Housing First

Meet the team taking chronic rough sleepers off the streets of Dublin and giving them their own home

The Housing First team in Dublin are at the forefront of the battle to end homelessness in Ireland.

90438195_90438195 A homeless person walking through the streets of Dublin. Leon Farrell / Leon Farrell / /

You always see quotes floating around whenever the hard questions are asked, people saying – ‘there will always be homelessness’. I don’t believe that at all.There might always be an emergency at times when people need shelter and support… but homelessness as it stands today, that doesn’t need to be there.

I fundamentally believe that to be wrong and the Housing First project is a chance to prove that.

- Adrian Quinn, Housing First manager

IN AN UNASSUMING building on Eustace Street in Temple Bar – with a white facade and the words “Housing First” on a sign above the window – a dedicated team works hard every day to end long-term homelessness.

The Housing First service – overseen by workers from the Focus Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust – is at the forefront of the efforts of getting people on the streets back into homes.

It does this through an innovative, research-based practice that was barely considered as a possible approach in Ireland a decade ago – it gives them homes.

The Housing First team is made up of about 20 people – including healthcare professionals, outreach workers, and property managers – who work every day throughout the year to fulfil this goal.

Adrian Quinn – a manager with the service – tells on a walk through the inner city about how it works.

IMG_20170126_111726 The Housing First building in Temple Bar. COrmac Fitzgerald / COrmac Fitzgerald / /

“The principles behind it is that you target the most long-term and chronic street homeless – the ones who have historically been kept out of housing and have not been able to maintain the most basic of emergency accommodation,” says Adrian.

“If you provide a home for these people and you bring the support in afterwards, they’re able to sustain it.

They’re able to recover from poor mental health or physical health issues, addiction – whatever trauma and issues that are going on – they’re able to recover.

In the past, homelessness services in Ireland and much of Europe and the US were geared towards a staircase model of recovery.

Under this, a homeless person would have to advance towards a home by first proving that they could live in a homeless shelter, maybe successfully complete drug or alcohol rehabilitation programmes, and essentially work their up way to a secure, permanent home.

Housing First flipped this model on its head – with a secure, safe, permanent home with support being the primary goal; and recovery, therapy or whatever else is needed coming after that.

The approach was pioneered in 1992 in New York by Dr. Sam Tsemberis. In Ireland, a shift away from the staircase model and towards Housing first was signalled in the 2011 Programme for Government.

25/2/2016 General Election Campaigns Starts The 2011 Fine Gael Labour Government was the first to signal a shift towards a housing-led approach to ending homelessness.

It was explicitly contained in policy documents around tackling homelessness from that point on. However, Adrian and his team only began to hit the streets to put the plan to the test in late-2014, following a successful pilot programme.

The service is funded by the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE), which manages homelessness services across the four Dublin local authorities.

Adrian (who has been working in homelessness services for over 12 years) says that it took a long time to convince officials to move away from the traditional model towards Housing First, but that the effectiveness approach should have spoken for itself.

“The whole notion of being ‘ready for housing’ is a ridiculous idea in itself,” says Adrian.

Can you imagine someone saying to you: ‘You’re not ready for a home? You’re not ready for safety and shelter?’ It wouldn’t make sense.

Emergency measures vs long term

Put simply, once a person becomes homeless there are both short and long-term measures in place to help them.

Short-term, emergency measures include feeding and clothing people, giving them shelter in hostel accommodation, and maintaining their basic physical and mental health.

Short-term measures are also very costly, with hostel and, increasingly, hotel and B&B accommodation costing the state tens of millions per year.

So, while these measures are essential to the well-being and support of people who find themselves homeless, they do little to actually get a person of the streets and back into their own home.

To do that, longer-term measures – like key workers, care plans, housing officers and, of course, housing – are needed.

Housing First fits into the long-term solution of working towards actually ending homelessness in Ireland. Adrian Quinn feels that too much of the debate around homelessness focuses on short-term measures, rather than long-term.

“We need to stop this idea where we only deal with one crisis at a time… and start focussing on how we can tackle this issue properly,” he says.

IMG_20170126_111438 Adrian Quinn says too much focus is given to short-term measures to help homeless people at the expense of long-term solutions. Cormac Fitzgerald Cormac Fitzgerald

Housing First and how it works

To date, the Housing First programme has succeeded in getting 71 people who had been living long-term on the streets into a home.

One of the key principles of the initiative is that it targets the most chronic, long-term, entrenched homeless people with a view to providing them with homes.

“We’re doing it for this group here to show that the programme works,” says Adrian.

Once we house this group we can then move outwards to other vulnerable people who find themselves homeless.

Adrian says that focussing on the most chronic cases of homelessness is important, as these are the ones who people had given up complete hope for being housed.

From the building on Eustace Street, a team of about 20 people work 365 days in the year in order to help people secure and sustain their own homes.

Simply, the Housing First project can be broken into two teams:

  1. The intake team
  2. The support team

The nine or so members of the intake team go out on the street from 7am in the morning until about 1am at night (although Adrian says it’s often much later) every day of the year.

Their job is liaise with chronic rough sleepers and at risk homeless people throughout the day across the entire Dublin area.

90438202_90438202 File photo of a rough sleeper on the streets of Dublin Leon Farrell / Leon Farrell / /

“A lot of people in this group… have been left down so many times from their original community, to services, to housing and local authorities that there’s not a lot of trust there,” says Adrian.

Many studies have documented the severe ill effects that being homeless long term can have on a person’s mental and physical health. In Ireland, a person is defined as long-term homeless when they have lived in emergency accommodation for more than six months.

The people the Housing First team deals with have typically been homeless for many years, sometimes decades.

Adrian says that one person the team has successfully housed had been rough sleeping for 22 years “that [the person] could remember”.

Over the past two years, the intake team have been working with these people – building up strong relationships and trust and moving them towards long-term housing.

IMG_20170126_110934 Temple Bar. Cormac Fitzgerald Cormac Fitzgerald

While they perform this core function, the intake team also functions as an outreach service for other homeless people who may find themselves on the streets.

They work with vulnerable people, linking them up with other services in the city.

The Housing First project also has about 30-40 beds ringfenced each night to house people in need temporarily.

Adrian estimates that the service helps get a 1,000 placements in nightly emergency accommodation per month through these beds.

So, in essence, the intake team works to pursue the goals of the Housing First service (housing the long-term homeless), while also performing the functions of an outreach service (helping the vulnerable and those who have been on the streets for shorter periods of time).

Housing and support 

Once a person has been housed through the programme, they’re given wrap around support – which is the second function of the Housing First project.

“Relationships that are built up with the intake team are carried through when the person gets housed,” says Adrian.

“The service isn’t tied to time. The things that happen to a person when they’re homeless can be deeply traumatising.

It’s not about just being housed, it’s actually about recovering from that as well and the length of time that takes – everybody’s different,  and people should be given the length of time that they need.

In order to ensure people are properly cared for, the support team is made up of social care workers, counsellors, addiction specialists and others.

Ultimately, the goal is to build up someone’s resilience so that they can sustain they’re tenancy and remain in their home – and just be happy.

Targets and the future 

The Housing First programme initially had a target of 100 tenancies by the end of this year.

Last July, as part of the Homelessness Action Plan, Housing Minister Simon Coveney tripled down on this figure – increasing the number of tenancies to be achieved under Housing First to 300 by the end of this year.

download (8) Simon Coveney increased the number of tenancies to be reached by the end of the year to 300. Sam Boal / Sam Boal / /

Can this ambitious target be achieved?

“We were set up originally to house a 100 people and we’re on track to do that,” says Adrian.

“But again the issue comes down to supply – if I had a hundred sets of keys now I’d house a hundred people. But the housing has been the most challenging aspect.”

While he states that raising the target to 300 people housed would be great – a lot more supply will have to come onstream for this target to be reached.

“We’ll have to get the supply for this to be possible,” he says.

However, the Government has begun to shift responsibility to social housing away from buildings and towards the private rental market.

“If they want to move towards the private rental market as viable alternative to social housing, then security of tenure needs to the same. As things stand it’s not,” says Adrian.

Adrian points to soaring rents, evictions from buy-to-let properties and a lack of proper tenant rights as reasons for the increases in homelessness.

More people become homeless every month, and as housing supply dwindles in the country people are moving out of homelessness a lot slower than in the past.

“To be honest, in the current market, we couldn’t have picked a worse time to start a Housing First programme,” says Adrian.

“But it’s also exactly the right time to do it.

“The market is the way it is, housing availability is the way it is, and the pressure and the visibility and the outcry about homelessness are there as well.

“So all the ingredients are there to just focus on emergency measures and say we’ll worry about the housing measures afterwards.

So this is the time when we need to be fighting tooth and claw to actually say and show that getting housing in place is the only way we’ll end homelessness.

Read: What’s being done to help people sleeping rough cope with this freezing cold weather?

Read: The vow to end homelessness by Christmas? Not going to happen

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