Putting housing first in Oxford

Monday, 28 July 2014 - 12:00am

Is there ever an ideal solution for people so entrenched in sleeping rough that they refuse all traditional offers of support? Lesley Dewhurst, CEO of Oxford Homeless Pathways, explains how they have adapted the Housing First model for Oxford and how it is beginning to work.

Like many places in the UK, Oxford has a sizeable cohort of people sleeping rough who do not cope in hostels and have been entrenched in sleeping rough for years.

There are those who are fearful of hostels.  They don’t like being around other people, particularly those with chaotic behaviour.  They generally have mental health or substance misuse problems themselves – often both together.

And there are others who do periodically come in, but they find the environment difficult and it exacerbates poor behaviour. They are either excluded or they abandon services of their own accord.  Again, mental health and substance misuse issues are often at the heart of it.

Perhaps this sounds familiar. We knew the patterns weren’t exclusive to Oxford, which is why we looked beyond the city for possible solutions.

"I previously thought I would die on the streets and had accepted that would be the case."

Our interest was grabbed by the Housing First model – which originated in the USA but is slowly growing here in the UK. As you know, most homelessness services in the UK operate on a “treatment first” basis – with individuals expected to progress through a homelessness pathway which positions self-contained accommodation as the holy grail at the end.

Housing First reverses that. The basic concept is that an individual sleeping rough goes straight into a self contained tenancy, without first tackling the issues that have caused or are exacerbating their homelessness.  Support is coordinated on an individual basis, depending on need.

We know that Housing First isn’t the best solution for everyone, but we hoped it might well work in a small way for us in Oxford. 

Flat hunting

One of our first challenges was to identify suitable properties. Renting in the city is particularly difficult – after all, why should any landlord want to rent accommodation at low cost to such potentially high risk tenants when they can so easily find people willing to pay high rents.

The timing couldn’t have been better when a wonderful person left a substantial legacy – enough to fund the purchase of four flats and giving us a real opportunity to get the project off the ground.

We decided to look for a range of flats to give us more scope to satisfy individual choice.  We wanted to find places where our clients would not stick out, but we also wanted to make sure that the accommodation we provided was good quality.  We also felt that it would be important not to buy flats that were too big – partly so as not to encourage long-term unwanted visitors or partying, and partly because these flats were never intended to be permanent, otherwise the project would simply silt up.

We recognised that there would be different preferences for location and type of flat, so looked for variety.  We deliberately aimed to ensure that the flats were not in close proximity and were not in areas with a high proliferation of people who had been previously homeless.

To date, we have purchased three flats and we are still seeking a fourth. One is in a tower block, one is a studio flat on the edge of a large housing estate and the third is a first floor flat in a relatively non residential backwater.  We want the fourth to be on the ground floor with a self-contained garden – something suitable for one of the many entrenched rough sleepers who are fearful of enclosed spaces and who often have a dog in tow.

Length of stay

Unlike the American Housing First model, where the expectation is that the tenant can stay as long as they like – or, if things aren’t working out in that particular flat, they will be moved to another one) we decided that, for practical reasons of enabling us to support all the people we can, we would expect our clients to move on within a couple of years.

We negotiated with Oxford City Council to allow our Housing First clients access to the normal move-on route if we could establish that they were able to pay rent and keep up with bills, and that they were not likely to cause anti-social behaviour.

There is acknowledgement among professionals that the normal requirement of being drug free for a period of time, or to have alcohol consumption within a certain level, is not necessarily attainable nor necessary for this client group.  We are in the business of finding ways to support our Housing First clients simply to maintain their accommodation at a relatively basic level rather than become model citizens.


We did not want to underestimate the amount of support these tenants would need, and we were also keen to benefit from the expertise of someone who had experienced homelessness themselves.  Our decision to appoint one full time support worker and one part time peer support worker is broadly similar to the Housing First scheme in Glasgow. These roles have been funded by Oxford City Council for an initial two year period.


It is essential to get partner agencies on board from the outset, so they have a commitment to the project and understand the need to go “above and beyond” with their interventions.

The Oxford City Outreach team (managed by St Mungo’s Broadway) is a key partner.  They have the most significant contact with the rough sleeping population, so we work closely with them. Along with primary care from mental health practitioners at Luther Street Medical Centre, other support is brokered according to individual need.  We have also found the police and local Anti Social Behaviour team to be helpful and supportive.

Pre-tenancy work

As expected, the process of identifying likely candidates and the subsequent process of engaging with them is a lengthy one, with many false starts and dead ends.  An initial list was drawn up of potential candidates – some of whom were simply not interested (though we haven’t given up on them by any means) and others who we felt were probably too high risk to cut our teeth on – perhaps further down the line when we are more experienced! 

Once we had identified potential candidates, the most important thing to do initially was to gain the trust of the individuals concerned. Most were suspicious at first and dismissive of our offers. Alison, the Housing First support worker, spent many hours either with the Outreach Team or meeting up with potential clients in cafes or drop-in centres.  A lot of her work involved making it clear what we were offering and how it was different from the traditional approaches that had not worked for them in the past.

“I have been able to make the flat family orientated and have my grandchildren to visit for the first time.”

Personal budgets

In addition to refurbishing the properties, we set aside a budget of £1k for each Housing First client to spend on furnishing the flat in whatever way he or she wanted.  They can take all of this with them when they leave and the next person would have a similar budget to spend.  It has been important to give people as much choice as possible – after all, the reason they are with us is because it has not worked out for them in more traditional homelessness services.

It has been interesting how our 3 initial tenants have all spent this very differently.  Jim didn’t want a bed, he wanted a guitar stand.  Gary only wanted brand new kitchen equipment and was rather unrealistic about what he could get for his money.

The key to the door

The key to the whole project has been flexibility, good working relationships with partner agencies and maintaining the relationships with the clients. Only with this balance has it been possible to engage with this group of people, and to ensure that moving into independent accommodation is the first step on a long journey, not the end of the journey itself.

Gary's story

Gary was initially resistant to even looking at any of the flats. One of the first we had bought was on the 10th floor of a tower block and this seemed to be the least likely place that he would agree to live. He had already made it clear that he was terrified of being trapped and, after 8 years of sleeping rough in a rural environment, this would seem to be too enclosed and different.

“Housing First gave me an opportunity and I have been able to demonstrate what I can do, all my skills have come into play to make the place look comfortable.”

However, he agreed to go and at least have a look at the area which reminded him of somewhere he had lived as a child. He had good memories of this and agreed to look at the flat. Though he had been initially put off by the position of the flat in the middle of a high rise, he was pleased to find that there were two routes in and out – giving him the feeling he could escape if he needed to.  The views are magnificent, and the flat is bright and airy which he liked.

However, even having agreed to move in, it was a huge effort to get him there. Gary was very anxious about committing to the tenancy and there were many false starts. In the end, Alison gave him the keys to the flat without signing the tenancy agreement, suggesting he at least tried staying for one night. This worked and, 10 months later, he is still there.

There have been many ups and downs and numerous interventions by Alison, Ben and others, and Gary may yet decide to leave, but there is no doubt that his life is now significantly different than it was before.