With the Homelessness Reduction Act coming into force from April 2018, local authorities in England are gearing up to meet the new requirements. All social landlords have a critical role to play, but compliance with the new laws should be only part of the story. Roger Birkinshaw, housing director at Northgate Public Services, emphasises the importance of addressing homelessness not in isolation, but as part of an overall housing strategy.
The individuals and families that are at risk of homelessness are as varied as the financial or personal circumstances that have led them to this point. Homelessness is an issue that can affect society right across the age and demographic spectrum.
As the new Homelessness Reduction Act comes into force from April 2018, local authorities are preparing to extend the support they offer to people at risk of homelessness, placing greater emphasis on preventative activities, while continuing to secure alternative accommodation for those who have become homeless. Many housing associations would argue they already provide such a service.
To ensure a lasting impact, it is vital that homelessness is not compartmentalised or viewed as an isolated issue, but that it is regarded as part of a long-term, wider housing strategy. At the heart of this is the ability to find tailored housing solutions that meet the specific needs of individuals and families.
The bigger picture
The new legislation encourages councils to work closely with people to gain a better understanding of their housing requirements, so that the advice and support they receive is relevant and effective. Citizens are often faced with wide-ranging and complex situations, so it is essential for housing officers to access up-to-date information, quickly and easily, to help ensure they have a clear picture of the circumstances.
Imagine the scenario of a young adult presenting to the local authority who has been thrown out of their family home. Rather than simply placing them on a waiting list, with the right information to hand, a housing officer can see all the available options. When they are talking to the parents to ascertain whether there is scope to resolve issues, they can also involve and record notes from other agencies. This will ensure that the most up-to-date information is available when determining the right option for the young person, whether that is to return home or relocate to temporary accommodation, until a long-term solution can be found.
Housing issues can develop as a result of mental health challenges, domestic abuse or financial hardship, and there are also citizens who need accommodation when they leave hospital or prison. In each case, the individual concerned will require a different package of guidance and support to get them safely re-housed, or to resolve issues with their current accommodation.
Information can provide housing officers with the insight they need to make informed decisions about what action to take when an individual or family is in difficulty. But it can also support housing staff in intervening earlier to prevent situations from escalating.
Prevention rather than cure
While most housing providers already have strategies to prevent homelessness, the new legislation sharpens the focus on this approach with the requirement for councils to work proactively with anyone who is threatened with homelessness within 56 days.
This places homelessness prevention at the heart of housing strategy. And staff with the appropriate authorisation will need to be able to use the information available to them, such as details of people, tenancies and properties, to identify and provide support for individuals and families at risk of losing their homes much sooner than they may have done previously.
Some organisations have already started using data analytics tools to overlay key information on households in order to get the right help in place earlier. This might be a tenant who has started paying their rent late or a family that has missed a payment, for whatever reason.
With the bigger picture, a housing provider could work with their tenants, either directly or in partnership with another agency, to create a tailored package of support and prevent those at risk from becoming homeless. Some household budgeting advice or specialist guidance on finding a new job could be all that is needed to get them back on track.
Steps such as these can help individuals and families avoid a crisis and stay in their homes which, in turn, can save public money by reducing the time and cost associated with property turnover.
Having access to a wealth of centrally-stored housing information opens up opportunities for the use of predictive analytics on a much larger scale, helping to build an effective housing strategy for the future.
With such great strides being taken in the use of machine learning in the business world, the public sector is increasingly considering how data can be analysed from multiple sources to help spot trends and anticipate where the risk of homelessness exists before it escalates.
And in an era of greater personalisation, why not engage residents in the way that works best for them too, be that by telephone, email, text or social media – all tracked and logged in your housing management software. If the dialogue is already there, it will be much easier to intervene early and help people avoid the experience of becoming homeless.
Data will be central in helping to ensure tailored and timely interventions are successful in preventing vulnerable people from losing their homes. And as the sector embraces change, social landlords can equip themselves with the right tools to tackle this increasing problem proactively.
Roger Birkinshaw is housing director at Northgate Public Services.