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June 21, 2022

What makes a hostel effective?

Jeremy Swain

Content warning: this blog posts makes reference to self harm and overdose.

The Centre for Homelessness Impact is working with hostel providers throughout the country to generate evidence of the effectiveness of different types of hostels in the UK at helping people who experience homelessness. The first step in this journey is to survey hostels across the country to understand what types of provision exist. 

In this blog Jeremy Swain, an associate at CHI, outlines the importance of this research. He makes the case that the sector needs a shared agreement about what defines a hostel, stronger evidence of which types of provision are effective for different groups and an improved understanding of the role of hostels as part of a system of services intended to help people escape homelessness. Jeremy’s experiences as CEO of Thames Reach and senior advisor to the government’s Rough Sleeping Taskforce provide  multifaceted insights into the nature of the sector and challenges it faces.

In 1981, at the age of 23, I started work in a hostel for young people who had slept rough in London’s West End.  All 22 residents had a room of their own and shared the rest of the space. It was in a quiet residential street close to King’s Cross station, a street that became less quiet following the opening of the hostel.  We were a young, energetic staff team, many of us the same age as the hostel residents themselves.

Looking back, I have very mixed feelings about what we achieved.  The hostel was turbulent and there were frequent violent incidents. Drug overdoses were not uncommon, residents self-harmed and many of the young people, men and women, gravitated back to the West End during the day to sell sex.  The staff were themselves on the receiving end of assaults and it was the only time in my life (so far) that I have experienced the exquisitely unpleasant sensation of spitting out teeth. 

A few people did make progress and I have good memories of helping a young man move into a nice flat in the Isle of Dogs in south-east London.  He was able to move on with his life and I hope that now, as a man in his 60s, he might look back and feel that the hostel did him some good.

But I fear that for others the hostel was, at best, a holding place that was marginally less dangerous than living rough in the West End.  And, in retrospect, the concept of bringing some of the West End’s young people facing the greatest challenges to live together in a hostel seems naively ambitious.

Seven years later I was working for homelessness charity Thames Reach at a time when the organisation opened a 12-bed hostel for older people who had been sleeping rough in central London. As the resettlement team manager, I was expected to help people move on from the hostel into settled accommodation.  The hostel provided single rooms with a shared kitchen and lounge.  A few doors away were four self-contained flats which provided one of the move-on routes from the hostel. 

Over the next two years some of the people experiencing the greatest vulnerability in London moved into the hostel.  Two men and one woman in particular will remain forever in my memory. These three people had collectively spent over 40 years sleeping rough. They had previously rejected all other offers of accommodation, including a direct step into self-contained accommodation. All three later moved on to either self-contained accommodation or, in the case of the woman, into residential care.  On moving into the hostel she had spent the first month sleeping on the floor of her bedroom, until persuaded to ‘upgrade’ to the bed. 

The hostel had a competent team with good support provided by health colleagues who visited the hostel regularly. Living there felt the opposite of living in an institution.  Not everybody had a positive experience of the hostel, and as a project it had its good phases and periods when it was less effective. But unlike the hostel for young people from the West End, I felt confident that this hostel was transformational for the majority of its residents.

What is it that makes a hostel effective in the context of helping people escape homelessness and be able to live a more fulfilling life?  From my experiences of these two hostels, I believe key elements include making the hostel environment safe and non-institutional, employing caring and competent staff and providing a range of different routes to move on from the hostel.  But even as I write this, another hostel comes to mind that for many years was one of the most popular amongst people sleeping rough in London. It was large and felt institutional but was a place where people were treated with kindness and in which, as one person described it to me, ‘I was allowed to be myself’.  The hostel also offered a quick and easy route off the street.     

Limited evidence on impact

In 2022 hostels remain one of the main responses to homelessness in the United Kingdom. They are the subject of much debate around how effective they are at helping people escape homelessness.  This debate is often bewildering and occasionally acrimonious. It is also based on very limited evidence as hostels have not been scrutinised as a solution to homelessness in the way, for example, that Housing First has. This means that our understanding of the role that hostels play as part of a system of services seeking to end homelessness in a locality remains limited and our responses conjectural.

The hostel debate is also marred by a lack of shared agreement about what a hostel actually is.  I have had too many confusing conversations where it has come to light well into the debate that the person I am engaging with thinks a hostel in this country is the type of large-scale shelter common, for example, in North America where vast numbers of people live in dormitories and have to leave the building during the day. I hope there is consensus that we don’t want to see this type of facility, reminiscent of the ‘resettlement units’ funded and managed by central government up to the 1980s, making a reappearance in the United Kingdom.  

At the other end of the spectrum, I am aware of a project in London providing 24 self-contained studio flats with on-site support than is referred to as a hostel which seems to be very similar indeed to the type of provision that in Finland, one of countries which has been most successful in reducing rough sleeping, is referred to as ‘Housing First’.

We need to substantially increase our understanding of hostels, of what makes them successful or not and how far they should remain part of the service provision for people experiencing homelessness in the second decade of the century. And we must do so with some urgency because there is an impressive momentum in play that has moved the goal of ending rough sleeping in this country from the status of dream to attainable reality.  

To achieve this, I have been working with the Centre for Homelessness Impact (CHI) on a project to evaluate hostels. We are now at the stage, thanks to the support of many homelessness organisations as well as colleagues from local, regional and central government, of launching a survey that will enable us to get a clear picture of the range of accommodation across the United Kingdom that could be described as a hostel.  From this, a typology of hostels will be produced which I hope will stimulate constructive discussions about the role of hostels. The next phase will be to conduct a full evaluation to understand which types of hostels are effective and cost-effective and in what combination with other services. 

Central to everything is the need for services provided to people who have experienced homelessness to be measured against the strongest possible evidence of what works. Without this discipline, we cannot identify where resources should be focused, what we must do more of and what we should stop doing where there is little or no evidence that it is helping people escape homelessness for good.    

Some organisations have already completed the survey and we are very grateful for their support.  If you are a provider of accommodation that might be described as a hostel, I  strongly encourage you to complete the survey and a link is provided here along with further information.  We are particularly eager to ensure that smaller, specialist providers submit a completed survey so that the typology that emerges is comprehensive and credible. Together we can end homelessness.


How to get involved

If you are a provider of hostel accommodation in the UK and want to be part of this research project we would greatly welcome your involvement and we will ensure that the findings from the survey will be made available to every organisation that is contributing.  Below is a link to the survey and some general information to assist with its completion.


The term ‘hostel’ as it is used in the United Kingdom covers a range of different types of accommodation. Because the purpose of the survey is to categorise accommodation that falls under this generic heading, we do not want to be overly prescriptive in defining what is, or is not, a hostel. The only limitations are that we will not include congregate shelters of the type established for a short period of, typically, under six months and, at the other end of the spectrum, self-contained flats or bedsits with tenancy support provided of a type often referred to as Housing First.  

This piece of work is being undertaken in partnership with homelessness organisations, central and local government and users of homelessness services. The survey has been tested by a group of hostel providers and takes around 20 minutes to complete. 

The survey data will be collated and analysed by our research partners, the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research. All data derived from the survey will be presented in an aggregated and anonymised form and, when finalised, will be widely shared. We anticipate this research will lead to productive discussions on the role hostels play in addressing homelessness and lead to improved outcomes for people escaping homelessness.

Thank you again for supporting this important area of investigation. If you or any of your colleagues would like to find out more about the project, we would be delighted to hear from you. Please contact:

Nick Bartholdy at nick@homelessnessimpact.org

Jeremy Swain at jeremy@homelessnessimpact.org

The (revised) deadline for completing the survey is Monday 11th July.

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