Earlier this month we achieved recognition from the prestigious Institute for Public Policy Research in its latest report rethinking homelessness in rural communities titled ‘Right to Home?’.

Freedom Centre: A case study for good practice

The Freedom Centre is used as a case study for good practice highlighting the range of services and the multi-agency partnerships available in one place that make the provision so effective for people in crisis. The report says “These services help to both prevent and relieve homelessness, as they are available to homeless individuals and households encountering challenges which, if not picked up early, could contribute to homelessness in the future.”

Nigel Harris, Managing Director of Freedom Community Alliance says

“The IPPR recommends some strategies that have been part of Freedom Community Alliance’s way of working for the past 11 years, to ‘rural-proof’ areas like North Devon and help effectively address the homelessness issue both in terms of prevention and taking care of those who are already homeless.”

Homelessness in England is on the rise

According to the report, homelessness across England is on the rise, and rural areas, not immune to this trend, face unique challenges as they endeavour to address homelessness in their areas.

The IPPR report revealed that an average of 1.3 households for every 1,000 in areas like North Devon are accepted as homeless, yet the figures are thought to be higher due to the difficulty in reaching remote areas for rough sleeper counts and the use of cars, garages, outhouses, sheds and barns making homelessness less visible.

Between 2010 – 2016, homelessness in ‘mainly rural areas’ (such as Mid Devon and Torridge) rose a staggering 32% and a leap of 52% was recorded in ‘largely rural areas’ like North Devon and Teignbridge. Clearly, the image of urban homeless people living on the streets remains a reality for cities and towns, yet is in no way contained to these areas. The difference between these areas though poses some unique challenges to Local Authorities and charities like ours who are working to reduce homelessness and its causes in North Devon.

Working in partnership makes a difference

By working in partnership through ‘hubs’ like the Freedom Centre, a range of services can be brought together in one building so that vulnerable people at risk of, or experiencing homelessness, can find relevant advice and interventions, not only pertaining to homelessness but also mental health, substance abuse and financial problems in an environment that is easily accessible. In rural areas where services are often long distances from each other, partnership working diminishes the need for those already in precarious situations to travel long distances or to several locations to receive support and help for a singular, or even multiple, issues.

Working in partnership with housing agencies, health providers, substance misuse teams, police and probation officers and environmental services are key to mitigating challenges of scale, distance and ensuring specialist services can be accessed by all who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness. Freedom’s Housing Hub and Community Hub are an example of how well these approaches work.

Since December 2016, visits to our Freedom Centre service, rose to an average of 60 visitors most days. The free hot meal, showers, internet access, job search and CV writing support, debt advice, health promotion and volunteering opportunities, would otherwise be difficult for local people to access given the distance between urban centres like Exeter. The local authority office and their weekly presence further strengthen the partnership working ethos between local authorities and other service providers, enabling vulnerable people to be easily sign-posted to the services that can help their plight.

The idealistic view of rural living providing better opportunities and quality of lives leaves little room to consider homelessness and contributes to the under-recognition of the challenges faced in rural areas by households and services who work with them.

The IPPR recommends that other rural areas establish similar homelessness forums and community hubs to that of Freedom’s services, to coordinate services, share best practice and gather intelligence in the work to eradicate homelessness in England and meet the requirements of the new Homelessness Reduction Act (2017).

Increasing pressure on homeless services

Nigel Harris adds “The new Homelessness Reduction Act will increase pressure on already cash-strapped local authorities and inevitably their charity partners such as Freedom. Working together in hubs such as Freedom Centre is not only effective for service delivery but is cost-effective for all parties. However, with dwindling government funds the challenge is to raise funds to keep the Freedom Centre open and carry on making services free at the point of need. We are very much reliant on the generosity of the public, especially those who have the heart to help the homeless, to keep the service going.”