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How are charities tackling homelessness?

By Rachel Tait 17 August 2018

Homelessness is rising. The problem is most visible on our streets, where rough sleeping has increased by 169% in eight years and affects nearly 5,000 people, but we know this is the tip of the iceberg. The annual Crisis Homelessness Monitor shows that there are 78,000 homeless households in England in temporary accommodation, and according to recent research from Shelter, over half of these are in work.

Government has responded with the Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA) which requires councils to give more help to people who are homeless, or might lose their homes, and an upcoming rough sleeping strategy. But what is the charity sector doing that has the potential to make a real difference to the problem?

NPC has been researching this area over the last six months, and we want to highlight four approaches in the sector that go beyond current government plans and fundamentally change how we might end homelessness.

Changing public attitudes

The government’s upcoming homelessness strategy will only tackle rough sleeping, and this reflects a wider belief in British society about both what homelessness is and why it exists.

Recent research from the Frameworks Institute highlighted that members of the public overwhelmingly default to three specific prototypes when asked to think about who is at risk of homelessness: middle-aged men, youth and abused women. These stereotypes stop people seeing the full scale of the problem beyond rough sleeping and create a negative attitude towards rough sleepers.

People typically assume that addiction or mental illness are causal factors, which in turn leads them to blame homelessness on the individual and to express a sense of fatalism about what options exist to address the problem.

Frameworks Institute

In a recent consultation conducted by Crisis, Groundswell, and Uscreates people with lived experience of homelessness suggested that sharing their experiences in mainstream media could help change public attitudes towards homeless people, shifting the public from blaming the person to blaming the system.

There’s a public perception that people want to be homeless—it’s all bad media.

Crisis Coventry

Using data to make decisions

Nobody denies the logic of using data to make decisions, but we know that it’s not easy in practice. There’s clear evidence of need in the longitudinal data from the annual Homelessness Monitor.  Evidence of effectiveness, information about the size and shape of the sector, and data on funding and costs is less accessible.

The Centre for Homelessness Impact, a new ‘What Works Centre’ for homelessness, has published a range of evidence tools, highlighting what the evidence tells us about homelessness interventions today and helping us to make smarter decisions about how to tackle the issue. In an environment where many different interventions to reduce homelessness are possible, across different sectors and at all kinds of scales, the Centre’s attention to effectiveness, including cost-effectiveness, is crucial.

Complementing the Centre’s work, NPC is exploring what Charity Commission data and 360 Giving data can tell us about the size and shape of the homelessness sector and funding flows. Hopefully we can identify areas where new funding can be most effective. Our interest in using data and evidence builds on our previous work on what it looks like to use evidence effectively and our experience opening up government administrative data for charities to better understand their impact on beneficiaries.

Asset-based approaches

An asset-based, or ‘strength-based’, approach focuses on ‘what is strong’ in people experiencing homelessness. It then seeks to support them to mobilise, connect and build on those strengths to achieve their desired outcomes. This contrasts with the needs-based, or ‘deficit’, model, which starts from an analysis of problems facing homeless people and then seeks to provide a solution to fix them.

Charities and funders can take an asset-based approach in service delivery, fundraising, funding and campaigning. The charity Mayday Trust provides coaches to work with homeless people to uncover their strengths and aspirations, then creates opportunities for them to connect with their passions. This could be joining a singing club or a sports team, visiting art galleries, or even reigniting a passion for remote-controlled cars. The key to the Mayday Trust model is that it connects people to opportunities outside the usual homelessness pathways.

Pilot programmes have shown positive outcomes. Working with Mayday coaches, homeless people were able to improve their assets in a positive way—but this also led to an improvement in the so-called ‘hard’ outcomes sought by funders and commissioners. 75% of people managed to sustain their tenancy for longer than six months and significant numbers enrolled in education courses, gained employment, or reunited with their families.

Overall we knew we needed to shift the power from the services and the system, to the person.

Pat McArdle, CEO, Mayday Trust

Taking a systems change approach

In anticipation of the government’s imminent Rough Sleeping Strategy, some in the voluntary sector are looking at what it means to change the systems that lead to people to become homeless.

Homeless Link, the national membership charity for organisations working directly with people who become homeless, has called for ‘recognition that rough sleeping is closely linked to poverty, inequality and long-term disadvantage and, as such, ensuring the Rough Sleeping Strategy links in with the wider Government work on these issues.’

We’ve worked on our own systems map to help us understand the different layers of homelessness as an issue and homelessness interventions. We’ve used this to keep our eye on the big picture and as a helpful conversation starter with funders and charities. It’s by no means perfect, and if you’ve got feedback for us we’d love to hear it!

The homelessness crisis is increasingly urgent. Funders and philanthropists may find themselves wanting to do something to help, but not knowing how to provide effective support. We hope that our work to make sense of existing data, highlight promising approaches, and map the systems around homelessness will help funders to know how to make a difference.

If you are interested in hearing more or if you would like to help take this programme forward, please get in touch at