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Heriot-Watt University: International initiative to end street homelessness around the world

Housing and Homelessness Programme / Partner story

Global lessons revealed as 13 cities outline progress in tackling street homelessness

The results of the first global initiative aimed at ending street homelessness has revealed key ingredients for success along with common systemic barriers. These include an overreliance on charity and faith groups for service delivery in some cities, new research from Oak partner Heriot-Watt University has found.

The 13 Vanguard Cities were located across all six continents. These include four cities in Europe (Greater Manchester and Glasgow in the UK, Brussels in Belgium, and Rijeka in Croatia), three cities in North America (Chicago and Little Rock in the US, and Edmonton in Canada), two cities in South America (Montevideo in Uruguay, and Santiago in Chile), two cities in Australia (Adelaide and Sydney), one city in Africa (Tshwane in South Africa), and one city in Asia (Bengaluru in India).

The goals set by these cities ranged from ending street homelessness entirely in their city, to ending it in a particular neighbourhood, or within a certain subpopulation, to achieving specified proportionate reductions of various kinds. Three global cities, including Greater Manchester and Glasgow (UK) and Sydney (Australia), achieved significant success in meeting self-imposed targets to reduce street homelessness. Over half (Adelaide, Glasgow, Greater Manchester, Montevideo, Santiago, Sydney and Tshwane) achieving reductions. [1]

Greater Manchester set the most ambitious target, to end all street homelessness by December 2020, and achieved an impressive 52 per cent reduction against baseline, the largest reduction in absolute numbers on the streets.

The report found the city-region’s success was, in large part, due to strong political leadership, with Greater Manchester’s Mayor making reducing street homelessness a clear priority. Partnership working across public, voluntary, and faith sectors was found to support the city-region’s flagship programme A Bed Every Night (ABEN). This was complemented by the wider UK Government’s rough sleeper initiative. Launched in 2018, ABEN’s low-barrier emergency accommodation now supports over 1,000 individuals each night, with health and criminal justice partners contributing substantial funding directly to the programme.

In Glasgow, available evidence suggests that fewer than seven people were sleeping rough in the city centre at any one time at the end of the target period, a reduction of 75 per cent on baseline figures. Sydney reduced all street homelessness in the city by 25 per cent by December 2020.

Covid-19 initiatives, including the ‘Everyone In’ approach in the UK, helped to accelerate success and demonstrate what can be achieved with sufficient political will.

The independent evaluation of the initiative, delivered by our partner Heriot-Watt University in partnership with the GISS institute in Bremen, Germany, monitored progress towards the numerical goals set by each city. Crucially, it drew out the core components of successful interventions that can now be transferred to other locations.

Key to the success achieved by several cities was the presence of a lead agency driving efforts. The study also found that coordinated entry to homelessness services (which identified, profiled and tracked the people affected), coupled with investment in specialised and evidence-based interventions, were most beneficial. These included assertive street outreach services, individual case management and the Housing First approach[2].

However, the initiative found common barriers to progress across multiple countries and cities, including a lack of preventative interventions to tackle street homelessness, pressure on affordable housing and insufficient resources, especially in cities in the Global South.

An overreliance on undignified and, at times, unsafe communal shelters, represented an approach limited to ‘managing’ rather than reducing street homelessness. There was often a dependence on voluntary and faith groups for the provision of crisis services. The direct involvement of some religious denominations was found to discourage access for some people, while adding to the conditions attached for those seeking support.

Aggressive enforcement interventions by some police and city authorities, especially in North America and the Global South, and documentary and identification barriers, were also found to be counter-productive to attempts to reduce street homelessness.

Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, director of I-SPHERE at Heriot-Watt University, led the international research team. She said: “Street homelessness is one of the most extreme and visible manifestations of profound injustice that our society faces today. Yet, it often struggles to achieve sufficient attention at an international level.

“The overwhelming emphasis on emergency interventions was clear in our findings, with support applied only when people are already in crisis, rather than placing greater focus on preventative models. Even predictable pathways into street homelessness, from institutions like prisons and hospitals, have seldom attracted concerted prevention efforts, and this needs to be urgently addressed.”

The pandemic prompted better coordination of local efforts to address street homelessness in many cities, but the impact of the crisis differed markedly across the Vanguard Cities. People at risk of street homelessness were most effectively protected in the UK and Australian cities [3]. Responses were less inclusive and ambitious in the North American and Global South cities, with more continued use of ‘shared air’ shelters.

You can read the full report by clicking here.

This grant falls under our Housing and Homelessness Programme, which believes in a society where more people live in decent homes and fewer people experience homelessness and housing insecurity. We believe in building greater power within communities and organisations that work most closely with people, strengthening their collective capacity to achieve change. Our grant-making seeks out organisations that are developing ambitious strategies, shaped by people with lived experience and rooted in robust evidence. Find out more about our programme by clicking here.

[1] Only Edmonton (Canada) recorded an increase in street homelessness over baseline levels.[1]    

[2] Housing First is a housing and support approach which provides people who have experienced homelessness with a stable home from which to rebuild their lives coupled with person-centred, holistic support that is open-ended.

[3] In the UK (Glasgow and Greater Manchester and Australia (Adelaide and Sydney), street homelessness was eliminated virtually overnight, at least temporarily, via ‘Everybody In’ utilising empty hotel rooms and largely self-contained, emergency accommodation. In Glasgow, the opportunity was taken during the pandemic to end the (limited) use of communal shelters altogether, and replace them with more appropriate provision.