Sajid Javid: Housing First. The scheme that can help us break the cycle of homelessness.

19 Feb

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.

Daniel Hannan: Sweden settled in for the long haul, and now doesn’t need to worry about a second surge

5 Aug

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

You know who isn’t worried about a second wave? Sweden. Covid cases may be rising worldwide but, in that stolid, sensible monarchy, they are down nearly 90 per cent from peak. “I think to a great extent it’s been a success,” says Anders Tegnell, the country’s chief epidemiologist. “We are now seeing rapidly falling cases, we have continuously had healthcare that has been working, there have been free beds at any given time, never any crowding in the hospitals, we have been able to keep schools open which we think is extremely important, and society fairly open.”

Uncomplicatedly good news, you might think. Yet the overseas media coverage of Sweden is brutal. Its fatality rate is endlessly compared to the lower rates in Norway and Finland (never the higher rates in Italy or Britain). Many commentators sound affronted, as though Sweden were deliberately mocking the harsher prohibitions imposed in most of the world.

The nature of their criticism is telling. To condemn Sweden for its relatively high number of deaths per capita suggests a worrying inability, even after five months, to grasp what “flattening the curve” means. In the absence of a cure or vaccine, an epidemic will end up reaching roughly the same number of people. That number may differ from country to country for all sorts of possible reasons: age profile, weather, family living patterns, openness to international travel, incidence of obesity, past exposure to different coronaviruses, differing levels of genetic immunity.

But it won’t be much affected by lockdown measures. To put it at its simplest, flattening the curve doesn’t alter the area underneath the curve. No country can immobilise its population indefinitely; so all we are doing, in the absence of a medical breakthrough, is buying time.

The UK lockdown was intended to string things out while we built our capacity. “It’s vital to slow the spread of the disease,” said the PM in his televised address of March 23. “Because that is the way we reduce the number of people needing hospital treatment at any one time, so we can protect the NHS’s ability to cope – and save more lives.”

Sweden judged that it could manage to keep its hospitals functioning with only relatively minor restrictions – and it was right. With hindsight, it seems likely that the UK could have got away with a similar approach. Not only did our Nightingale hospitals stand largely empty throughout; so did many of our existing hospital beds. The expected tidal wave, mercifully, did not come – probably because the rate of infection, worldwide, turned out to be lower than was first feared.

No one should blame public health officials for erring on the side of caution. Still, it ought to have been clear by late May that we could start easing restrictions. We knew, by then, that the infection rate had peaked on our around March 18 – that is, five days before the lockdown was imposed.

But, alarmingly, liberty turns out to be more easily taken than restored. The easing of the lockdown was achieved in the face of public opposition: British voters were global outliers in their backing for longer and stronger closures. The media, never having internalised what flattening the curve meant, failed to distinguish between preventable deaths and deaths per se.

In March, according to the official minute, “Sage was unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress the spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak.” As far as I can tell, it has never rescinded that view. The question is not whether there will be some post-lockdown uptick in infection rates – releasing an entire population from house arrest is bound to lead to an increase in all sorts of medical problems, from common colds to car crashes. The question, rather, is still the one we faced in March, namely can we be certain that our healthcare capacity will not be overwhelmed.

Given what we can see in Sweden – and, indeed, in developing nations which lack the capacity to isolate their teeming populations – it seems pretty clear that we can.

Yet the original rationale for the closures has somehow got lost. Commentators now demand the “defeat” of the disease, and hold up league tables of fatality rates as if that were the only gauge by which to measure the performance of different countries. Covid, like everything else, has been dragged into our culture wars, so that one side revels in excessive caution, ticking people off for the tiniest lockdown infractions, while the other argues that lockdowns don’t work at all.

The case against the lockdown is not that it was useless, but that it was disproportionate and had served its purpose long before it was eased. Confining an entire population is bound to have some impact on slowing a disease – any disease. The question is how high a price we should be prepared to pay.

Sweden seems to have got it right. It banned large meetings and urged people to stay home where possible. But, beyond one or two targeted closures, it broadly trusted people to use their nous. Because it judged coolly at the outset that there would be no immediate vaccine, it never got into the ridiculous position of being unable to restore normality in the absence of one. It settled in for the long haul, understanding that the disease would be around for a while, and that acquired immunity would be part of the eventual solution.

The figures for Q2 growth are published later today. Yes, Sweden will have suffered. The distancing measures taken by most Swedes, and the global downturn, will have taken their toll. Still, my guess – judging from retail figures, credit card activity, employment rates and other extant data – is that Sweden will comfortably have outperformed most European countries, as well as avoiding the costs of furlough schemes and massive borrowing.

It may turn out, when all is said and done, that the international variable was not the eventual death toll so much as the price exacted from the survivors.