Sajid Javid is a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and is MP for Bromsgrove.
In the course of any political career there are certain moments that stick with you. The past few years have brought me more than my fair share, however one that will always stand out in my memory was when I first met Wayne.
Wayne has a complex backstory. After leaving the Armed Forces aged 22 he’d spent 30 years sleeping on the streets. Thirty years. On becoming homeless, he began drinking heavily to self-medicate his mental health problems and was soon addicted to heroin and crack.
Outreach teams approached him repeatedly over the years and he’s been in and out of the hostel system. He’s also been in and out of the criminal justice system, managing to accumulate a total of 50 custodial sentences.
The scale of Wayne’s personal crisis made the story he told me about what happened next all the more remarkable.
When we met, he described how he’d moved into a flat through one of the very few “Housing First” schemes available at the time, and sustained his tenancy for 20 months. He’d stopped using drugs, and given up the prolific shoplifting that funded his habit. He’d voted for the first time. He’d even adopted a cat.
The result, Wayne told me, was that he “felt like a part of society for the first time ever”.
Wayne’s background might be shocking, but it’s also tragically familiar. The lives of the most entrenched rough sleepers are frequently marked by early experiences of trauma as well as substance dependency, family breakdown, poor health and sometimes criminality. For this group, the path to stability is treacherous and steep.
“Familiar”, however, does not mean “acceptable”. Nobody should ever have to live on the streets, or feel that they’ve forfeited their place in society. That’s why the Conservative manifesto rightly committed to ending the blight of rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. This might be an ambitious target, but ambition spurs action and the past 12 months have bolstered my conviction that it can be done.
Right at the start of the pandemic, Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, instructed local authorities to bring everyone in off the streets. This led to more than 30,000 people being provided emergency accommodation in the space of a few weeks, saving hundreds of lives and demonstrating what government can do. For some, this has provided an opportunity to get back on their feet. For others, it’s a short-term solution.
If we want to build on this, we’ll need a comprehensive, long-term plan to turn the tide on rough sleeping. Difficult problems sometimes require drastic solutions, which is why as Housing Secretary I looked at replicating the Housing First model and rolling it out across the country.
The idea was to take the existing “treatment first” policy, and turn it on its head. The state would house rough sleepers facing the most serious challenges – such as mental health issues and addiction – without conditions, save for the willingness to maintain their tenancy. When they felt ready, we would then apply the intensive, personalised support needed to turn their lives around in a more stable environment.
Although this requires a significant investment upfront, similar schemes around the world have demonstrated that it works. I went to see this for myself in Finland, where Housing First is rolled out nationally and rough sleeping has been all but eradicated. Because participants have less contact with homelessness, health and criminal justice services, it saves the taxpayer money in the long run.
When I was Housing Secretary, I persuaded the Treasury to fund three large-scale Housing First pilots in Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands. These pilots have already helped more than 550 people off the streets and into permanent homes, with many more to follow. As many as 88 per cent of individuals supported by the pilots have sustained their tenancies, with an independent evaluation showing that those with a history of numerous failed tenancies are now staying put. Put simply, Housing First works.
We must now finish the job.
A national Housing First programme would build on the foundations of the regional pilots, as well as the Government’s efforts to provide accommodation during the pandemic. It’s an opportunity to give some of the most vulnerable people in our country a second chance, and to welcome them back into society.
That’s why I strongly welcome the Centre for Social Justice’s new report, Close to Home, setting out in detail how Housing First could be scaled up from 2,000 to 16,500 places to become a flagship policy for people whose homelessness is compounded by multiple disadvantage. I firmly believe this would be our best shot at breaking the cycle of homelessness by the end of the Parliament.
Four years on from meeting Wayne, I hear from his Housing First support workers that he’s made excellent progress, developing the skills he needs to live independently: “He’s come a long way, and is really proud of where he’s at now – as are we.”
We too have come a long way in addressing rough sleeping since 2017 and we have a great deal to be proud of. But there is still more to do. No one should be forced to sleep on the streets. With programmes like Housing First, they won’t have to.