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Evidence is everything- Mick Clarke

Homelessness is a societal issue that requires a truly societal solution. In the early days of the Covid 19 pandemic we saw first-hand what can be achieved when society truly works together to address the issue of homelessness.

Looking back, as we first emerged from the pandemic, it was a significant period of change for The Passage. To me, it felt like looking at a snow globe; everything had been shaken up, and all the bits were in flux. I thought we had two choices. We could watch as the pieces randomly settled, or we could try (whilst they were in flux) to move them a little; change things and take new approaches.

I was determined that for us at The Passage the right thing to do was the latter. And so, the pandemic continued to be a catalyst, encouraging us to take more risks and test new approaches. We looked at what we could continue to do differently to create lasting change. And we focused more on prevention.

We were guided throughout this challenging time by our values, which are the foundation of all we do. In our frontline work, we ask, ‘does this service or solution fit with our values?’ and strategically there have sometimes been contracts and funding we have turned down because we feel that they don’t align with our values. Every governance meeting starts with a reflection on our values and how they have been lived out since we last met. Whenever a new member of staff joins us, I like to meet them one to one, whatever their role. I talk to them about the values and how they underpin our ambition to be a truly learning organisation.

Striving to be a learning organisation means not being afraid to take risks and try new approaches, from the ground up. In fact, one of the best ways you learn is by making mistakes. You obviously don’t want to keep making the same ones, but it’s alright to make a mistake and if you are terrified of making a mistake you would never try anything new.

Sometimes you need to have the courage to try out new ideas and new approaches, otherwise nothing would ever change. Change (even if you do nothing) is guaranteed; progress is not. It is about looking at what change is needed and shaping that change, rather than being a passive bystander to change.

When the pandemic hit, whilst it was an incredibly stressful and concerning time, it also felt to be a time of opportunity. The Passage was part of a group that thrashed out the bare bones of Everyone In and then rolled it out, to help people who were sleeping on the streets into safe accommodation in empty hotel rooms. The Passage is all about bringing about systemic change, and by reframing street homelessness as a public health issue the Everyone In initiative was able. for a short period at least to do just that.

As I began to think of the shaken snow globe, and how we wanted the pieces to settle, we asked ourselves: what is the type of model we want to see? Rather than going back to what we did before. This led to the formation of our current 3-year strategy No Going Back.

We used an even more person-centred approach. Our day services, for example, had been so busy in the year or two before the pandemic that staff sometimes had to focus on just managing situations. During the time that we started to come out of Covid, we encouraged our staff to develop new ways of working, to create an improved quality, casework and person-centred approach.

And we focused even more on prevention. We wanted to harness that sense of urgency we had been embracing during Covid, that sense of ‘let’s buck the system, do it differently’. So, when people arrived at our Resource Centre who had that day become street homeless, but had yet to spend a first night out, we thought ‘we have been putting these people in hotels – why not test something’? We went back to our values, not being afraid to take risks, not worrying if it didn’t work, and decided to test it out. So, for a period of time, when those with low support needs arrived at one of our centres and were literally about to spend their first night out on the streets, we would put them in bed and breakfast accommodation immediately. It was very basic, and we called it No Night Out. And we tasked our specialist Private Rented Sector team to move them from temporary accommodation into stable homes.

That leads me on to the next crucial driver for change: data. By testing out and piloting our No Night Out approach, we gathered critical data that showed it was a preventative approach that was working and could be quantified. We used this evidence to work with government (under the fifth round of the Rough Sleeping Initiative) to secure funding to roll out No Night Out. After the first 12 months, the data tells us that No Night Out has prevented 101 people from spending a first night out on the streets. Critically, when viewing London’s CHAIN database (the platform on which all commissioned street outreach teams record street contacts), we could see that only one person was later recorded rough sleeping in CHAIN data. I am immensely proud of this.

Ensuring you have systems in place to capture what you are seeing on the ground, what is working (and what is not) and the emerging needs is critical to bringing about positive change.

For example, it was by being able to gather data across England on the anecdotal link between modern slavery and homelessness (which we published in a report commissioned by the Office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner) that led to us to categorically proving this link exists.

The data and evidence that we uncovered showed that in many ways homelessness is a common denominator in modern slavery; if you are on the street, you are very likely to be preyed upon. A lot of people who escape modern slavery end up street homeless. And of course, when you are engaged in modern slavery you may have a roof over your head, but you are certainly not in a safe, secure home.

By having this evidence, in addition to establishing a unique new navigator project for potential victims of modern slavery who were homeless, we were also able to convene two government departments to come together which resulted in the creation and launch of an online toolkit – the first of its kind, helping to equip people in the sector to create services in response.

Evidence is everything. It is not just important strategically, but also at an operational level; it is vital for staff to be able to see the fantastic work they are doing, or to identify where perhaps a new method of working is needed.

For The Passage, this has led to our focus on prevention. I think it was Baroness Louise Casey who first used this analogy a few years back, but it has always stayed with me. Sometimes our work can feel like tackling a bathtub overflowing – everybody rushing in with buckets and working incredibly hard to scoop the water out but, not much focus on turning off the taps and stopping it at source.

If as a sector we are serious about ending homelessness, then we need to be using evidence to show what is working – not just addressing the immediate needs of those on the streets, but what is working to prevent them ever ending up there in the first place.

Even in this immensely challenging time, with the cost-of-living crisis affecting many people, there is so much brilliant practice by so many great agencies out there and, with the launch of the Prince of Wales’s Homewards initiative, a real opportunity to highlight that good practice nationally.

We need to capture and share the evidence of that great work if we are to have any chance of ending homelessness by making it rare, brief, and unrepeated.

Mick Clarke is CEO of The Passage, The Passage is one of Homewards’ 16 Sector Partners.

This article was originally published by the Centre for Homelessness Impact.