Former rough sleepers in St Albans and Dacorum have praised the housing scheme that has given them lifeline away from homelessness. Malcolm, 54, and Kerry*, 33, both now have a home to call their own, thanks to a new 'Housing First' partner initiative run jointly by Hightown Housing Association, St Albans City & District Council and Dacorum Borough Council.
The initiative, launched last year, is helping the most vulnerable homeless people in St Albans and Dacorum access the vital help and support they need to rebuild their lives.
Speaking out in the run up to World Homeless Day (10 October), Malcolm, who before being housed had slept rough for five years, said:
"I didn't think it would ever happen to tell you the truth but it's like a whole new life. I look back at it now and Christmas Eve I was sleeping in a shop doorway and three months later I'm in a flat and I can't really believe it even now. I still get the hairs on the back of my neck stick up when I walk through the door."
In addition to being housed, Malcolm receives round-the-clock support from a dedicated key worker, Nikki Thompson, an important aspect of the Housing First approach.
Since Malcolm moved into his new home in March 2020, Nikki has worked with him to access local health services and support organisations to get the help he needs.
Kerry, who has lived with mental health challenges all her adult life and for a year before being housed was sleeping at a local night shelter, said:
"When you get offered something like Housing First, it's literally a life saver. When you become homeless, you change within yourself, not just mentally but emotionally it takes a toll on you."
Kerry is also supported by Nikki most days and since joining the scheme has been helped to access many local support organisations, including Herts Help, Befrienders and Mind.
"It's not just the fact that you're safe every night, it's also the fact that you have support that's tailored to your personal needs and driven by you.
"When I first moved in, I had no idea how to do things, so every day I was seeing Nikki. Now I'm settled I'm going to be seeing her one day less a week, but I do know that if I need extra support, I can always call her and she'll call me back. If things get that bad, I can say to Nikki that I need someone here with me and she will sort it out. I couldn't give any more praise for Housing First."
"It's been a tremendous help – I can't even explain how much it's helped me. The support I receive is out of this world. If I've got any issues I can call Nikki and she'll do her best to help me out and deal with it.
"I'm going to get all my health issues sorted. Without Nikki I wouldn't have been able to do that. She's there for me, to book and take me to appointments. If I've got any problems whatsoever, I call Nikki."
The Housing First scheme was introduced following a successful joint bid by St Albans City & District Council and Dacorum Borough Council to the Government's Rough Sleeper Initiative, securing a £100,000 grant to help tackle rough sleeping in the area.
Councillor Jacqui Taylor, St Albans City and District Council’s Portfolio Holder for Housing, Inclusion and Protection, said:
"We are committed to tackling homelessness and rough sleeping in the District. The Housing First initiative is making a real difference to the lives of a significant number of vulnerable people whose needs were previously going unmet. Thanks to the Government grant, we are able to support former rough sleepers to make positive changes to their life while maintaining a successful tenancy."
According to the scheme's delivery lead Gemma Richardson, Hightown's Head of Care and Supported Housing in Hertfordshire, the intensive support that Housing First tenants receive is crucial to its success. She said:
"One of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to entrenched rough sleepers is that you provide a home and all their problems are solved. This simply isn't true. They need that extra help, not only to leave negative behaviours behind but also to rebuild the confidence and self-esteem that has been shattered by years of hardship. More often than not, a property is just the start of a long journey to a stable future."
Housing First key worker Nikki Thompson provides intensive support
* Name has been changed to protect anonymity