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September 29, 2021

Ending homelessness: What would it take?

Sir Michael Barber

Who would have thought that as we enter the third decade of the 21st Century we would still have a major problem of both rough sleeping and homelessness? Yet at the last count, 2,668 people were sleeping rough at night across England alone and a much larger number (almost 220,000) are estimated to be homeless. The figures for the United Kingdom as a whole are worse.

Almost everyone you speak to thinks that, surely, a rich and developed country should at the very least be able to ensure a roof over everyone’s head. But, for the moment, we don’t and can’t. That surely is morally unacceptable.

But moral outrage alone won’t solve the problem. The system we have in place allows this to happen. It is tempting to blame people who experience homelessness for their plight; but the fundamental problem is that the system is flawed.  Worse still, too many people think that we’ll never be able to fix it; we’ll just have to live with it. This attitude is the moral equivalent of a shrug. In short, homelessness is a delivery problem.

The Centre for Homelessness Impact shares the moral outrage but refuses to shrug. It says, by contrast, that we need to act urgently and effectively to end homelessness. It has set a goal to end homelessness across the United Kingdom by 2030. That is a noble goal but they know it won’t happen without some hard-edged, detailed, practical work.

I am delighted that CHI have asked me and my colleagues to get involved. How can we help?

We work with governments and large philanthropic organisations all over the world to help them solve difficult problems and thus to deliver for millions of people. For example, we are working with the New South Wales government on a target of “Towards Zero Suicides”; we are working with 25 major US cities to help them reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Paris Accords; we are assisting the Government of Pakistan with one of the boldest poverty alleviation strategies ever attempted; we are working on agricultural reform in support of small farmers in Madagascar. We like ‘difficult’; others can do ‘easy’; and we like impact at scale.

In this context, contributing to CHI’s goal of ending homelessness is absolutely our kind of thing. Here’s the key point though – they will do it, not us. We will assist. How?

First, CHI is driven by a bold sense of ambition. This can be hard to sustain when the going gets tough. When it does, we will be there to help them stand by their ambition because it is a moral imperative and because it is surely do-able.

Second, ensuring it gets done requires the right strategy and a systematic, sustained approach to implementation. CHI invited us to  test and, as necessary, help refine their strategy, planning and delivery.

Third, CHI will ensure the necessary supply of regularly updated data, the analysis that will enable lessons to be learned and the dissemination of those lessons to the people in the system who can apply them. One of their values is to ask difficult questions, and we will help ask challenging  questions to test the evidence.

Fourth, to do that the CHI and everyone at every level in the system needs to know how the delivery chain in that system works. What is the role of central government? What is the role of local government? Who at local level is personally responsible for homelessness? With whom day-to-day are people experiencing homelessness interacting? And what is the best practice for every link in this chain? If everyone in the system knew what the best ten percent in the system know and acted on the basis of that knowledge, perhaps through that alone we would get close to the target. We are helping CHI map the delivery chain and identify its weaknesses.

Fifth, in addition to solving the problems of those already homeless, CHI have to prevent the flow of new people into homelessness. That means working with other services such as prisons and those that deal with drug abuse. They want us to stress test those relationships for their effectiveness.

Sixth, the CHI needs to keep the issue of homelessness in the public eye; public outrage will fuel action and assist in securing funding from philanthropic sources as well as government. We’ll debate with them their evidence-led messages and communications approach to this task.

I’m confident homelessness can be eliminated by 2030 but it is not inevitable and not easy. It needs a system galvanised to solve the problem. It needs a strong and constantly improving evidence base. It needs sustained – sustained till it is done – attention at every level in the delivery chain. And it will need the courage to keep going even when things appear to be off-track. Of course, CHI is only a small organisation but it has the moral commitment and it is developing the knowledge, insight and relationships that will enable it to act as a catalyst.

All the big changes I have seen around the world start with a relatively small number of committed people and build from there. England’s National Literacy Strategy 25 years ago would be a case in point. So too the idea that leaves on the line didn’t really need to cause major delay every autumn. Not to mention ensuring that children across Punjab, Pakistan, were vaccinated against all major childhood diseases, one of the fastest vaccine roll-outs in history.

It is a pleasure in a small way to be part of this big mission.

Sir Michael Barber is chairman of Delivery Associates and author of several books including Accomplishment: How To Achieve Ambitious and Challenging Things.

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