only by breaking down the boundaries between services, putting individuals and not systems first, that we can hope to get it right for them in the future.
A version of this article was published by Inside Housing on 19 January 2015.
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Helen currently job shares her role with Caroline Bernard, jointly overseeing Homeless Link’s policy, research, information and communications team.
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