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A groundbreaking approach to evidence-led solutions

By Ligia Teixeira

Opportunities to achieve change at a system level are rare and when they occur tend to be incremental. In a system as complex as homelessness, creating lasting change is especially challenging. This is why I am so pleased to be involved in a world-leading programme to elevate the evidence base for what works to end rough sleeping and reduce homelessness and to explore for the first time how different elements of this system work together. 

The lack of a robust evidence base to both quantify the impact of interventions to prevent and relieve homelessness and rough sleeping, and contextualise these in a complex system, has long been a gap in our knowledge. 

We often know what problems need to be solved, but may not be making the right kinds of investments to address them because the evidence is weak or lacking. We have much to learn from other fields in this respect. In medicine there are more than 200,000 good quality trials of the effectiveness of different medical interventions. In recent years, our school system has shifted in the direction of evidence-informed teaching and leadership. In the private sector, successful companies continually improve by testing different approaches to their work. It is time for the homelessness sector to catch up.

By international standards, the United Kingdom’s response to rough sleeping and homelessness is relatively strong. Rights to housing for people at higher risk of homelessness are long established, and have been extended in nations across the UK. Rates of homelessness and rough sleeping are lower than in most comparable countries.

Yet there is much more to do, especially as high living costs put pressure on people on lower incomes and scope for further government spending is likely to remain constrained.

The Centre for Homelessness Impact has for several years made the case for a government-supported research and evaluation fund to create such an evidence base. 

This is why we so welcome the UK Government’s programme to trial innovative new approaches and test what works to end rough sleeping and reduce homelessness in England, which was first announced in its 2022 strategy Ending Rough Sleeping For Good and which the Centre for Homelessness Impact will run after a competitive tendering process.

It is an opportunity to identify evidence-led, cost-effective strategies that can be implemented at scale and, by doing so, improve outcomes for individuals affected by or at risk of homelessness and make limited resources go further.

The programme, commissioned by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, will involve a combination of testing new approaches and evaluating existing good practice to establish impact using scientific methods. We should be realistic about what one programme of this size can achieve. Its budget of £12 million and relatively short timescale will support eight high quality and large-scale trials and evaluations. This will represent a good start towards building the evidence base that we need but will not be a silver bullet: activity on a much larger scale will be required to move the dial decisively and generate the scale and depth of robust evidence that we need. 

But in beginning to generate the substantial evidence base we need, the programme presents a second opportunity. It offers a chance to build the capacity that we will need for further and more extensive trials and to nurture a culture of evidence-mindedness in the homelessness sector and beyond that will be vital to future success.

The methodology required for robust trials is relatively new to homelessness in the UK: recruiting participants with lived experience of homelessness, randomising them into intervention and control groups, independently evaluating the impact of an intervention and reporting the results dispassionately, whether the data show these are good or bad. 

We will also undertake a second piece of work. This will be a system-wide evaluation of how the homelessness and rough sleeping system works as a whole. This analysis will be the first of its kind. Taking a systems-approach, this will give us a better understanding of how the different levers and interventions made by the Government contribute to homelessness and rough sleeping outcomes, how the different parts of the system work - or don’t work - together and how the system might be optimised to improve outcomes and value for money.

This strand of work, costing £3 million, should not be seen as separate from the programme of trials. Rather, they are two sides of the same coin. Both are intended to create the conditions for a learning culture and yield insights that can improve the homelessness and rough sleeping system as a whole. 

In thinking of the scope and nature of this first Test and Learn programme, we have from the beginning designed trials and evaluations in ways that can be shaped from the outset by the local areas that can benefit from their findings. Continual and close engagement with participating local areas will be essential to the programme’s success and will be a priority throughout. By working in partnership with leaders and front-line staff in local homelessness systems, we will seek to foster a familiarity with this way of working so that the ‘what works’ approach can be embedded and decision making can be supported by better evidence. 

Trials of this type are difficult: this is why a programme on this scale has not been attempted before in homelessness. Success is not guaranteed. And results take time.

As findings do emerge, we will seek to share these in a timely manner so that learnings can be put into practice by people working in homelessness and by those thinking of future policy decisions or system design.  

Ligia Teixeira is the CEO of the Centre for Homelessness Impact

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