In practice: Helping people experiencing long-term homelessness across Greater Manchester

Changing official systems was vital to helping people experiencing homelessness

When Andy Burnham was elected Mayor of Great Manchester in 2017, his highest-profile pledge was to eliminate rough sleeping in the region. But to have any hope of turning this promise into reality, professionals realised that services would need to start interacting in very different ways.

A new organisation, Greater Manchester Homes Partnership (GMHP), was set up. Its first task was to persuade 20 housing associations, led by One Manchester and Trafford Housing Trust, to provide over 300 properties to rough sleepers. Social housing was already a scarce resource, with a 12,900-strong waiting list, and many of these individuals had been specifically barred from it. As Anne Duffield of Manchester Move, which manages the city’s social housing lettings, explains: “We’re sticklers for housing to be distributed through our allocations policy. But most of the rough sleepers would have been excluded under the allocations policy, either because they had had a bad tenancy in the past or because they owed us money.”

So the first step was to set aside the allocations policy. However, there was a more pressing problem if people sleeping rough were to be kept off the streets.

“The bigger issue was not allocating the properties; they were a small proportion of the 7,500 let out by the city over the three years,“ explains Duffield. “It was that housing associations were nervous. What if they rehoused someone who then caused problems?”

“I was a fully paid-up advocate of our new approach, but, sometimes, even I felt unsure. As a landlord for social housing, I was mindful that the people next door are just as important as those we were rehousing. We had to think hard, ensuring that our accommodation working group discussed with delivery partners how we were going to do things differently. We had to decide about protocols to provide ‘managed moves’ for people if things did not work out, rather than just abandoning them.”

From evictions to ‘managed moves’

Peter was one beneficiary of these system changes. Peter had been sleeping rough and using drugs for several years until he got his own flat, thanks to the Greater Manchester policy. However, feeling vulnerable, Peter had allowed former associates into the flat. He was assaulted, and his home badly damaged and used for drug distribution. Normal practice would have resulted in an eviction. But not this time. In Greater Manchester, multiple agencies had committed to offering second, third, fourth and fifth chances; whatever it took.

“Services have been willing to tear up their old procedures to focus on working together to help people in a new way”

A ‘managed move’ out of the area was agreed, and Peter’s wrap-around support moved with him. As a result, Peter has sustained the new tenancy, feels safe and is settled in his home.

It’s a similar story for dozens of other rough sleepers who have also undergone managed moves when tenancies didn’t work out.

Improving access to mental health support

Another significant benefit came from improved interactions with the health system. GMHP seconded a specialist mental health nurse to work with individuals sleeping rough. This made a big difference, because people who are using drugs often find that, until they sort out that issue, they cannot access mental health support. Hiring a nurse, qualified to provide dual mental health and drug addiction diagnoses, overcame this barrier to speedy care. It also helped rough sleepers to access statutory mental health services in a format which suited their needs: for example, having nurses and other support workers visit them at home, rather than them having to attend an appointment in a setting that feels unfamiliar or unsafe. This successful innovation has since been widely adopted by other programmes.

Working with the justice system

Meanwhile, another system problem emerged. Once a vulnerable individual was successfully housed, and registered for support services and welfare benefits, a court summons would often arrive for a minor offence committed in the past, as the criminal justice system caught up with them. This can be a major setback: a short spell in prison will often undo progress, and people end up back on the streets or worse.

So GMHP worked with the justice system to change its interactions with rough sleepers. Remarkably, it was able to agree that continued engagement with the programme would be deemed acceptable in lieu of custody.

For example, Ben had just moved into his own flat, when he received a court summons for a minor offence in the city.

In court, the GM Homes Partnership wrote to the presiding magistrate advising of Ben’s progress over the previous 18 months on the scheme. The magistrate told him: “This letter is the only reason you are not going into custody today. I hope you will continue this work with this project, and the progress you have shown.”

Providing easy access to digital ID

The team also realised that navigating official bureaucracy can be a nightmare for those experiencing homelessness, because they may lack formal identification. That can be a big barrier to living independently, because they cannot access bank accounts, employment, income and housing. They wanted a way to store their ID safely and accessibly. So a biometric ID system was created, with data stored safely in a virtual location. All the key public agencies and banks agreed that ID could be printed off from this source and could serve to, for example, open accounts and access income. This systems innovation may also enable individuals to access publicly-funded training and skills-building programmes to help them progress towards paid employment.

The result of overcoming these systemic barriers was high levels of satisfaction among people experiencing long-term homelessness – who are often wary of official support. One person said of his support worker: “He did more for me than any other worker ever. He didn’t leave nothing to chance. He went for 100 per cent and never faltered from it.”

Following the success of GMHP, a new partnership was set up to tackle homelessness, but this time with a focus on prevention. The Greater Manchester Better Outcomes Partnership has already helped over 500 young people who were at risk of becoming homeless.