Wales' Housing First Network
Wales' Housing First Network
By Alex Osmond
I recently spoke at a Frontline Network Housing First event participating as one of four speakers discussing Housing First in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – the last of these being my patch. It was interesting to hear about different approaches, as well as the challenges and issues for Housing First that some or all of us are experiencing.
I’ll provide more detail about why I think Wales’ approach of assembling a Housing First Network has been very effective in some ways, but challenging in others.
The Housing First Network in Wales was formed in December 2017. At the time, the Welsh Government was more frequently referring to Housing First as a model that can effectively support people with complex needs and experiencing homelessness. Soon afterwards, Senedd committees and the Homelessness Action Group, would reinforce this by calling for a more concerted approach to Housing First.
Cymorth Cymru established the Network to ensure Housing First could develop properly in Wales, and to help guide and work with the government to shape the model. The Network is made up of support providers, local and national government officials, and representatives from other sectors vital to Housing First (criminal justice, to name one example).
The Network developed the Housing First principles we use in Wales, based on those drawn up by Homeless Link, with some additions reflecting the context and focus in Wales; for example, the concerted work on trauma- and psychologically-informed support in the eighth principle, as well as the state of accommodation in Wales by invoking the UN in the first principle. The Network continues to discuss strategic issues affecting the model.
Reporting to the Network are various sub groups: Communications; Housing Management; Housing First for Youth; Health and Care, and, imminently, the Housing First for Women sub group, which is in development.
The Communications Sub Group discusses how best to communicate about, promote, and develop understanding of Housing First, with audiences inside and outside the sector. The Housing Management Sub Group published the Housing First Charter, and acts as a forum for social landlords to have discussions about managing Housing First properties. The Housing First for Youth Sub Group focuses on how the model can work to support young people in Wales, while the Health and Care Sub Group examines the interaction between the Health and Care systems and the Housing First model.
As the coronavirus pandemic began, we also set up the Housing First Operational group. This is a forum for people delivering Housing First on a daily basis, allowing them to discuss issues they’re facing, share good practice in terms of addressing the impact of coronavirus, and to flag up challenges that need reporting to Welsh Government. You can find an initial report into good practice for Housing First projects during the pandemic here.
If anyone is setting up similar groups associated with Housing First or homelessness and support more generally, you might find it useful to think about the points below; these are things we focused on as we established the groups.
Creating an open, honest space
Ensuring that conversations are open, and that people feel comfortable being honest, has been vital. Nobody is judged for what they say. This has enabled us to tackle real issues faced by support providers who haven’t been daunted by the idea of raising them.
Not being scared of challenges
Similarly, we’ve encouraged participants to talk about failures and challenges, as much as positive experiences. It has taken us a little while to even get comfortable using the word ‘failure’. Ultimately, if we want other people to commit to Housing First, we have to be completely honest about the potential issues that might appear along the way, so we can pre-empt concerns with solutions.
Ensuring the right people are in the room
We’ve worked hard to ensure that a mix of organisations, viewpoints and roles are included in our meetings. For example, people might attend because they will soon be delivering Housing First support, even though they aren’t doing so currently. Similarly, there are people outside the housing sector who attend, so we can think through where and how different stakeholders fit into Housing First together. Actually supporting people via the model depends on a wide variety of sectors and people, and our meetings reflect this reality.
Having a clear purpose, but being prepared for freeform, open discussion
Groups and meetings should have, for the most part, clear purposes and agendas. With some exceptions, as you’ll read shortly, we have Terms of Reference for the groups, and role descriptions for the Chairs. This clarify of purpose means that participants can focus on specific parts of large, complex topics, depending on their remit. That said, some of the most interesting discussions arise from tangents; I can think of several examples of effective chairing allowing conversations to grow and develop, even if they haven’t appeared on an agenda.
Getting the ‘tone’ right
The Housing First Operational group I’ve mentioned doesn’t operate in the same ‘formal’ way as the other groups. We take notes for general reference, not scrutinising what specific people have said. We don’t prepare agendas, but focus on updating colleagues and then conversations flow from there. People are welcome to drop in and out of meetings according to their availability. We wanted to ensure that, during a time of intense online meetings in March, this was a less formal forum focussed on conversation and sharing. From my perspective this has been successful. If a meeting doesn’t need documents, agendas, and complex notes, don’t force those things upon it.
There have, of course, been challenges. In particular, working to get buy in from external stakeholders has been difficult, as we heard during the online discussion we all participated in recently. This is understandable, of course. During such challenging times, we all have our own priorities and, quite often, large workloads. For instance, the aim of the Health and Care sub group – to move from a Wales where there are dedicated individuals facilitating isolated examples of excellent interaction between Housing First and health, to a Wales where such excellent practice is built-in and systemic. Ideally, we want to see buy-in to Housing First from the top to the bottom of the Health system. At best of times, this would be a challenging aim. Working with this group has taught me that the housing, homelessness and health sectors work in very different ways; I am still learning about how to recognise this and facilitate the right kind of collaboration.
Ultimately, each part of the UK is at a different point in its Housing First journey. There is evidence from across the world that attests to the strength of the model, but we need to find the right local approach to delivering it, while staying true to its most core principles. Discussions like the one we had recently are incredibly useful opportunities to learn about how to do this. In detailing some of the approaches we’ve taken in Wales, I hope that people working to deliver Housing First across the rest of the UK might find something useful in our experiences.