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Ashley Horsey

Ashley is Chief Executive of Commonweal Housing.

Shared accommodation has a role to play in helping homeless people

While the coronavirus pandemic has taken so much from so many, it has given us all hope for a better future. The speed in which people sleeping rough were brought in at the beginning of lockdown gave many hope that we might be able to end homelessness for good.

Many housing charities and experts have been using this time to set out ambitious solutions to tackle the housing crisis once and for all. As someone who has worked in housing and homelessness for more than three decades, this has been exciting to be part of.

But among the reasoned, evidenced and necessary calls for new housebuilding and especially social homes, I am concerned that others are seeking an end to certain types of housing – with shared accommodation the most recently maligned.

While these messages come from a place of concern for vulnerable tenants, I would urge any calls to do away with certain parts of the sector be approached with extreme caution. To fall back on an over-used cliche, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

To rely on broad brush calls for no shared housing runs the risk of denigrating and demonising a range of valuable and important housing options. Defining the bright future as an independent self-contained house or flat for all (or even a self-contained hotel room) may be considered by most as the right option, but for some at key points in their lives it could be lonely, isolated, a burden and responsibility too far.

Let’s be clear, from cramped hostels to exploitative student housing, there is no doubt that some houses in multiple occupation are not fit for today let alone our desired future. But these are just part of a bigger picture of shared housing options.

At Commonweal Housing – an independent charity working to find housing solutions to social injustice – we have supported and promoted a number of shared housing projects in recent years. Peer Landlord, a partnership with Thames Reach, is a supportive housing project which appoints one lead tenant in a shared house to help their housemates with basic housing management and informal peer support. Our Move On Up project with Quaker Social Action uses supported shared housing to enable young adult carers to connect with people who have similar experiences.

These projects aren’t just shared because it’s more affordable but because of the chance they give residents to experience community, build relationships and develop important conflict-management skills. Such schemes may not be the ones those calling for an end to shared housing have in mind, but my concern is a simple headline can create an unhelpful narrative of shared is bad and self-contained is good – life is rarely so clear cut.

Like shared housing, self-contained properties come with their bad examples when not delivered well and not managed effectively. Take some of the converted office blocks, or shipping containers, which have been the centre of the controversy. Many people may nominally have a roof over their heads, but that roof can be inadequate and unsafe, putting them out of sight, out of mind – a box literally ticked.

“Coronavirus can be deadly but so are cold winter nights, and failing to advocate for continued funding for humanitarian services could have devastating consequences”

Even with good-quality properties, we know that many people sleeping rough have struggled in self-contained housing, with some returning to the streets where they felt community and security from their peers.

But what about the most temporary forms of emergency accommodation? Some have been calling for an end to the use of communal hostels and congregate night shelters, initially as a direct response to the COVID-19 crisis.

While night shelters should not be part of the long-term future for any individual, it is negligent to not plan for such emergency measures as part of a comprehensive system – while making them as COVID secure as possible – recognising the awfulness of the alternative.

There remains a flow of new people on to the streets. The oncoming end to the ban on evictions risks a whole new cohort of people without a home. Recent evidence has found that rough sleeping crept up by 33% between April and June, while the number of new rough sleepers rose by 77%. Coronavirus can be deadly but so are cold winter nights, and failing to advocate for continued funding for humanitarian services could have devastating consequences.

I may no doubt be accused by some of accepting the worst and undermining calls for real long-term solutions. Or maybe people can see that to end homelessness for good we need the broadest array of options and solutions.

We need to learn lessons to improve shared housing and dormitory style hostels and night shelters instead of demonising them, as I fear they are all likely to be required for many years to come as our brighter future rises from the ground.

This article was originally published in Inside Housing.

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