Systems change just might be possible…

As we look to the conclusion of the Justlife/IPPR qualitative research project this autumn we won’t be mourning it’s end; instead, we will be celebrating the groundwork it has achieved in preparing for what is next! The research has been investigating the impact on health and wellbeing of the single homeless living in unsupported temporary accommodation (UTA) in Brighton and Manchester. This issue is a national issue – not confined to these two cities. In March 2016, funded by LankellyChase Foundation, we began to scope out whether there could be a systematic response to the problems in UTA and if that response could be scalable to the national level.

The first stage of the scoping project is about listening and fact finding. We are visiting localities throughout England in order to initiate conversations, asking: whether UTA exists in the area; what the conditions are like; what service’s experience of UTA is and also what kind of support (if any) tenants are receiving. So, far we have visited Blackburn, Hastings, Newcastle, Eastbourne, Brighton, Manchester and spoken to individuals from Preston, Blackpool, East Sussex County Council and Tunbridge Wells. These conversations have highlighted that challenging social and poor environmental issues are consistently worrying across the country in spite of varied local systems. But stakeholders are not brushing these issues under the carpet or turning a blind eye and there is a real desire to be engaged in change-making conversations on a local and wider level.

There are already examples of change-making in the form of highly effective initiatives are happening across the country. Blackburn with Darwen Council is working with landlords of UTA to improve conditions and are encouraging them to engage with in-tenancy support. The council has had an extremely positive response, with all landlords signing up to a higher set of standards and agreeing to work with the local authority. Sunderland City Council appointed an Environmental Health Officer whose sole responsibility is UTA. This has had incredible impact on improving the conditions in the properties used as UTA, as well as improving landlord relations and building links with and signposting hard-to-reach tenants.

Change is also afoot in Manchester. One of our research recommendations was a call to create local Temporary Accommodation Boards, drawing together statutory, emergency and voluntary services connected to UTA and the accommodation’s tenants to address the social and environmental challenges presented. We are in the beginnings of a Temporary Accommodation Board pilot in Manchester as part of the city’s Homelessness Charter initiative. In the first month we have already seen positive changes, including: an improvement in referral pathways into UTA and the effective involvement of individuals with lived experience.

Visiting different localities and regions has also highlighted complexities as well as exiting change-making initiatives. The difficulty of a national systemic approach is the variety of systems into which UTA fits. Even the term UTA feels awkward as the accommodation is referred to in so many different ways: private hostels, B&Bs, private hotels, emergency accommodation, guesthouses and HMOs are just a few. There is little uniformity around support available, systems and approaches to address issues or not. Social and environmental conditions do vary across the country, however there are common problems across localities and their systems, including: untenable living conditions, rogue landlords, feelings of no control, lack of move-on accommodation, lack of support and endemic use of drugs and alcohol.

Despite differences and complexities, there is a shared acknowledgement of UTA as an issue and a strong interest in being involved in systems change on the local and national level. Homelessness has reached a new level of crisis in the UK and as services and local authorities are overstretched and underfunded. In response, the government, councils and services are asking questions and looking for systemic and innovative solutions; Last month the government held their first select committee on homelessness in 15 years! Whilst we recognise that Justlife alone does not hold all the answers, we are standing in a time and sector asking for change. As we continue to scope out the possibility of local and national responses to the issues of UTA – we are gaining momentum indicating that real change for the extremely vulnerable individuals housed in some of the UKs worst quality accommodation (UTA) just might be possible.

If you would like to join the conversation or find out more please contact me: Christa Maciver christa@justlife.org.uk