This week the Prime Minister and Communities Secretary announced a £40 million homelessness prevention programme, with an emphasis upon ‘innovative methods and seeing what works’.
The Homelessness Reduction Bill is following close on its heels. This will place a duty of care upon Local Authorities to prevent homelessness. Housing Associations haven’t yet been mentioned but Local Authorities will need their support if they are to fulfil this remit.
This matters to us.
Using machine learning methods we have been able to pinpoint people living in Social Housing who are at high risk of homelessness, either through eviction or abandonment. We have piloted our approach within one major Housing Association, we are about to put it to work within another.
However, if the Government’s vision is to become reality, approaches such as ours need to operate across different organisations and a large number of locations.
In principle, this shouldn’t be a problem. We place a mobile app at one end of the operation, for use by Field Workers on the ground, and cloud based machine learning algorithms at the other. Sitting in the middle we have specialists who understand what it takes to spot people who are heading towards homelessness.
The reality however is likely to be different.
For example, from 2010 to the present day, the government has invested £500M in homeless prevention. As a result 1M cases of potential homelessness have been avoided.
This required collaboration between a myriad of different agencies, government departments and Charities all of whom interact with the people of interest for different reasons, at different times, and in different ways. Although we have technology that can operate pretty much anywhere, to make it work we still need the involvement of all those different organisations. The bureaucratic hurdles are likely to be dizzyingly high.
That said, the government’s latest approach could give major grounds for optimism. In short, funds will be allocated to Local Authorities (LAs) to pilot new initiatives to tackle homelessness and the LAs will be left to get on with it. But if an LA doesn’t get to grips with homelessness within its patch, penalties will apply.
Hopefully the combination of a ‘hands off’ approach and devolved funding will encourage new local initiatives to emerge. They will operate under the governance of the LA, but be run by entrepreneurially minded people who will want to hear about innovative methods and smart use of technology.
This is the right approach to take, because it should allow things to move fast. Homelessness has doubled since 2010 (Homeless statistical release Feb 2016 – Dept Communities and Local Govt) and it is only set to grow further. If LAs don’t make progress quickly they will have a big problem on their hands. Yes, if the Bill is passed they may incur the aforementioned penalties, but more importantly they will have to provide emergency accommodation in very short order for an ever increasing number of people with nowhere to go.
Not only will smarter technology help but, once it is up and running, it can be used to find those people who are not yet on anyone’s radar, but who will eventually end up on the street. This group includes young single people who may be sofa-surfing today, but who will soon be riding the night buses because they have nowhere else to go.
It will be a major challenge getting it all to work, and we will inevitably stumble into bureaucratic barriers along the way. But if, as a result of some astute predictions, more people can experience a friendly knock on the door just at the moment when all seems lost then it will all be worthwhile.