As part of the Local Government Homelessness Commission, LGiU held an evidence session on data and homelessness prevention last week. This was the first in a series of four sessions investigating how councils can deliver on the goals of the Homelessness Reduction Act. It was chaired by Cllr Peter Fleming, leader of Sevenoaks District Council and our panel of local government experts heard presentations from Hackney Council, Bristol City Council and Croydon Council on their experiences under the HRA so far. There is some great stuff going on out there, which needs to be celebrated and built on. But it’s a complex area and we need to do a lot of careful work across local government to go through the stages, build capacity, get the basics right, and make sure that we really make the case for data as a crucial component of homelessness prevention.
- Hackney Council told us about how they use data in order to prevent homelessness amongst the most vulnerable in the community. The system is in the early stages but is being driven thanks to supportive management and a skilled in-house data team. They insist that when it comes to using data, it’s vital to get the basics right first. This means collecting good data, making sure its clean and finding ways to use qualitative alongside quantitative information.
- Bristol City Council gave a presentation to the Commission about their Trailblazer work, funded by the government, which they have used to analyse data and determine those who were most at risk of becoming homeless by looking at key trigger points. The council’s work addresses a major challenge, in trying to join up data from different sources in order to have a comprehensive picture of an individual or family’s situation, and therefore identify and support the most vulnerable before they become homeless.
- Croydon Council presented on methods tackling homelessness under their Gateway programme, which has seen a sustained reduction in homelessness over the past three years. The Gateway was introduced to tackle the causes of homelessness, such as poverty, and deal with issues holistically.
The predictive element of data collection is especially useful if local authorities use this in connection with homelessness ‘trigger points’. Trigger points can vary across local authorities and we need to develop more sophisticated and ‘weighted’ analyses in many council areas. But it is important that local authorities do not stop trying to influence the structural social issues that lead to homelessness. This is particularly pertinent as, even with a far more sophisticated use of data, people in crisis are often only provided with a limited number of options by their council. Debt is a key driver of homelessness and financial independence and poverty reduction should be a starting point. And because poverty is caused by a broad range of social factors it is a cross-departmental responsibility to alleviate these pressures, not just a job for homelessness teams. Furthermore, Universal Credit could have an adverse impact on homelessness when it is rolled out, with debt levels predicted to increase among those already vulnerable. But local authorities are also also worried that they risk of losing important data in the transition.
While these councils are doing innovative and forward thinking work to harness the potential of good data in homelessness prevention, the vast bulk of the local government sector is not at this stage. Most councils do not yet have the capacity, resources or the infrastructure to begin thinking about how to use data like this and it is. Hackney Council provided a lesson about getting the basics right before trying anything too advanced, which is a salient one, and some careful support for other authorities to build their capacity in stages would be extremely useful.
Language is key and good dialogue with citizens is vital. It is particularly important to demonstrate to the public the value of predictive and preventative work. Indeed, one of the key challenges currently is how data collection is perceived by the public. There have been recent concerns over the use of personal data by councils, for example, and well publicised disputes about how the public sector uses personal information such as health records. Not to mention the stories about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. In this environment the panel agreed that we in the public sector need to make the positive case for using data about citizens. This should outline the benefits that this can bring particularly with regard to preventative programmes in homelessness. Local authorities have always held a lot of disparate data about people and it is necessary to make the public aware of this. We also need to demonstrate the reasons behind collecting and using this data in order to try to help vulnerable peoples’ lives better. This should help to mitigate fears and to build a more constructive dialogue.
This was the first of four evidence sessions for the Local Government Homelessness Commission. The next session, chaired by Cllr Simon Blackburn, leader of Blackpool Council, will take place on 20 November and will focus on supporting young people who are at risk of homelessness.