Housing First: 5 lessons from across the pond

On her recent trip to New York, our Investment Manager Karen Ng has met up with Ana Stefancic, a Housing First (HS) expert and researcher at Columbia University. Ana shares her experiences from implementing and researching HF for almost two decades.


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Here are the 5 key lessons for practitioners in the UK to reflect on:

Create a system, not a program

HF is often implemented as a standalone program, but it is crucial to create an entire system that reflects the same type of values and expediency to address homelessness.

It is important to:

  • Consider key HF principles such as choice, flexibility, and eliminating barriers to housing across all homelessness initiatives
  • Set clear criteria to identify who are going to access different types of services (including but not limited to HF) that is rooted in specific local context
  • Have in place sufficient and appropriate financing for a range of provision (both housing and services) before outreach, so that we are providing genuine offers to clients. 

Questions to ponder: How well are we aligning the principles, practical implementation and financing for HF services within the broader context of homelessness system?

Think longer term

It is key to consider sustainability from Day 1.

This means taking a long-term view on funding housing and services, to prevent a cliff-edge scenario when a pilot initiative end. We should learn from the challenges and successes of Canadians’ experiences to minimise potential disruptions to clients and providers in Housing First programs, including engaging funding and policy stakeholders early on, cultivating local champions, and fostering collaboration among providers in different sectors.

To accomplish this, it is equally important to embed ways to demonstrate and improve the effectiveness of HF interventions from the outset, for example by collecting quantitative data and qualitative stories, and by creating appropriate frameworks for monitoring and evaluation.

Questions to ponder: How can we improve sustainability of different sources of funding? Have we created effective feedback loops across multiple stakeholders to learn from and improve implementation of HF?

Factor in additional services and costs

Availability does not equal accessibility. 

HF case workers often connect clients with a range of specialist services, such as physical or mental health support. However, services that are available to the wider community does not automatically mean that they are easily accessible by the client, or a good match to address the client’s specific needs. For example, if mental health issues have been identified as a common need across a majority of the client group, a HF service may be significantly more effective if it has access to dedicated psychiatrist support (for example, for 1 day a week). In addition to service provision, it is also easy to overlook certain aspects of housing costs, such as costs associated with furniture, repairs, moving and voids.

Questions to ponder: Are crucial services easily accessible to our clients? Have we factored in “hidden” housing costs?

Incentivise private landlords

Private landlords can be incentivised in multiple ways.

Private rented sector is often a key source of housing for HF clients. Guaranteed deposit or rental payment schemes have often been used to provide incentives for private landlords to participate in HF services. In addition to decent financial return, private landlords are also looking for services that are responsive so that there is someone to turn to when issues arise. Specialist providers with credibility and experiences in working with tenants with complex needs can bring reassurance and provide property management support to landlords. In practice, non-monetary approaches such as organising landlord appreciation nights or sharing positive stories of tenants are also effective ways to engage with private landlords.

Questions to ponder: Have we effectively incentivise private landlords via monetary and non-monetary approaches?

Invest in frontline staff

It requires time and nurturing to get buy-in from staff. 

Frontline staff may be used to a certain way of working that is very different from HF. It is important to invest in both technical training and be clear about the mindset shifts required for providers to transition into HF services.

Questions to ponder: Do we have in place well trained, mission-aligned and dedicated staff to deliver HF services?

Big Society Capital is actively looking for partners to co-develop investment solutions to provide homes for people in need.  If you or your organisation is also working on innovative ways to implement housing first, please get in touch with Karen.