Oxford City Council is increasing its investment in preventing homelessness and rough sleeping to £9.1m in 2021/21 – 44% higher than before the pandemic struck.
In 2019/20, the last full year before the pandemic, the council spent £6.3m on preventing homelessness and rough sleeping.
For 2020/21, the council originally budgeted £7.4m on homelessness prevention. The increase was intended to allow full opening of the assessment hub and shelter in Floyds Row, fund more than 220 beds for rough sleepers in Oxford and provide a wide range of support to prevent families from becoming homeless.
As England went into the first lockdown in March the government issued an ‘everyone in’ direction for councils to provide emergency housing for rough sleepers and vulnerable homeless people to prevent the spread of the virus.
The ‘everyone in’ response and short-term funding to provide this from the Next Steps Accommodation Programme (NSAP) means that the council now expects to spend £8.9m this year.
The short-term NSAP funding currently ends in March 2021, and the council originally expected to invest £8.2m in homelessness prevention in 2021/21. A further award of medium-term funding from the NSAP means that the council’s overall homelessness prevention budget for next year now stands at £9.1m.
Continuing the transformation of homelessness services
The two awards of NSAP funding will help the council deliver the new approach to preventing rough sleeping that began in 2019 and that has continued throughout the pandemic.
Since the first lockdown in March, the council has offered accommodation to everyone experiencing rough sleeping in Oxford. The short-term funding awarded in September will allow the ‘everyone in’ approach to continue and help people move on into private rented housing.
The new award of medium-term funding facilitates the provision of women-only and winter shelter accommodation by Aspire. It will also help the council to deliver 20 permanent Housing First homes with the support that people need to prevent a return to the streets.
Housing First and last and always
Traditionally, people who have experienced rough sleeping in the UK tend to move from the streets to independent living in stages. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘staircase’ model. It assumes that people need to engage with support like mental health and addiction services before they are ready to move on to the next stage.
In Oxford, the staircase would typically involve assessment at the sit up service in O’Hanlon House, followed by a place in one of the city’s hostels and then supported accommodation in shared housing. Former rough sleepers would usually have to navigate these stages in turn before they could move on into independent housing.
While this approach can work well for people prepared to engage with support and who can cope in shared environments, it can be ineffective for people with complex support needs. In recent years, there has been an increase in ‘housing led’ approaches to help people who have slept rough long term or who have repeatedly returned to the streets.
A housing led approach such as Housing First turns the staircase upside down. Rather than asking people to show they are ready to become more independent before moving to the next stage, it says that mainstream housing should be offered immediately and without preconditions. Wraparound support can then be provided to help them maintain their tenancies.
The Housing First approached was first used in New York by the Pathways to Housing programme in 1992. It has since been widely adopted across the USA and also plays a significant role in preventing homelessness in Canada, Finland and Denmark.
Evaluation of initiatives such as Pathways to Housing programme suggest that Housing First can help up to four fifths of former rough sleepers while also reducing pressure on other public services.
The council is working with Oxfordshire County Council, neighbouring districts and other local partners to develop a system wide approach to tackling homelessness across Oxfordshire. A countywide steering group is in the process of developing a housing led strategy for tackling homelessness, with a focus on single people and rough sleepers.
Housing vulnerable homeless people during the pandemic
The government issued the ‘everyone in’ direction for English councils to provide emergency housing on 26 March. In Oxford, this included people sleeping on the streets and those in Floyds Row and the sit up (assessment) service at O’Hanlon House.
The council moved quickly to comply with the direction and secured 121 self-contained hotel and student rooms within two weeks. As the first lockdown eased and leasing agreements with hotels and colleges came to an end in July, the council leased the YHA and Canterbury House to provide 118 rooms of interim housing for another year.
Interim housing is a bridge between the emergency accommodation and more sustainable housing. It also means that the council can provide accommodation and support for people becoming homeless now and for the rest of 2020/21.
So far the council has housed 291 people under ‘everyone in’ arrangements. Of these, 121 have been supported into more permanent housing and this includes a number of people who had been sleeping rough on a long term basis.
“Nobody should have to sleep rough in Oxford and increased investment in preventing homelessness during the pandemic demonstrates our commitment to protecting the most vulnerable people in our community.
“Everyone in is a national initiative. But I am proud of the way we have implemented it locally. We are an inclusive community with a globally recognised and important role to play in the pandemic. As a city, we always think of others. At this time of year, in this year of all years, it is especially poignant.
“Our investment and the tireless work of partners like Aspire and St Mungo’s strengthens our ability to provide support – and hope – to people experiencing rough sleeping and vulnerable homeless people in these challenging times.”
Councillor Mike Rowley, cabinet member for affordable housing and housing the homeless