Rural Housing First – Sticking to the principles?
Aberdeenshire really is quite an interesting and diverse place. You realise this when you drive over the Cairn O Mount on your commute to work (or when we used to commute to work). The road famous for being closed in the winter due to snow that you share with farmers going to their livestock, where you dodge deer and lorries who shouldn’t have followed their Sat Nav. At the top you can see a lot of Aberdeenshire ahead of you. Mountains, sea, and lots of countryside but also lots of towns well spread out. The relatively affluent areas of Royal Deeside directly in front but in the distance further than the eye can see some large fishing communities that are some of the most deprived in Scotland. And every time you remember how lucky you are to live in such a beautiful place and help the people that live there.
As housing first starts to roll out across Scotland these are the areas and communites that Housing First also now needs to work for. It is important to remember that Housing First was set up in large cities to help get rough sleepers off the street and although we have some short term rough sleeping in general we do not have long term rough sleepers in Aberdeenshire.
We are now into our fourth year of housing first in Aberdeenshire and its been going really well. We have a lot of success stories and we have plans to expand the project significantly. As well as the really good outcomes for our customers there have been significant financial savings for public services. But the way we do things is a bit different. We tend to work more in partnership to provide support. We will try and avoid having one of the housing first workers travelling 50 miles to visit a client if there are other services in the area that can help. So although they are an important part of the support they are also a coordinator in the whole package of support that is needed.
The other key thing that is different for us is the client group we are helping will be different to cities. Many of our clients may already be in temporary accommodation or in their own tenancy so looking at the 1st principle of housing first - that people have a right to a home then it is clear we are meeting this principle. We have converted over 200 properties from temporary accommodation to permanent accommodation in the last 2 years and this approach helps people remain in communities they are settled in and where it can be months or years for another vacancy to come up. It also means their home is furnished and they are able to keep all the belongings.
The 2nd principle is about having flexible support as long as its needed. Having support without an end date can be challenging especially when you are working in partnership with other services. You need to get them to understand what the aims of the project are and by upstreaming support saves them work in the long run and more importantly improves outcomes. It is also important to recognise success and we have been lucky to have seen some clients move on from the service as they have decided it is no longer needed. Even in these circumstances we archive clients, we never close them.
Housing and Support are separated is the 3rd principle. It doesn’t matter if a service is in a rural area or an urban area, this should be a key part of any project. This is what can make a real change to people, to know even if something goes wrong there is a consistent in their life.
The 4th principle is about individuals having choice and control. This is where we start to struggle. In rural areas we have a lot less choice. Some communities may not have had a vacancy for many years and we just cannot meet the requirements. Although there will be areas in cities which are equally under demand an offer may come within a neighbouring area that is easy to access. In Aberdeenshire this can be much harder with very poor transport between localities and settlements being far apart. Housing First applicants will not have any less choice than anyone else however.
Moving on to the 5th principle - An active engagement approach is used. In Aberdeenshire our worker caseload is slighter higher due to the way we work but it is also important for us to acknowledge our clients may not be as chaotic as long term rough sleepers and we may be able to help more people. We ensure the service is built around the needs of the client and every case is different.
In any housing first service it is important to remember that every client is coming from a different place and background and it is not possible to have a one size fits all approach. In Aberdeenshire it is important we get our partners to understand this and we have regular partnership meetings to make sure we keep everyone on board with this approach. The 6th principle is ensuring the service is based on peoples strengths, goals and aspirations and this approach helps meet this.
The final principle is a harm reduction approach should be used. This is important and for us this links back to having the right staff and the right partners in place to focus on where there are urgent needs. In rural areas there are often less support services available, especially in more remote settlements. The housing first service therefore always needs to consider not only how to help people in these situations but how to get service users to places where there are support networks and ultimately assess if the person would be better off living in a different area closer to their support networks to give them a better chance at succeeding.
So do the principles work in rural areas. The answer seems to be yes but the way we do things needs to be a different and the client group may also be different. Ultimately the most important thing is the service needs to work for you and your area and do not try and replicate something that works in a different environment. Throughout this I have talked about the rural nature of Aberdeenshire. I was recently in a worldwide discussion about rural housing first and there was an organisation from Canada talking about some of their clients being 3 and 4 hours away or even a plane ride away. These conversations help you reflect that when you think you have it challenging there is always somewhere else that has it worse. Do principles work in those areas? We will leave that for another day!