Image licensed under Creative Commons — original by Joybot

Preventing Homelessness — a systemic approach

On average there are 4,571 people sleeping rough on any one night in the UK. And since 2010 there has been a 169% increase in the number of people without a home.

As a result of much-criticised changes to the benefits system and shift towards universal credit, Adur & Worthing District Council have been concerned that we’re going to see a marked increase in the number of people losing their homes.

In the past homelessness and housing has been tackled by many different statutory and nonprofit bodies, addressing specific aspects of the issue, with little communication.

And, in reality, many more organisations come into contact with people when they’re highly vulnerable and at a point where they may become homeless.

Realising the opportunity that this opens up in the face of the challenge, Adur & Worthing initiated a project that aimed to identify more people at the point where they were at risk of losing their home, and find ways to help them stay in secure housing.

A multi-disciplinary team was formed. Ajo Clua, Service Designer, was brought in to work in partnership with key leads in the Housing Team, initiate conversations and begin designing an approach. Soon after, I was invited to explore and integrate participatory principles and methods, providing coaching and facilitation.

Together we combined service design, agile methodologies and participatory leadership to form a project whose principles were:

- Connect the whole system

- Explore lived experience

- Experiment with new possibilities

- Iterate towards new approaches

Phase one — connecting the system

The first step was to begin to connect the whole system around those at risk of homelessness and open up the conversation.

Simply acknowledging that everyone has a stake and a role in the issue, and each hold information that can help other parties do a better job, was a significant intervention in itself.

People from public sector, non-profit organisations and the emergency services were invited to discuss the issue and share their experiences.

Through this conversation the group identified two broad, high risk groups to focus their efforts on.

(We quickly recognised that for these large group interventions, it was important to build out the facilitation team so Marcus Pibworth joined us to support the design and delivery of the workshops.)

Participants from the workshop committed to becoming researchers, and provided with tools and coaching, they met up with people with lived experience of homelessness — and the professionals working with them — to hear their stories.

The results of these interviews were synthesised into key issues, opportunities and principles that would guide the rest of the project.

Phase two — iterating new approaches

In phase two, two teams were formed to work on new ideas, together.

One focusing on single adults, the other on families.

Again, these teams were from very different teams and roles, but all coming into contact with people at risk of becoming homeless or at the point of losing their home.

In fortnightly sprint meetings, working both with Ajo and Emma Field, Coach and Strategist, the teams identified ‘quick wins’ and long term aims to start working on.

In these meetings, people would share their insight and experience, identify places and people to work with and commit to actions.

Some of the most effective actions were simple and would start very small — inviting people who wouldn’t usually meet, to come to a specific meeting.

And when these new conversations would prove successful, quickly identifying how to expand them.

Each meeting would assess progress since the last, identify what worked, what didn’t and what to try next so there was a continual process of building on the collective learning.

Where next?

The principles at the heart of this approach are brilliantly simple and surprisingly obvious.

If there are lots of parties that support a particular person, it makes sense that they share more information, talk more often and work together on new ideas.

If there are many people who come into contact with people who are vulnerable, it makes sense to acknowledge they all have a part to play in preventing homelessness.

If problems are ‘wicked’ and complex, then it makes sense to explore possibilities and experiment with ideas, rather than try to design ‘new solutions’.

In reality, it’s not easy — we’re used to working in the confines of our own organisation, protecting its resources and achievements, often feeling there’s only one ‘vision’ we should be in service of. Sometimes these worthy intentions get in the way of smarter, more creative collaboration.

Many of the people involved are already at full stretch and taking on new projects, regardless of their value, is a big ask.

And most of us are so entrenched in the idea of ‘having a solution’ that testing and iterating — experimenting to see what works — can feel risky. But as Ajo says: “Isn’t it more risky not to do anything about it?”

This project showed us how ready people are for something new and — while the state of the system as it currently is makes it difficult to implement — that when we shift our attention from ‘immediate fixes’ to ‘long term solutions’, the future has to be systemic and iterative.

I’m Max and through Wild Things I have the privilege of working on projects like this with a network of visionary thinkers and doers.

If you’re facing a challenge that might be addressed using creative, systemic and participatory principles, get in touch with me at