Local leadership shows the way on homelessness

Piali Das Gupta was one of the Commissioners on the LGiU Homelessness Commission; following the publication last week of the final report and recommendations by the Commission she tells us about that experience.

I got my professional start working on homelessness with the Government of Canada. At the time, it felt as much a vocation as a job so when the LGIU invited me to sit on the Local Government Homelessness Commission, it felt like a chance to return to a personal passion. In reality, it was even more of a privilege than I expected because I learned so much over the course of our four evidence sessions.

The abiding lesson for me has been that culture change is fundamental. Whether we’re talking about implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act or taking a Housing First approach, it was really clear that there were some big cultural and behavioural shifts that were required from colleagues providing support to those affected by homelessness. Whether intentionally or not, austerity has certainly reinforced a gatekeeping mentality in the public sector and our systems have almost incentivised saying “no” rather than “how can I help?”

Places that are starting to make real progress in tackling homelessness have invested significantly in workforce development. Coming from a policy background, I was chastened to realise how little we acknowledge the importance of culture and the time and space required to change it when we’re proposing our whizzy new ideas.

We also saw what an important tool data is for local partners to understand the true scale of the problem in their areas, the local drivers, and the opportunities for intervening early. But we also learned that there are some uncomfortable tensions in the use of personal data to target public services. There are legitimate concerns about the ethics of using data in contexts that have not been specifically authorised and the flaws in approaches like predictive analytics. But ultimately it felt like it would be a bigger risk to get spooked and shy away from working through the issues.

This isn’t about surrendering human judgement to a computer; it’s about using tools to help us pick up on patterns and risks more rapidly and systematically than we can now. We were really encouraged to see some great examples of councils using the data they already held about residents appropriately, respectfully and effectively to be able to initiate contact that stopped people from losing their homes.

In closing, I just wanted to express my gratitude for everyone who shared their time and insight so generously with the Commission. It was so clear that across this country, there are so many people who have made eradicating homelessness a mission. Although we often talk about the need for national leadership, sometimes I wonder if what we actually need is for central government to follow the lead of those working tirelessly in our communities.

Piali Das Gupta was one of the Commissioners on the LGiU Homelessness Commission and is formerly Head of Policy at Solace.