The former Herts rough sleeper being given the chance of a normal Christmas

In town centres across our county, rough sleepers are a far too common sight.

It’s easy to think that the problem could be solved by building more homes, and while they are needed, there are much deeper issues that also have to be tackled.

For many rough sleepers, being handed a key is just the first step in a return to normality, rather than the full solution.

In Dacorum and St Albans, Hertfordshire, a scheme operated by Hightown Housing Association is trying to flip the current approach on its head to offer long-term stability for the most vulnerable.

The ‘Housing First’ scheme has had success around the world, including in parts of the US and Europe, and it’s most notably a big part of Finland’s strategy – the only EU country where homeless numbers are falling.

One of those to benefit from the Housing First scheme right here in Herts is Malcolm, 46, who had struggled with alcohol and drug addiction.

He had been sleeping rough for five years before being given a house in March, and with it, a chance.

“I still sleep on the floor to this day”

Malcolm and his caseworker Nikki Thompson
(Image: Hightown Housing Association)

The support provided by Housing First ranges from helping people to furnish their homes to taking clients to medical appointments, or even helping with more personal support as they try to readjust.

Malcolm said that most people underestimate how difficult it is for homeless people to move back into a more normal life.

He said: “It takes a hell of a lot, believe it or not, to adapt from living on the street and back to living in a house.

“I still sleep on the floor to this day, people don’t realise how much it affects you from living on the streets to trying to move back inside again.

“It’s completely different – even your dreams, I dream about sleeping outside, I don’t ever dream of sleeping inside because I didn’t sleep inside.”

While other schemes would have seen Malcolm’s new home as an end result, within Housing First, this is where the work really begins.

He added: “That’s the main thing about this, it’s not like, ‘here’s your place, get on with it, if you mess up, it’s down to you’.

“There’s been none of that, they’ve basically said here’s a flat and I’ve got a key worker basically 24 hours a day if I’m in trouble at all – it’s unreal the support I’ve got.”

“It’s like having an angel on my shoulder”

Malcolm describes his case worker, Nikki Thompson, as “like having a really good friend that you can rely on”.

He added: “It’s like having my own little angel sitting on my shoulder.”

Nikki currently has six clients, meaning she can provide that care whenever it’s needed and build the required connection during such a big change.

She said: “The good thing is the support is driven by the client, so it goes at their pace, it’s not like ‘we have to do this, we have to do that’, it’s working with them at their pace and when they want to.

“We’re working with people that have been repeated users of homeless services and can be very chaotic in their presentation, because obviously, there are issues with their mental health.

How is Housing First funded?

Hightown Housing Association funds the scheme with a £100,000 grant from the Rough Sleeper Initative.

This is money provided by central Government, but allocated to local councils for projects in their area.

The funding was awarded by St Albans Borough Council and Dacorum Council in 2019, and will expire in March 2021 with no concrete funding in place for beyond that.

However, Gemma Richardson is confident that others will see the worth of the scheme.

She said: “We are in the second year of that fund and it’s due to end in March 2021 – so beyond that time we have no guarantee of any funding, and for us our aim is to secure more permanent funding for this type of project.

“As it stands, we’ve just jumped in. Regardless of whether the funding ends in March, it’s a really valuable service, and it’s working for some very complex people.

“If funding disappears, we’ll deal with it because we felt that strongly about it.

“We’re starting to ramp up our efforts with our stakeholders and with various people to say, ‘look, let’s make this a permanent offer’, and speaking with commissioners, local authorities, and trying to get them to consider embedding Housing First into their commissioning model for homelessness services.”

Councillor Jacqui Taylor, St Albans City and District Council’s Portfolio Holder for Housing, Inclusion and Protection, said: “We are committed to tackling homelessness and rough sleeping in the District.

“The Housing First initiative is making a real difference to the lives of a significant number of vulnerable people in St Albans whose needs were previously going unmet.

“Thanks to the Government grant, we are able to support former rough sleepers to make positive changes to their life while maintaining a successful tenancy.”

“We work with a lot of people that have drug and alcohol addictions, so to address everything at once wouldn’t be good.

“So let’s start with one problem and then we move forward, get that under control, and then move on to the next one.”

Malcolm admits that he’s had blips with his addictions during his time in the house, but thanks to Hightown, and specifically Nikki’s help, he’s managed to stay off the streets.

Hightown also operates three homeless shelters, including Open Door in St Albans, and they are registered as social landlords.

Gemma Richardson, Housing First delivery lead and Head of Care and Supported Housing, explains that the scheme felt like a natural extension when the opportunity arose late last year.

She explained: “We’ve got a night shelter in St Albans and we run other homelessness projects across both the St Albans and Dacorum area, so we knew that there was this small group of individuals in both district areas who were either doing the revolving door thing – continuous stays in shelters – or losing their accommodation, because they just couldn’t sustain that type of living [and] the communal shared environment.

“There was a small group of people [for whom] there was just not an option available to them that’s working.

“We knew that and although we were engaging with those individuals through our assertive outreach teams, nothing was really working for them.

“When the opportunity arose for us to deliver the project and some funding, we jumped at the chance. It fitted in very nicely to what we’re already doing and what we were very good at and so it seemed like a natural progression for us.”

“Homeless people usually have to jump through hoops, but we give them the house first”

The big difference Gemma believes Housing First offers is that clients don’t have to earn the right to their own space through a long, unstable process.

She added: “They’re all self contained flats so people aren’t being made to jump through hoops.

“The typical offer for a ‘standard typical homeless person’ is that they have to prove themselves through staying in different levels of accommodation but gradually, if you’re good, it might result in you getting your own home.

“This gets rid of that. We give you your home first, and that will give you a settled base from which you can start rebuilding your life and everything else will come afterwards.

“But first and foremost, you need security and a roof over your head so that you can start from somewhere.”

For Malcolm, who still worries that one day he might lose all of his progress, that kind of stability has been vital in allowing him to rebuild his life.

He said: “I know the difference in the help I’m receiving now and what it’s like to try and do it on your own, so I can appreciate the difference.

“The decisions I’ve being given, literally I couldn’t have done it, there’s no way I could have done it.

“It’s been proven and tested because I’ve already been through it all and couldn’t do it then, so I know I couldn’t do it now. These people just deserve a medal, that’s all I can say, they deserve an award.”

When asked about the challenges of a second lockdown on the scheme and also keeping people motivated, Malcolm starts to consider the festive season being cancelled entirely as restrictions continue, although Nikki is quick to jump in.

“I’m working Christmas day – I’ll make sure we all have a fabulous Christmas,” she said.

HertsLive – Hemel Hempstead