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Collaboration makes for powerful change

Partner story

Photo: © Sam

Crisis, a UK-based homelessness organisation, led a campaign to change the Homeless Persons Act, which prioritised families in need over single people in need. On the other side of the Atlantic at around the same time, the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania built a campaign to establish ongoing funding for the State Housing Trust Fund – which is a designated form of revenue for affordable housing.

The efforts of both of these organisations culminated in victory – in 2017 the Homeless Persons Act was amended to reflect the wellbeing of single homeless people as well as families, and legislation was passed in 2015 in the state of Pennsylvania that supported affordable housing initiatives, with an initial funding of USD 12.5 million made available in 2017. These enormous victories can be directly attributed to the efforts of Crisis and the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.

Their work demonstrates how necessary the work of our partners is. We at Oak, including our Housing and Homelessness Programme, are proud of their success and congratulate them. Read on to find out more about how they achieved these remarkable goals.

United Kingdom

The Homeless Persons Act was established in the United Kingdom 40 years ago, following a decade of campaigning. This act sets out what councils across the UK must do to help homeless people and gives the right to accommodation to some households. While local authorities have a duty to find accommodation for homeless families and those assessed as ‘vulnerable’, those who fall outside of these groups receive limited or perhaps no help at all.

Over the last four decades, this has affected single homeless people the most, and homeless organisations have encountered many difficulties in addressing the consequences of the exclusion of single people in the Homeless Persons Act. This is why Crisis, a UK-based homelessness organisation that focuses on single homeless people, led a campaign to change the law. Three years of campaigning led to victory – the Homelessness Reduction Act, which came into force in April 2018. Under the new act, councils are obliged to step in and offer some help to all people – single or with families – threatened with losing their home.

“We are pleased with the results of the Crisis campaign, which will doubtlessly benefit the lives of many people who experience homelessness for years to come. This was an example of a well-thought-out campaign that has resulted in changing UK legislation to reflect the principle that everyone deserves help.”

– Louise Montgomery, programme officer for Oak’s Housing and Homelessness Programme

Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, described the new act as radically shifting the way we see homeless people. “Now, we can no longer see the homeless as either deserving or undeserving of support,” he says. “Embedded in the law is a universal principle – that everyone who is homeless should get some assistance, and that everyone threatened with homelessness should be offered help to prevent it.”

So what made the Crisis campaign a success? Firstly, according to Matt, it was driven and evidenced by people with personal experience of homelessness. A group of these people presented themselves as homeless to 87 local authorities across the UK, describing scenarios based on their own experiences. This exercise provided powerful evidence – that they were not offered any help in many cases. Sometimes they were even treated in an off-hand or inhumane way.

Nonetheless, their compelling stories captured media attention. As the campaign progressed, opportunities arose where individuals with experience of homelessness were able to speak directly with government ministers. One woman went to the House of Commons to talk to politicians directly from Heathrow Airport, where she was sleeping each night. This involvement of people with personal experience, according to Matt, provided real and immediate evidence, which was key to the success of the campaign. “In addition, Crisis set about drafting the new law rather than waiting until we had political support,” he says. “We did this by bringing together acknowledged experts, including lawyers, academics and not-for-profit organisations.” Crisis also made sure that stakeholders who might resist the change were involved, such as those who were concerned that opening a debate about housing legislation in times of austerity might result in a contraction of government responsibilities.

The proposed changes in law meant additional responsibility for local authorities. Crisis tackled this head-on by identifying local authority representatives who realised the benefits these changes would bring, despite the extra work. Together, they identified a set of objectives, points for potential compromise and fundamental principles not open for negotiation. The result of this collaborative exercise was a draft law with credibility, supported by all the key actors in the field of homelessness. Crucially, it was not seen as a Crisis campaigning tool but as an independent analysis of the problem and a proposed solution, complete with ready-made draft legislation. Matt makes the point that while this consensus approach to campaigning is powerful, the lead organisation must be willing to relinquish control to achieve it.

Also key to its success was the fact that Crisis was able to persuade Conservative Minister of Parliament (MP) Bob Blackman to present the new legislation. Mr Blackman proved to be an effective champion and was instrumental in obtaining support from ministers and fellow MPs from all parties.

Photo: © Hazel Stanley

United States

The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania is a state-wide coalition providing leadership and a common voice for policies, practices and resources to ensure that all Pennsylvanians, especially those with low incomes, have access to safe, decent and affordable homes. Over three years the Alliance used an Oak grant to build a campaign to establish ongoing funding for the State Housing Trust Fund – which is a designated form of revenue for affordable housing.

The Housing Alliance wanted state legislation to secure income from the real estate transfer tax (projected to grow to USD 25 million a year) for affordable housing initiatives. Its work resulted in a huge success – legislation was passed in 2015 and initial funding of USD 12.5 million was made available in 2017. “This was the first new funding for affordable housing in the state for many years,” says Liz Hersh, former director of the Housing Alliance, who led the campaign. “In addition, the funding is flexible, recognising the need for diverse solutions and local decisions on how money is spent.”

“This campaign succeeded in uniting politicians representing many people in Pennsylvania around the issue of affordable housing. The result will bring widespread changes to the lives of individuals and benefit Pennsylvanian communities for many years to come.”

– Amanda Beswick, director of Oak’s Housing and Homelessness Programme

In addition, by building its campaign on this simple message, it increased bi-partisan political support. On the political front, there were many people involved. This included highly respected moderate Republican Legislator Tom Killion, who partnered with Democrats on the campaign. In the State Senate, Senator Elder Vogel, a Republican dairy farmer, represented a rural part of the state. Democrat Senator Shirley Kitchen (one of just two African American women to be elected to the State Senate) represented a neighbourhood of Philadelphia. Together they joined hands to promote funding for the Housing Trust Fund. As a result of their efforts, the State Housing Trust Fund was expanded.

“The campaign was successful because the Alliance established a grassroots coalition made up of local organisations and individuals,” she says. “We were careful to ensure that all parts of the state of Pennsylvania were represented. This meant that everyone – from grassroots organisers to for-profit developers – was represented. The campaign bridged the traditional divides between urban, suburban and rural communities.”

When planning its strategy, the Alliance took advice from marketing experts. The team learned that outlining the problem and proposing a solution are not always effective. Instead, to garner support for affordable housing, it based its campaign on the generally accepted American value statement that ‘if you work hard and play by the rules you should be able to afford a home’. This is often not true. In reality, not everyone who works hard and plays by the rules can afford a home. The campaign succeeded in changing the perception of the need for affordable housing among the public.

How changes in law can work for those most in need

These examples from both sides of the Atlantic are success stories in the fight against homelessness. They demonstrate how well-crafted campaigns can bring about changes in law and policy and have wide-reaching ramifications for people’s lives.

Source: Oak Foundation Annual Report 2017