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Housing First - International Evidence & Experience

Updated: Mar 17, 2021

50 Lives 50 Homes Manager, Leah Watkins is the only Western Australian to attend the Housing First Europe Hub Train-the-Trainer project.

The principles and approach of Housing First underpin a large part of our Strategy to End Homelessness in WA. In early 2019, we commissioned the development of some early-stage exploration into this approach in the WA setting, including the creation of several resources for the community sector and others working to end homelessness.

Last year, Homelessness Australia sought expressions of interest from Advanced Practitioners to be part of the Housing First Europe Train-the-Trainer project. The project is a partnership with the Housing First Europe Hub, which has a strategic aim of promoting and supporting the implementation of Housing First in Europe and beyond.

The Australian contingent (L-R) Tamara Sequeira (Homelessness NSW), Leah Watkins (50 Lives 50 Homes), Natasha Rodrigues (Micah Projects, Brisbane), Rosie Dodd (Launch Housing, Melbourne) designing the Australian Housing First principles.

Leah Watkins along with three others successfully applied to attend the course and they were, Tamara Sequeira (Homelessness NSW), Natasha Rodrigues (Micah Projects, Brisbane) and Rosie Dodd (Launch Housing, Melbourne). The representatives comprised a good mix of both people running frontline services and those working in project roles.

A total of 31 people from different countries, across Europe, ranging from Finland to Spain and Ireland to Russia participated in the project. This diverse nature of the group allowed Leah to see how completely different homelessness systems from around the world work.

What was evident is how countries run Housing First in a whole range of different contexts. Some countries had no social housing, so are using private rentals. England, seemingly the “land of council housing”, has half of their Housing First going to private rentals.

“The idea that we don’t have enough houses (in Australia) or we don’t have the right mix is actually about well let’s take a look at what we do have and what we can work with,” said Leah.

Leah Watkins

Another aspect which differed among the countries were the principles of Housing First. It became evident to the Australian contingent that if they were to come back to Australia to deliver a uniform training program then an Australian version of the principles needed to be settled upon.

“Europe has eight principles, England has seven, Canada and the U.S. has five and while they are fairly consistent, it left us with a range of versions to choose from” explained Leah.

“We had some talks with Homelessness Australia, and we sat in a hotel in Copenhagen and drafted the Australian Housing First principles. That was revised and went to the Homelessness Australia board and has been approved.

“Our decisions came about by cross referencing all of the other countries’ principles, folding in some of the learning from the training and we also had some feedback from Aboriginal people that were working with Homelessness NSW to make sure we emphasise the important things given the significance of Aboriginal homelessness in Australia.”

Homelessness Australia has committed to doing further work to develop Australian Housing First principles specifically for young people and Indigenous people.

The Australian Principles

The principles that have been endorse by Homelessness Australia go into more detail, but the below summarise some of the key points and were presented as part of the workshop.

- Everybody has a right to a home

The principles begin with probably the most familiar idea of Housing First. People should get immediate access to housing with not housing readiness criteria.

When Leah visited the Netherlands, they witnessed their “surprise house” approach where on the first day when someone meets their Housing First worker, they are given a set of keys to their new home. This process of handing over the keys is a very important part of their model and the future relationship with a client.

“It is a critical part of their engagement,” Leah explained. “For the people they are supporting it changes the relationship because they see the support worker as the person who brought to me the house and who has trusted me to have this house and will put the support around me to keep it.”

- Housing and support are separated

This Housing First principle decouples housing provision from support provision allowing the Housing First worker to be entirely focused on offering the support for the person and “unwavering advocacy”.

As a result of doing this, housing providers are then freed up to offer the right house to the right person rather than having properties tied to programs.

Leah explains the principle means “people go into the houses that suit them, the support follows the person, it goes in that house for that person and if that person moves house the support goes with them, it does not stay with the house”.

Currently housing providers keep so rigidly to eligibility criteria for a program – due to a shortage of supply – that some people are missing out even though they suit the house.

- Flexible support for as long as is needed

You can’t expect the most vulnerable people in our community who have experienced years of homelessness and ongoing and repeated trauma to be “better” after a year of case management. It’s not just about having the support all the time, but letting it rise and fall in intensity as needed.

This is a challenge in our current context where timeframes are allocated to funding. It cannot work when we force people to be “fixed in a year”.

- Active engagement without coercion

Workers are persistent without intruding, making ongoing and regular offers of support.

“This is done by subtle skilled workers who don’t fall into the trap of reminding a client that they are a client, but develop authentic supportive relationships” says Leah.

- Choice and self-determination

A lot of services in both the UK and the Netherlands gave significant amounts of space for people to be involved in the design and running of their own services.

Housing First allows people to choose who they live with, what type of housing they live in and for Aboriginal people especially, the land they live on.

- Social and community inclusion

How you connect people back into community is critical as having meaningful relationships and community connection not only rebuilds someone’s life but is a protective factor for their tenancy, mental health and well being. Support not only helps people connect to that community, but also uses strategies to build acceptance amongst neighbours of people with different experiences, lifestyles, and appearances.

- Recovery orientated practice

This is a familiar practice from the mental health sector.

Understanding the dignity of risk vs duty of care here is critical. “It is about realising people more than their diagnosis and that it is OK to fail,” explains Leah.

Duty of care refers to the responsibility of people to take reasonable care to ensure their actions, or inactions, do not cause permanent injury or death. Dignity of risk understands that duty of care does not mean we should wrap people up in cotton wool to ensure nothing every goes wrong for them. It outlines how people should have the freedom to make decisions and choices that may expose themselves to a level of risk because this helps them grow as a person, build their resilience and live a “real life”.

- Harm reduction approach

A familiar concept from the drug and alcohol sector.

This Housing First principle is not about being blasé about alcohol, drug use, self-harm or gambling, but about understanding the part these play in people’s lives and using range of strategies to reduce harm for those don’t want to be abstinent.

“Nobody does harm reduction as comprehensively as the Dutch,” Leah said. “Every service I saw allowed drinking and drug use on site. In the U.K. I visited a day centre where people could drink in that building.”

For Leah it was a revelation that what seems normal to us is just rules we have chosen. We must be non-judgmental and not expect people to be perfect citizens because most drug users and alcoholics in our community do have tenancies and mortgages and we should learn from them what works best.

What's next?

Once the third and final training session is completed, the four accredited Housing First trainers will develop a train the trainer course for Australia. Homelessness Australia plan to host this for 30 participants nationally who will then join Leah and the other trainers in rolling out Housing First training nationally.

Originally planned for April, the next training course in Europe has been postponed until September. Leah and the other trainers will be using this time to develop and road test elements of the training and sharing their learning with the sector.


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