Housing First (always and forever)

Volunteer Bryony Shepherd interviews Service Manager, Eileen Edwards about our lead role in the North East's Housing First consortium.

I have been obsessed with houses since I was a little girl.

As a child, one of my favourite toys was a Fisher Price kitchen. It was white and yellow, and had a small plastic hob, oven and a side table at which I could entertain guests – cuddly toys, Barbies or my granda, who loved games, most usually. I begged my mum to buy me a yellow kettle to match the kitchen when we went to see The Singing Kettle Live, such was my eye for interior accessorising aged six.

I remember buying a rather expensive mirror when I was at university and thinking that was the apex of happiness, and have accumulated more crockery, cook books and quilts throughout my twenties than I’m certain I will ever have need of. I have a friend who always says I’m wholesome – such is my love for candles, pot plants and patterned bowls. I give off a very homely vibe.

Having your own house and making it a home is, I think, one of life’s greatest joys. It’s immensely satisfying to stand in an empty room, look around at four blank walls, and picture the life you will build there, far beyond colour schemes and co-ordinated art prints. There is a certain level of accomplishment to be found in paying your gas bill and putting your bins out for the first time, and even when the novelty wears off, there’s security and comfort to be found in managing it, whatever life throws at you.

A lot of people would call that process growing up, but I disagree. It’s not growing up at all. It’s more like growing into yourself.

A home is a safe space where you can learn to inhabit all the physical and mental space you have, and begin to prioritise, structure and value – both your possessions and yourself. Homes are secure and stable, they can shelter you through any storm, give you purpose, and make you proud.

They’re a really good place to make peace with yourself.

But how do you begin to grow, to move and shift, if you don’t have somewhere to call home? How can you make a life if you don’t have somewhere comfortable in which to do it?

Last year, the Scottish Government and homeless charity Social Bite committed over six million pounds towards rapid rehousing and the provision of a Housing First policy in the country’s five main areas: Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, Dundee, and here in Aberdeen/Aberdeenshire.

The Housing First model is based on the principle that house, indeed a home, is a basic human right that everyone is entitled to.

It accepts that a permanent home is the best base from which someone who has experienced homelessness can begin to tackle and overcome the issues which led them to the streets.

It gives people a house without conditions, and lets it be theirs, and theirs alone.

It’s a seismic departure from the social policy which came before, and that’s important, as Eileen Edwards, Housing First Service Manager, at Aberdeen Cyrenians, explains:

“We previously had what’s called a ‘staircase model’, and that was where someone would be homeless and living on the streets and there would be a set of conditions they would have to meet to change their situation.

If you do this you’ll get into temporary accommodation, if you do well in temp you’ll get a SSST, which is a short Scottish tenancy for six months, and if you do well in that…there was stipulations at every step of the way as to what that person had to do. These stipulations were insurmountable and held people to a far higher standard than you or I.

Imagine, for example, you have an alcohol problem but you can’t have a drink in your flat. If you drink in your flat, you will be evicted.

It didn’t work because it’s not a reasonable, manageable thing to ask of a person. People never got to the stage of a tenancy, they fell down and went back to beginning, so people never got off the streets."

“What Housing First does is turn that upside down. It takes people that haven’t in the past been able to sustain a tenancy and the first thing it does is give them a permanent home. A non-conditional house with a normal tenancy, and they will only lose it through things that people like me would lose it through”.

Housing First is based on seven principles.

The first, as Eileen explained, is that people have a universal right to a home – and the tenancy agreement for this does not have any additional rules or criteria.

Other principles focus on support and how this will be offered. It has to be flexible and will be made available to all tenancy holders through the scheme - but only if they want this, and in a way that they choose.

A rehomed person, who may have multiple and complex issues, will be encouraged to utilise this support, but it won’t be forced upon them – and regardless of whether they engage or not, their home is safe. Eileen explained further:

“We believe a safe environment, your home, gives a platform from which support can be put in place to help you to sustain the tenancy and live your best life. Not the best life decided for you by someone, but the life you want.

“Once someone is settled in their home support staff can then start working on the multiple and complex needs which have led to cyclical homelessness, whether that be for example, addictions, mental health, physical disabilities, or depression.

“We start working with them and ensuring that any interventions needed are in place, and physically helping people go to appointments – picking them up, driving them there, sitting with them, and staying with them. But that support and intervention is on the terms of the individual – what support they need and they want”.

Choice is a big factor in Housing First – it’s the fourth principle – and people are asked where they want to stay, what help they might need to get there and what they want to do with their life. Tapping into people’s natural strengths and using these for good is the sixth principle.

“We always ask”, said Eileen, “where do you want to live?"

“We won’t put someone in Torry who has grown up in Mastrick because that can be a different world. We’ll help someone get a house where they want to be. We then furnish that house. In the past, it’s been ‘here’s a house, floorboards, on you go’ but how is someone managing that house?

“We then ask ‘what are you good at, what can you do?’

“You’re good at IT?’ Great. ‘Let’s go to the library and do some classes’.

“Other things naturally follow as people feel more confident, they have purpose in their life. They will gradually address things like addiction and alcohol issues, they’ll go to their mental health appointments and they’ll take their medication because they’re being supported and their sustaining a tenancy, which is a huge achievement.”

At the time of writing 15 people in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire have been rehomed through the scheme since September 2018, and there are plans for more. Five of these people are working with staff to address their issues and showing early signs of long-term progress.

Housing First, and rapid rehousing and the strength-based support it provides, is working.

But the 15 are less than half of those who have been identified for this type of intervention and whose names are top on Eileen’s list.

She is hopeful that a home can be found for all.

“People who are homeless have always been told ‘you can’t get a house because last time you did this, so you can’t manage a house’ but we reverse that with Housing First, and the early signs are that it is successful.

The first homes have gone to quite chaotic people, those who need it most, but we have lots of people here who need this and we get referrals from other services and support groups.”

In the past, rehousing of the homeless was based on deserving. Are you ready for a house? Can you keep a house? Can you pay for a house?

But who doesn’t want and desire a roof over their heads? Who isn’t ready to feel safe, warm, comforted and secure?

That is what a home gives you.

It’s so much more than somewhere to hang pictures on the wall.

It’s the place where we do all our small and beautiful living.

It’s where you take off your shoes and hang your coat. It’s where you make your dinner, where bread goes mouldy and milk sours. It’s where you do your laundry and drape it over radiators, cursing that lost sock. A home is where you brush your teeth and wash your face and cut your toenails. It’s where we do all the living that is so commonplace we forget about it but for someone who is homeless causes worry, stress and anxiety.

And, one day it’s where you will drink tea and read a book from the light of a lamp you bought yourself. Beside you, there’s a coaster on a table for your mug – which you set down as you turn the page and begin a new chapter. You pause and look around, and smile, and remind yourself: I am home.

And what’s more, it’s yours and yours alone. Always and forever.