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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

Tackling homelessness through systems change


CIH policy officer Faye Greaves examines the impact of the final element of the Homelessness Reduction Act.

This month the final element of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 (HRA) came into force in the form of the duty to refer. This duty requires specified public authorities to notify local authority homelessness/ housing options teams if they’re working with someone who is homeless or threatened with homelessness - as long as they have the service user’s consent and they’ve chosen which local authority they wish to be referred to. The duty, while limited, is clear in its intention to pull other public services into the fight against homelessness. It is no longer permissible for those on the list to miss vital opportunities to help someone access advice and support to avoid or limit the devastating impact of homelessness.

I’ve made no secret of my support for the HRA – its underlying principle promotes more pro-active and supportive approaches to helping people who face homelessness and this is a hugely progressive step. I take every opportunity to bang this particular drum because I can see the future it can help us create.

In theory the duty to refer doesn’t ask much of those it applies to - the full list of specified authorities is set out in regulations - but only time will tell if what they are being asked to do actually works in practice. What we can hope will happen , at the very least, is that the specified authorities and their local housing authority partners will align their systems so that this small but very important action enables targeted and timely advice and intervention. But at best the new duty allows for so much more.

As the statutory guidance on the duty to refer points out, those who are not subject to the requirements can also make referrals – the National Housing Federation’s ‘commitment to refer’ is a great example of this. And arrangements do not have to be limited to those required by the duty. The guidance positively encourages public authorities to ‘work together to achieve the best possible solutions for their services users’. This involves developing arrangements that ‘go beyond’ the prescribed referral duty. To me, this is the type of systems change we really and it should extend to all local services – both statutory and non-statutory.

When I talk about the potential of the HRA this is partly what I mean. I’ve written before about what they’re doing in the London borough of Southwark and Westminster City Council – pushing intervention more upstream and seeking to change local systems so they can recognise when and how best to support people to reduce or eliminate their risk of homelessness.

The other and more fundamentally important aspect of the HRA’s potential is its ability to create the right environment to address the underlying factors that prevent us from ending homelessness altogether. We currently have a structural set up that sees homelessness as a problem to react to and solve rather than a failure of systems to sufficiently design out the real causes of homelessness.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t some progressive local authorities and other organisations out there who understand that systems change is the answer – there are. The two London authorities mentioned above, Mayday Trust and the Manchester Homelessness Partnership are just a few. However, we need these pockets of innovation to be replicated on a wider scale if we’re going to see the level of change needed to achieve a system that works.

It helps to recognise that the homelessness system is very complex, as neatly pointed out by the Centre for Homelessness Impact. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to find ways to change it. This involves looking first at our individual roles in ‘the system’ and then widening this to the organisations we work for, and so on. With collective will and a belief in the power of systems change, we can make the necessary changes together.

I’ve teamed up with our CIH East Midlands board chair and housing strategy lead at Ashfield District Council, Emma Lindley, to deliver a webinar on the topic.

Tackling homelessness through system change will take place 11am-12pm, Wednesday 7th November 2018 – it’s free for CIH members and £20 plus VAT for non-members. It would be great if you could join us.

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