From sleeping on the streets, to where?

From sleeping on the streets, to where?

‘Frank’ had been sleeping rough in Bristol for 32 years. Can you imagine what that was like for Frank, especially given that he also suffers from military post traumatic stress disorder?

Man sat down with his head down
"We have moved from supporting people to coaching people." - Graham Russell, Fellow

He is not alone. In Bristol, where I work, we have one of the highest rates of homelessness in the UK. In late 2019, Bristol City Council reported 98 rough sleepers in the National Rough Sleeper Count, the fifth highest number nationally. We also have a high prevalence of mental ill-health compared to the national average, including higher suicide rates and higher self-harm admissions to health services.

House prices in Bristol have risen more than any other city over the past five years. Rent prices are higher than the national average, and 29% of residents live in privately rented accommodation. Statistics also show that 45% of people who receive mental health support are living in insecure accommodation.

Also imagine being Frank living through the Covid-19 pandemic, when essential mental health support services have often shifted to digital delivery and when being asked to ‘isolate’ takes on a whole new irony and a new risk.

The efforts to help people like Frank over those 32 years have come and gone, with some initiatives making positive steps forward. However, these have mostly been dwarfed by both the systemic issues in the housing market and the increasing number of people with more complex mental health needs. Frank stayed living on the streets during all of those initiatives – they did not change his life.

Covid-19 has exposed this and other social inequalities, such as food poverty, highlighting that something needs to be done to address homelessness and reset solutions as lasting societal change. The Government has recently committed £266m to the Next Steps Accommodation Programme, which is a welcome step in addressing the homelessness crisis. That initiative aims to support rough sleepers to move from hotels into more sustainable accommodation, along with providing the support they need to enable their recovery from mental ill health.

In England, 90% of homeless people and rough sleepers (15,000 people) have been sheltered away from the virus in hotels as part of the ‘Everyone in’ effort. In Bristol, around 400 ‘Franks’ have been placed in emergency accommodation, with some 200 placed in five hotels.

In Bristol, organisations have recently come together to create the Change for Good project which will see key organisations work together to shift the homelessness paradigm. The main sponsors are Bristol City Council, the health-based Clinical Commissioning Group and Golden Key, a city-wide partnership. Its ambitions are to secure more than 660 homes, together with personalised recovery plans for the future.

Golden Key is funded by the Big Lottery Fund and led by Second Step, a mental health organisation which I have chaired since 2016. The aim of this partnership is to develop collaborative approaches to tackling deep-rooted and complex societal issues. This includes co-designing services that consider the lived experiences of service users, which are all too often overlooked. People like Frank are encouraged to have a voice and contribute their experience of what works and what doesn’t work in terms of recovery services.

As an organisation, Second Step has a proven track record of changing the system. In addition to work in Bristol, we have fundamentally changed the approach for those at risk of homelessness in Somerset. This includes ensuring people have their own independent, permanent housing, rather than focusing on whether people ‘qualify’ for such housing. We have moved from supporting people to coaching people, with the aim of developing their skills, their independence and their recovery journey. In the past year, 95% of our 234 clients have experienced a positive change in their housing situation and are on their way to recovery. In South Gloucestershire, we are working with GP practices to provide a more integrated offer to clients faced with physical and mental health needs. Our recovery navigators work with people to help connect them to community activities and health professionals in a way that works for them.

My 2013 Fellowship on The Value of Investing in Social Housing set the tone and pace for my work as Chair of Second Step. Back in 2013 I argued for:

  • The importance of seeing public spending on social housing as a key investment.
  • The value in developing co-funding arrangements between the public, private and community housing sectors.
  • The need to strengthen the political priority of social and affordable housing.
  • A closer collaboration between housing organisations and providers of support services (health, social care, skills development, social enterprise).

What of Frank? Well, in July 2020 Frank passed the one-year anniversary of living in a permanent home provided by Second Step and Golden Key. He has been an excellent tenant and, despite some persistent mental health issues, he has a wider network of friends and support networks. We put housing first for Frank and it has been the foundation for this positive change in his life.

There is no place like home – for all of us.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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