David Bookbinder: Housing First – a wee word of caution

Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations (GWSF) director David Bookbinder responds to Friday’s special Housing First edition of Scottish Housing News with a warning that the policy will not be without its challenges.

David Bookbinder: Housing First – a wee word of caution

David Bookbinder

Strike me down, but am I the only person in the housing world to have found the ‘Housing First Special Edition’ (Scottish Housing News, 17 May) verging on the evangelist?

I’m absolutely not questioning Housing First, but as with anything that starts looking like a bandwagon, a few words of caution might not go amiss.

Let’s be clear – GWSF wholeheartedly supports the expansion of Housing First. Almost all of the housing associations involved in the original project beginning around 2010 were Forum members. And for well over a year now, members have been standing ready to offer properties as part of the rollout in Glasgow and elsewhere.

The potential for how HF can transform someone’s life is clear to see, especially when it’s someone who might genuinely have thought they could never hold down a tenancy of their own. I’d like to think there’s hardly anyone in our sector who doubts the principle and the potential.

I guess my slight unease is that it just feels like the eulogising needs to make way for moving things forward on the ground and facing up to the challenges as well as successes that will undoubtedly be thrown up. One of the contributions on Friday referred to HF being ‘simple’ - yes, the principle underlying it is simple, but putting it into practice may be less so.

Beyond rehousing people from the closure of a couple of large hostels, rollout in our part of the world has been slow so far. The original profile-raising of the expansion of HF, through the fantastic fundraising efforts of Social Bite, focused on HF addressing rough sleeping. Time will tell to what extent this proves to be the case, but it’s possibly significant that early rollout has involved people whose needs are, arguably, a bit less complex.

People writing about HF are usually careful to note that it’s not a panacea for tackling homelessness, but I can’t help worrying that there are some people out there who might, consciously or otherwise, be expecting too much from it.

The evaluation of the first 22 HF tenancies between 2010 and 2013 noted the overall success and excellent tenancy sustainment rate - it was indeed a great start. Feedback from members suggests that the second 20 or so tenancies (which we not subject to an evaluation) met with more mixed results, including for one association which saw four tenancies out of four fail, despite all the efforts of its staff and the support provider.

HF needs reliable, long-term funding, which is new and doesn’t detract from the lower-level but essential support going to a much larger group of people coming out of homelessness. It needs a unique type of support which is faithful to the original model, fully backed up by other support services where required. And it needs common sense protocols between housing providers and support providers on how day to day issues will be managed.

The expansion of HF will see a wide range of complex needs being supported, way beyond those of the client group involved in the original project. In Glasgow it will include people having to leave their supported accommodation when it closes down in the next few months as part of the shift to housing people in mainstream settings (and saving £2.6m this year in the process). Again this could be wonderfully transformational for a number of people and that’s to be celebrated.

It’s just that our members will feel more comfortable doing the celebrating after it’s happened, after we’ve all knuckled down and worked in partnership to deal with the tough times and make things work for as many people as possible.

  • David Bookbinder is the director of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations
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