The decade challenge in homelessness services – moving on from a traumatised system

John Glenton, Riverside's Executive Director for Care and Support
John Glenton, Riverside’s Executive Director for Care and Support


As the UK’s largest provider of supported housing for those affected by homelessness Riverside is close to completing one of the largest research projects in our 90-year history.

The research asked those directly involved in commissioning homelessness services what the most significant changes had been for them. The report – entitled ‘A Traumatised System’ – gives an indication of how a decade of profound change has affected the sector.

However, we want to use the lessons of the past we want to inform the future, and there are some key headlines about where we go from here that have really struck me:

1)    Striking innovations and adaptations have emerged from a decade of ‘doing more with less’.

It has been remarkable how the sector has been able to adapt in the face of austerity. As changes in the level and type of funding have accelerated, this has prompted new thinking and new ways of working.

These innovations cover everything from contracting procedures and models of delivery to new types of funding and fresh new interventions.

2)    But these innovations haven’t and cannot compensate for the levels of funding lost, which have had a ‘traumatising’ effect on the system.

It’s really clear in all the stories which came back that, despite the innovations mentioned above, a lack of funding has undermined a sustainable approach.

Too often, the sector has retreated into approaches it knows don’t deliver the best results for people affected by homelessness. The report contains multiple examples of services being created, not because they deliver a long-term solution, but because cuts elsewhere have meant the humanitarian crisis evolving on our streets necessitates an urgent, large-scale response.

3)    If we want to have more of an impact, the Government, commissioners and the homelessness sector need to create an environment which encourages innovation within a long-term, strategic approach focussed on prevention.

To ensure the research was robust we wanted to understand which of the stories we’d collected most resonated with the experiences of others.  A number of panels were held involving people who commissioned and delivered services, alongside those who’d accessed them having been homeless themselves. From this, York University’s Nicholas Pleace and Imogen Blood Associates – our research team – were able to start shaping recommendations for building on the sector’s strengths and not just emphasising its problems.

A common thread throughout the recommendations is that we need to create commissioning conditions under which the innovations and collaborations identified can develop – just like ‘strengths based approaches’ in service delivery is creating more therapeutic environments that are encouraging for people who are homeless.

The research recommendations are just the start. We hope everyone with experience of homelessness can get involved in designing the policies, strategies, frameworks and funding streams which will support these conditions. Ending homelessness by 2030 is a publicly stated goal of this Government – included in the Conservative manifesto in fact – so to make the next decade one of ‘renewal’ instead, we’re going to need everyone to get involved.

We’ll be launching the research and sharing these recommendations at events in London & Liverpool in March. You can find information on these on the Riverside website, as well as register to receive a copy of the report.  The research has collected some great ideas and stories, but we know there are more out there. Please share yours and who knows… maybe come 2030 we’ll be looking back not at ‘a traumatised system’ but one totally geared to preventing homelessness instead.