Housing First? Approaches in Wales and Europe


The Welsh Government has recently passed its first ever housing bill. The Housing (Wales) Bill outlines a number of measures put in place to strengthen the rights of vulnerable groups in society in terms of housing, and to improve the provision of services for those experiencing homelessness.

The Bill, however, is a shadow of the radical changes outlined in the preceding white paper Homes for Wales. Amongst other reasons, this has been attributed to the influence of local government who would have to deliver these services, and the increasing scarcity of resources has played a part in diminishing the white paper proposals into more realistic reform. In this article, I will give a brief overview of the Bill within the context of the Housing First approach to homelessness which is gathering momentum across Europe.

The Housing First, or Pathways Approach to homelessness, was first developed in the USA by Dr Sam Tsemberis in the late 1980s. Unlike the typical ‘staircase approach’ to housing for those who are experiencing homelessness, the Housing First approach is not based on housing readiness but the idea that housing is a basic human right.

The fundamental concept is that once housing has been provided, support for other issues can follow, with the result being that solutions are more sustainable. Wide-spread across the United States, this approach is now being adopted or trialled across Europe, most notably in Finland. Although constructed differently in different areas, the approach has four main features as described by a report into the scheme by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2007:

  1. Direct or nearly direct placement of targeted homeless people into permanent housing
  2. Participation in support services by the individual to remain in housing is not required
  3. Assertive outreach is used, with a low demand approach taken to individuals within the programme
  4. Continued effort to provide case management and hold housing if an individual is away for the programme for a short period

This aims of this approach are based on the belief that once housing has been put in place, individuals are much more able to address other issues in their lives in a more sustainable way. The outcomes therefore are better both for those who are experiencing support, and those funding this support. Central to this programme is the need for housing to be established in order to enable individuals to take control of other aspects of their lives.

I suggest that the white paper Homes for Wales also supports these aims through its two stage ‘Housing Solutions Approach’ to reforming homelessness legislation. The white paper promised an agenda which is “distinctively Welsh, based on our long-term commitments to social justice, tackling poverty and sustainable development” (Homes for Wales, p.2). The proposed homelessness approach allowed individuals who had nowhere safe to stay to have access to immediate temporary accommodation.

Unlike the tests on vulnerability which are currently in legislation across England and Wales, the criteria for help and support at this stage was a lack of safe accommodation. This proposal was to be supported through an increased emphasis on prevention of homelessness within both third sector and statutory services. The individual in this circumstance would be supported for 6 months while a solution to their housing need was resolved, and if a solution had not been found by the end of 6 months the Local Authority would carry out tests on vulnerability, intentionality, and local connection. Although this proposal was resource heavy, it did provide a fair and equal approach – something clearly emphasised by the Welsh Government in both the white paper and more general rhetoric.

Although this is clearly different from the Housing First Approach due to its emphasis on temporary accommodation, the incentive for change was similar – people need to be in housing before a sustainable solution to their housing, and broader needs, can be found.

The Housing (Wales) Bill introduces a holistic set of measures aimed at improving the housing sector in Wales, and the ability of the sector to meet the increasing needs of individuals. Included in this reform is the introduction of the regulation of landlords and letting agents, an increase in council tax on empty homes, and the duty for Local Authorities to undertake, and deliver on, needs assessments for their Gypsy and Traveller communities. As previously mentioned, there is a marked difference between the duties outlined in the white paper prior to the Bill, and the Bill itself which is most obvious in terms of the Bill’s commitment to reforming the approach to homelessness in Wales.

Instead of the ‘Housing Solutions Approach’, the Bill retains the tests of vulnerability, intentionality, and local connection at the first interaction of individual with Local Authority – or first presentation as homeless. Individuals are therefore assessed as to whether they are ‘vulnerable enough’ for the Local Authority to have a duty to house them. This consists of a test as to whether an individual is ‘more vulnerable that the average homeless person’, a bar that seems very low. Individuals with severe depression, or substance misuse problems, have been found not ‘vulnerable enough’ as these conditions are those that ‘the average homelessness person’ could expect to experience.

The approach taken in the Bill, then, does not immediately recognise the need for individuals to have housing as a basic human right. Nor does it support the Housing First approach by which sustainable solutions are found fundamentally by providing accommodation.  I argue that this change from a Housing First influenced approach in the white paper, to one still based on priority need, undermines the Welsh Government’s claim to an approach based on social justice as they promote in the white paper. Across both the US and Finland the Housing First Approach is seen to have positive results in providing more sustainable, and more cost effective, solutions to chronic homelessness. More importantly however, as shown so clearly in this @home video, it allows people to feel “human again”.

Helen Taylor is a PhD candidate at the Wales Governance Centre, and Department of Politics and International Relations, at Cardiff University. Her thesis looks at developing a test for social justice in contemporary social policy, using the Housing (Wales) Bill as a case study. She can be contacted @practademia or at taylorh16@cf.ac.uk.