When I put this question to Suzanne Fitzpatrick, a professor of housing and social policy at Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh, and an expert on global homelessness, she told me the “housing first” model—which rests on the notion that the best and most cost-effective way to solve chronic homelessness is to give people homes first, and then help them find their footing—is already widely accepted, having been used in other places, such as Finland, which last year all but eradicated rough sleeping in its capital, Helsinki. “For the great majority of the homeless population, what they want and what they need is their own self-contained accommodation and ordinary neighborhoods with the support that they require to sustain that accommodation,” Fitzpatrick said. “And that’s what all the evidence of housing first tells us works best.”
The “Everyone In” program has proved this as well. Lorraine Tabone, the founder of a community group called Lola’s Homeless, which serves rough sleepers in the East London borough of Newham, told me that the pandemic presented a “golden opportunity” for unhoused people in her community, which has the highest rate of homelessness in the country. When I first met Tabone in early February, dozens of the people she and her volunteers worked with could be found sleeping in an old shopping center. Since the lockdown was imposed, the shopping center has closed and many of its former inhabitants have been moved into hotels. Tabone said that of the more than 200 unhoused people in Newham who were sheltered through “Everyone In,” a handful have moved on to other temporary accommodations. Some have even found jobs.“There are some good stories coming out of it,” Tabone said. “It just shows how they can end homelessness overnight … With money, things can be done.”
But solutions like the housing-first model aren’t cheap, requiring the types of investment that the British government has only recently shown itself willing to spend. Finland, for example, spent about €300 million, or about $343 million, over a decade to create 3,500 new homes and hire 300 support workers. In the long term, though, studies have shown that this type of spending results in savings, particularly when it comes to emergency health care, social services, and the criminal-justice system. While the cost of ending homelessness is high, the cost of letting it continue it is significantly higher.
Though Britain’s recent spending splurge offers a raft of emergency measures that address the issue, including a temporary ban on evictions and an additional £105 million ($132 million) in funding to keep those who have been housed during the pandemic off the streets, it’s unclear how long that kind of funding will last, or who will have access to it. One concern facing local authorities and charities right now is whether this money will be accessible to those who are ineligible for state benefits—a group that includes possibly thousands of undocumented migrants, European nationals who are not permanent residents, and people with pending immigration cases. While the government’s push to house people at the start of lockdown initially disregarded whether those being housed were eligible for public funds, charities such as Crisis and Glass Door have expressed concern that restrictions could apply to future funding.