Our new found respect for evidence must extend to the homelessness field
The Centre for Homelessness Impact (CHI) aims to inspire government at all levels make more and better use of data and evidence when making important decisions about how to tackle homelessness. Since its launch two years ago, there has been a whirlwind of activity geared towards this end, including the publication of a new book, Using Evidence to End Homelessness.
There is a moment in the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations, where Pip finds out who his benefactor is, the person who has turned him from a poor orphan to a wealthy gentleman. It’s not the person he expected. Mr Jaggers wisely advises him “Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”
Since the COVID-19 crisis began, there has been a rallying cry for evidence-based decision making. From research organisations, to governments, local authorities and hospitals around the world, experts have sprung into action, resulting in thousands of studies to help us find our way through this unprecedented event. And it’s not just the people who are working to solve the crisis who benefit from the information. As the general public, every day we look to virologists and statisticians to give us clarity in a pandemic that has blindsided us.
But how does this apply to homelessness? For years we have approached homelessness reduction and prevention in a similar way, and yet, even with committed efforts from the sector, we are still experiencing unacceptable levels of homelessness across the UK. The evidence is there for all of us to see it – we must change our way of working if we’re going to prevent and tackle homelessness more effectively.
It seems likely that the coronavirus pandemic will transform the economy beyond all recognition and the poorest in society will be the hardest hit, potentially pushing greater numbers of people into homelessness than ever before. An evidence-led approach is the only way we can avoid an even bigger crisis once the pandemic is over.
At the Centre for Homelessness Impact, when we first set out to create Using Evidence to End Homelessness, a book that advocates for an evidence-based approach to end homelessness, the world was a very different place. However, in this new reality, shaped by COVID-19 and dogged with uncertainty it has become more urgent than we could have imagined back then.
Using Evidence to End Homelessness is about changing the way we work. By shifting resources toward solutions that are informed by the best possible data, evidence and evaluation, we can improve the lives of people who are homeless or at risk, their families, and communities. By bringing together thought leaders from across the political spectrum and highlighting the good work underway, the book makes the case for a “What Works” approach and shows that it’s possible.
So how might we bring about a transformation of the homelessness sector?
Our proposed methods are threefold:
1. Improve the speed and quality of response by strengthening data foundations and data practices. The establishment of better data foundations around data collection, architecture and analysis would allow better insight into homelessness and improve our ability to predict for whom, when, where and why homelessness may be an issue.
2. Enable smarter decision making by building evidence about the policies and interventions that will achieve the most effective and efficient results. Today there’s surprisingly little rigorous research on homelessness policy and programmes. We need more and better systematic reviews, and more experiments to identify which interventions are effective and cost-effective in addressing homelessness.
3. Upskill the workforce and nurture evidence-based leadership to strengthen our capacity to act on robust evidence and insight. The first step would be to do more rigorous policy evaluations. The next would be to heed them. This will require a shift in culture and mindsets; developing new behaviours around the use of data and evidence and a deep appreciation for learning. Now more than ever people need support to think big, use evidence, be bold, and uncover and test inventive and shareable solutions.
The authors of the chapters in Using Evidence to End Homelessness and I truly believe that we can achieve something substantial for everyone in our society — not just those affected by or at risk of homelessness — if more and better data and evidence is used to guide the vital investments we make in children, their families, individuals and communities.
The government’s action to try to house all people who are street homeless was bold and decisive, and as those arrangements begin to come to an end, it is important we have a plan for what comes next. We need to ensure that we don’t fall back into our old ways of working, but we take Mr Jaggers’ sage advice. We must take everything on evidence if we want to end homelessness for good.
Dr Ligia Teixeira is CEO of Centre for Homelessness Impact and editor of Using Evidence to End Homelessness. You can buy the book on the Policy Press or Centre for Homelessness impact websites and other online booksellers.