This blog has been asked to publicise the following letter, correcting Liverpool Council – and particularly Cllr Frank Hont – after he publicly rubbished a 6,000-strong petition to house the city’s homeless people in empty buildings, describing the idea as “ill-informed”.

It isn’t “ill-informed” – it is a model that has worked successfully across the world – much more so than the treatment-based model advocated by Cllr Hont.

He said “we need long-term solutions, not quick fixes” without acknowledging the wealth of evidence that shows a “Housing First” model is a long-term solution.

Cllr Hont describes his authority as a “socialist” council. While I would dispute Ms Rowe’s claim (below) that Tory cuts have been “enabled and largely unchallenged” by such authorities – councils are restricted by the amount of grant funding they receive from central government, meaning their options are severely limited – it seems clear that Liverpool has gone badly adrift in this instance.

Judge for yourself:

Written by Leanne Amanda Rowe, on behalf of Love Activists Merseyside.

Dear Mr Hont,

On the 21st of April the Liverpool Echo printed an article [1] in which you rubbished calls for Liverpool council to use empty buildings to house homeless people, after 6,000 people signed petitions relating to this issue. You said “If rough sleeping could be resolved simply by housing people, we would do it tomorrow.” You also referred to the local council as a “socialist council,” a label we are sure would surprise many people on Merseyside who have lived through year after year of Tory cuts, enabled and largely unchallenged by so-called “socialist” councils!

You assume that those calling for rough sleepers to be housed by utilising empty buildings are “ill-informed.” On the contrary, we have done our research. The housing first model, initially developed in the USA in the late 1980s, has, where implemented, produced some amazing results, and the housing first model is gaining credibility in mainstream political discourse in various countries including the USA, Canada, Australia, Finland and France. The housing first model is predicated upon the belief that housing is a human right – a belief that is anathema to the neoliberal ideology currently holding our country in its ever more suffocating grip. Housing in this country is increasingly commodified beyond the reach of many ordinary people for the purposes of profit. How much, this leads us to ask, does a fundamentalist dedication to the principles of “the market” influence the reluctance of British councils to put people first when it comes to housing policy?

Available data in fact shows that the Housing First model is cheaper to implement than other approaches. Those housed under this model spend less time in contact with public services such as hospitals, paramedics and police:

  • The US state of Utah, an implementer of the strategy, has seen a 91% reduction in people living on the streets who have been there for more than a year. The state has also reduced its overall spending on its strategy, citing an $11,000 yearly cost per person to provide an apartment and social work as opposed to previous costs of $17,000 a year for hospital visits and imprisonment. [2]
  • In Calgary, Alberta, Canada, “The Housing First approach resulted in a 66 percent decline in days hospitalized (from one year prior to intake compared to one year in the program), a 38 percent decline in times in emergency room, a 41 percent decline in EMS events, a 79 percent decline in days in jail and a 30 percent decline in police interactions. Sue Fortune, Director of Alex Pathways to Housing in Calgary in her 2013 presentation entitled Canadian Adaptations using Housing First: A Canadian Perspective argued that less than 1% of existing clients return to shelters or rough sleeping; clients spend 76% fewer days in jail; clients have 35% decline in police interactions.” [3]
  • Homeless people rehoused under the Housing First model also have higher rates of success when it comes to retaining their tenancies. Pathways to Housing, a US-based support service, which was founded in 1992, reports that “Since its founding, housing retention rates have remained at 85 – 90 percent even among individuals who have not succeeded in other programs.” [4]

In the UK, Housing and Homelessness charity Shelter have produced a briefing [5] on the housing first model which sets out the principles on which the model is founded:

Housing is a basic human right, not a reward for clinical success.

Once the chaos of homelessness is eliminated from a person’s life, clinical and social stabilisation occur faster and are more enduring.

The document goes on to assess the efficacy of the housing first model in the US, citing a “four-year longitudinal research study comparing the housing first model with traditional treatment first programmes”.

The findings of the study were as follows:-

  • There was a significantly higher rate of housing retention for residents in the housing first model (88 per cent) than the treatment first model (47 per cent).
  • Despite treatment first participants being more likely to use treatment services, there was no significant difference between the two groups and their levels of drug and alcohol use. This is of particular note given the requirement of treatment first participants to address their substance use.
  • Housing first participants did not increase their use of substances despite the lower use of treatment services and nonrequirement to abstain.
  • There were no significant differences between mental health symptoms and quality of life indicators for participants from treatment first or housing first programmes.
  • The annual per capita costs of the housing first programme were around half those of treatment first programmes ($22,500 compared to $40,000– 50,000). These savings were even greater when compared with the costs of institutional care.

In the article, you state that the issues facing rough sleepers could be made worse “if they are given a front door they can lock”, yet studies such as this one show that this is simply not the case. While it would appear that you are referring to drug use or mental health issues, the underlying message that you are giving out seems to be that people facing such issues are undeserving of such basic human dignities as privacy.

There is ample evidence to support the idea that housing people first, as a response to the acute need of homelessness, is the most effective approach. Schemes in the UK which have implemented the housing first model have done so with incredible results. In Derbyshire, 90% of those supported maintained independent living. In Suffolk, 134 people were housed using the model, and only six of these tenancies failed.

Furthermore, the North West has the largest number of empty buildings of any UK region. In 2015 the Empty Homes charity produced a report on this issue [6] which showed that the North West has 109,485 empty homes, at 3.43% the highest percentage of empty dwellings of any region (second highest was the North East, with 3.40%). Of these empty homes, 40,461 (or 1.27%) had been empty long-term (for more than six months.)

There was a time when national policy was created under the belief that we could end rough sleeping in the UK. Since 2010, homelessness in the UK has risen by a third, and national policy no longer talks in those terms. Homelessness in the UK today is a growing crisis, with no end in sight. Another recent article in the Liverpool Echo [7] reveals that rough sleeping in Liverpool has doubled in the past year.

We have enough empty properties to house those rough sleepers. These people need homes, and those empty homes need tenants. What is stopping the council from launching initiatives to bring empty homes back in to use, so that people who need them may have the dignity of a roof over their head, which is surely, as outlined in the Housing First Model, a human right?

In order to see the bigger picture, to marry up the existing resource of unused , empty buildings with the existing, growing, homeless population in the North West requires putting people first when it comes to housing policy. Something that many UK councils, including this “socialist” council in Liverpool, seem unwilling to do.

Yours ill-informedly,
Love Activists Merseyside
Love Activists (national)

[1] http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/liverpool-council-wont-open-empty-11217427
[2] http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-utah-housing-first-20150524-story.html
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Housing_First#Canada
[4] https://pathwaystohousing.org/housing-first-model
[5] http://england.shelter.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/145853/GP_Briefing_Housing_First.pdf
[6] http://www.emptyhomes.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Empty-homes-in-England-Final.pdf
[7] http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/need-talk-homelessness-11202042

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