Last week saw the launch of a new book focused on the What Works Centres; their past, their history, and their future. Ligia Teixeira, Chief Executive of the Centre for Homelessness Impact, contributed a chapter.
As a co-editor of the book, and as someone who has been working in and around the What Works Network since its inception ten years ago, this offered an opportunity for reflection on how far we’ve come, and where we still fall short.
Perhaps the most important area for improvement across the board is in our consideration of inequality (discussed in a chapter of the book by Ella Whelan), and the intersectionality of the factors affecting the various outcomes that What Works Centres are interested in. This is perhaps never clearer than in the case of homelessness.
People do not experience homelessness in a vacuum. As I have written elsewhere, young people with a social worker, and particularly those with care experience, are more likely to experience homelessness than other young people. Economic disadvantage in adulthood - which is associated strongly with childhood poverty, but also related to low educational attainment and disconnection from the labour market - are also strong predictors of experiencing homelessness. Poor health and mental health, the use of illegal substances, and involvement in illegal activity, as well as spending time in prison, similarly affect the likelihood that a person experiences homelessness. There are, of course What Works Centres - ranging from what works for crime reduction, to the youth futures foundation and the national institute for health and care excellence, which focus on each of these steps along the journey towards homelessness, but rarely do they consider effects on housing - if at all.
This works both ways, of course. While experiencing homelessness is more likely if certain events have happened in your past, that experience also affects these other outcomes too, making people more likely to be victim (or perpetrator) of crime, and making it harder to remain or become economically active.
As a result, interventions that might improve outcomes in one domain, could very easily spill over into others. For example, an ongoing project which CHI is working on in collaboration with the Cabinet Office and local authorities around England is looking at the effect of interventions during childhood for young people in care, and their subsequent housing experiences, to see if any positive effects translate into adulthood. Work done by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and What Works for Early Intervention and Children’s Social Care (WWEICSC) in archiving the data from their trials has the potential, with greater data linkage supported by government and research councils, to allow us to look into both broader and longer term outcomes from the hundreds of trials that the network has conducted so far, and it is hoped that CHI’s efforts to do the same will bear similar fruit.
Beyond methodological concerns, the overlap and intersectionality of risk factors and outcomes for many of the people who different centres work with suggest that interventions less specifically targeted on particular outcomes might be beneficial in improving a range of outcomes. One promising area for study here is the provision of unconditional cash transfers. Poverty alleviation measures have been shown to be effective at reducing homelessness in North American contexts, as well as increasing school grades, wellbeing, and reducing the risk of harm to children. It is for this reason that CHI and others have invested in testing the use of cash transfers for people at risk of homelessness; for young care leavers, and more, to try and improve outcomes across the board.
As the what works network moves into its second decade, there is a lot that can be done to consolidate what has been learned so far, to embrace greater collaboration, and to reduce the amount of duplicated work that is done, to ensure that the focus of all of our energies is spent, as much as possible, on the people whom our evidence is here to serve.
Michael Sanders is a Professor of Public Policy at the Policy Institute at King’s College London and was founding Chief Executive of What Works for Children's Social Care. He is an associate of the Centre for Homelessness Impact
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