Data and preventing homelessness

Andrew Walker, policy researcher at the Local Government Information Unit, discusses the talking points of the first Local Government Homelessness Commission

Last week, the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) held the first session of the Local Government Homelessness Commission. The meeting, the first in a series of four session investigating how councils can deliver on the goals of the Homelessness Reduction Act, was chaired by Cllr Peter Fleming, leader of Sevenoaks Council. The meeting focused on how local government can use data more effectively to design and target homelessness prevention strategies.

A panel of local government figures and experts heard presentations from Hackney Council, Bristol City Council and Croydon Council on their experiences with homelessness prevention strategies. There was also a broad discussion of the opportunities and challenges around using data more effectively. Several key themes emerged, which will be outlined below following an overview of the three presentations.

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 it’s clean and finding ways to use qualitative alongside quantitative information. Reduction in government funding for councils presents serious problems for Hackney residents, exacerbated by vastly increasing house prices.

The council also told the Commission about the ethical implications of using data, which are a central concern. Councils must be as transparent as possible. 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. A recent article in the Guardian raised concerns, perhaps unwarranted, over the use of personal data by councils, for example, and there are well publicised disputes about how the public sector uses personal information such as health records. Not to mention the stories about how private companies like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica hoover up private data about us and sell it for advertising or use it to target political campaigning. 

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 consequently 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.

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 must 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.

The data is collated from different council services into one database, with only the financial trigger points being visible to the Advice + team who contact households who appear to be at high risk of homelessness. This is due to GDPR regulations. The households with the highest number of points are prioritised. The database is live and captures information from internal council databases. The data received is then analysed by predictive modelling software against known homelessness triggers and a number of points is allocated to the individuals. Advice + workers then carry out calls to those being deemed priority cases to ask if they would like assistance from the council, in order to prevent them from becoming homeless. This is always couched in financial terms e.g. welfare benefits status, rent arrears, LHA eligibility being far lower than monthly rent etc. Caseworkers see very little personal information; only contact details, housing benefit reference numbers and dates of birth are shown, alongside known financial risks. Workers engage initially on financial triggers, but if households choose to disclose other information, they may advise and signpost or refer to services accordingly, with consent.

Unfortunately funding for this project is due to end next year. This means provisions need to be made if the programme is to continue.

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. This involves providing training, work and housing support mostly through council, public, voluntary and community services. Deprivation maps are used to identify those most at risk and then target preventative work. Councils also use these maps to determine which services are necessary and delivered in partnership with voluntary and community organisations. The Gateway brand has also been used to promote a social lettings agency with good results, and is being adopted by other council services. The emphasis is on providing stability for those at risk of homelessness, through training, support with job searching and debt advice.

The Commission heard from three councils doing innovative and forward thinking work to harness the potential of good data use in homelessness prevention work. But it is important to remember that the vast bulk of the local government sector is not at this stage. Most councils do not have the capacity, resources or the infrastructure to begin thinking about how to use data like this. Hackney Council’s lesson about getting the basics right before trying anything too advanced is a salient one, and some careful support for other authorities to build their capacity in stages would be extremely useful.

A key point of the discussion was that local authorities may have extensive data but may not always have the capacity to analyse it. Capacity needs to be built up, therefore, particularly as the data is not always of a high quality due to statutory requirements, thus making the data harder to compare. The predictive element of data collection is especially useful if local authorities use this in connection with homelessness ‘trigger points’. The panel discussed whether we fully understand what the local trigger points are. Usually we do, but this can vary across local authorities and we need to develop more sophisticated and ‘weighted’ analyses in many council areas. Even in councils with interesting data projects on the go there is often disparity within language used, particularly between service deliverers and the data team. Dialogue with citizens is also vital, and that the opportunities and risks must be communicated better.

As these are preventative measures, we need to think seriously about how we gather evidence that these interventions have actually worked and stopped people becoming homeless who might have otherwise. Though the indicators are there, it is challenging to prove a negative. 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 were often only provided with a limited number of options by the local authority.

Debt was another key theme of the meeting. This is often a big driver of homelessness and financial independence and poverty reduction should be a starting point. But as poverty is often due to a broad range of social factors it is a cross-departmental responsibility to alleviate these pressures, and not just a job for homelessness teams.

Finally, 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 at risk of losing important data in the transition. Councillors and officers need to ensure that DWP is willing to make good quality data accessible, therefore. It was pointed out that data from MHLGC and central government is often not very good. Councils have a big role to play working with government to populate central data bases to enable a more joined-up picture.

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.

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