In 2018, in the face of rising numbers of people sleeping rough on the streets of Greater Manchester, United Kingdom, the GMCA (Greater Manchester Combined Authority) began a programme of emergency accommodation named ABEN (A Bed Every Night), which was started without national funding(1). The intention behind ABEN was to make bed-spaces available immediately, placing people found rough sleeping. The council Rough Sleeping team were given the responsibility of referring people into ABENs when they found them ‘bedded down’ on the streets at night. Along with a bed-space and a safe, secure place to sleep, ABEN also had a support element written into its design. The idea was to offer more than a place to sleep tonight. ABEN was envisaged as a stepping stone for those who are ready to make a more long-term move into housing. To this end, ABEN has support staff who can help clients navigate the complex pathways into housing of different kinds. In theory, the staff would also be able to link the clients in with further specialist agencies for support around issues such as drug abuse and poor mental health.
Prior to ABEN, most emergency accommodation bed-spaces had more strict criteria, usually requiring that someone be deemed to be in ‘priority need’ by the local authority’s housing department. For a single person without dependent children to be considered priority need, they must meet criteria from the Homelessness Reduction Act. The main examples of these criteria that apply to GM’s population of people who are rough sleeping are around vulnerability: is the person vulnerable due to “old age, mental illness or disability, physical disability or other special reason”?(4) Many people who are rough sleeping do not meet this criterion, which in practise is fairly strict, so there are many people who are rough sleeping and not able to access temporary accommodation.
Speaking about the issue of people rough sleeping not being in priority need, the chief executive of Shelter, Polly Neate, said “Every week our frontline services pick up new cases of homeless people who are being point blank refused any help. Just one of the cases we’ve dealt with involved a frightened young man who was turned away no less than four times by the council in the dead of winter, because they said he wasn’t in ‘priority need’”.(2)
“Every week our frontline services pick up new cases of homeless people who are being point blank refused any help. Just one of the cases we’ve dealt with involved a frightened young man who was turned away no less than four times by the council in the dead of winter, because they said he wasn’t in ‘priority need"
So, understanding that there are plenty of people who are sleeping rough, but are not eligible for statutory temporary accommodation, we can see why an overarching body (such as GMCA) would want to provide a further level of emergency accommodation, with lower entrance criteria and specialised support, especially following a rise in visible rough sleeping in the combined authority area. ABEN was designed to be an easy access emergency temporary accommodation option with move on and generalised support for people who are rough sleeping but do not meet priority need criteria for statutory priority need emergency accommodation. Has it worked?
Starting in 2010, Local Authorities across the country started taking an estimate of numbers of people rough sleeping on a single night in autumn in their areas. This was done “using either a count-based estimate of visible rough sleeping, an evidence-based estimate meeting with local partners, or an evidence-based estimate meeting including a spotlight count in specific areas”.(3) While the figures are not exact, they are enough to give an indication of trends. The graph produced by I-SPHERE demonstrates that the estimated figures for the number of people rough sleeping in GM follow the national trend of estimates, up until the year in which ABEN is set up and begins operating when there is a considerable downturn in numbers of people rough sleeping in GM while the national numbers stay comparatively consistent.(1)
I-SPHERE also highlight the drop in rough sleeping by noting that the numbers between 2017 (the last count pre-ABEN) and 2020 dropped 57% in GM and only 43% nationally. Further to this, the majority of GM’s rough sleeping reduction is prior to the Covid ‘Everyone In’ government policy, while the drop in national rough sleeping numbers was in large part seen at the same time as the ‘Everyone In’ response to Covid. ‘Everyone In’ was government policy in which all Local Authorities were asked to accommodate anyone rough sleeping or at risk of rough sleeping to prevent the spreading of Covid-19. ‘Everyone In’ had an even broader remit than ABEN and so is likely to have caused the majority of the 37% drop in national rough sleeping numbers seen between 2019 and 2020.(2)
In their report, I-SPHERE outline some aspects of the ABEN programme that have helped to make it effective:
We’ve already discussed the first point and the second doesn’t warrant much elucidation here, so let’s look more at the third point. ABEN’s public profile was aided by Andy Burnham’s campaign for Mayor of Greater Manchester placing emphasis on homelessness and particularly rough sleeping. Burnham won the mayoral election in 2017 and ABEN was brought about in 2018. To much of Manchester, including relevant services working with the community of people who sometimes rough sleep, this felt quite like a continuation of the promises he made in his political campaign. This gave it a higher profile than a normal service or accommodation and meant less needed to be done to publicise it to relevant stakeholders. This likely contributed to results appearing so quickly after ABEN was started.
Despite the fall in rough sleeping numbers in GM following the ABEN programme roll out, there is certainly still room for improvement and development both within and around the ABEN programme. GMHAN (Greater Manchester Homeless Action Network) held a workshop and commissioned reports on the experiences of people involved (both as staff and guests) in ABEN. The three core issues that came out of this were:
The 1st and 3rd points are about issues with move on. As discussed earlier, ABEN’s role is not just to house people. ABEN was set up to support people with move on into longer term accommodation, whether that’s supported accommodation, council tenancy, or private rented sector. If there are few options available for move on, all the ABEN’s beds will be full and people who are newly found rough sleeping will not be able to be accommodated. It also defeats the point of a longer-term approach to prevention.
People who find themselves rough sleeping and eventually in ABEN will all have differing needs, some much higher needs than others. An example of someone with high and multiple needs may have issues with drug misuse, poor mental health, physical health issues etc. While the ABEN offer hinges on offering generalised support to those in an ABEN bed-space, this does not necessarily mean that staff are trained dual diagnosis (drug misuse and mental health issues) workers. For the clients in ABEN who do have multiple complex needs, they need intensive wrap around support. The I-SPHERE report discusses the wide variety in support level offered in differing ABEN accommodations, from high intensity support from a named keyworker who only works with a small number of clients, all the way to low intensity support from changing keyworkers who cover large caseloads and themselves have reported feeling overwhelmed by what is expected of them.(1)
However, clients do not just need support while they are in the ABEN accommodation. If someone with multiple complex needs is to move on from ABEN and make a sustainable move off the street, they will most likely require high intensity wrap around support in their next accommodation. They will likely need support with the enduring issues they are facing, whether that’s drug misuse, mental health, or whatever else they may be dealing with. But they may well also need support with the maintenance of the tenancy they have been placed in. For many people with complex needs moving through services like ABEN, it may have been a long time since they successfully managed their own tenancy, if they ever have, so it’s important that support continues after they leave ABEN to avoid cycles of tenancy breakdown, homelessness, and ultimately rough sleeping.
The discussion above surely does not provide an exhaustive list of the issues facing ABEN and programmes like it, nor does it aim to finish the discussion on the issues that have been raised. It aims more to introduce the issues that can be better addressed by ABEN or future services that seek to follow the intentions behind the design and implementation of ABEN.
Looking now to the future, the next step in ABEN’s growth and design is the recent implementation of a new digital system for recording case notes and support information. The GMCA state that this will help staff to manage the support plans and case work, but it is also set up to make the experience more positive for service users who go through the ABEN system. One of the main positives for clients in ABEN is the linking up of the systems across different ABENs and even different boroughs. The GMCA see this as a way to work in a more person-centred way and to utilise a “tell us once approach”.(6) This refers to the idea that it is difficult for a person to tell a staff member about previous traumatic experiences or to discuss in depth issues like poor mental health or drug misuse. This is all information that services need for effective support, but if the systems are appropriately linked up, a client should only have to talk through these things once (the first time they enter the system). The easier services can make it for clients to engage in the support, with the least barriers possible, the more likely clients are to continue engaging with services.
As mentioned earlier, ABEN’s first phase was carried out without national funding. ABEN Phase 1 ran for five months over the 2018-2019 winter “at a total cost of £2.66m (ABEN, 2020; ABEN, 2020a). It was jointly funded by GMCA and Greater Manchester Mayor’s Charity set up in 2017 to provide funding to address homelessness”(7) – p.27. There was uncertainty about funding for people with no recourse to public funds (not able to claim benefits for accommodation) and so the Mayor’s Charity contributed £300,000 to cover accommodation for these people. Phase 1 also made use of voluntary help in the form of physical spaces (e.g. churches offered space for free for night shelter style accommodation) and donated food, toiletries, and sundries. According to a report by Bromley and Briggs, a cost benefit analysis “demonstrated a potential saving to GM of £1.35 for every £1 spent, and a potential saving to the Health and Social Care system of £1.59.”8
Phase 2 was brought online in the spring of 2019 and ran until June 2020. Phase 2 had a more diverse group of funding partners than the initial phase. Both the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership (GMHSCP) and the Greater Manchester Joint Commissioning Board (GMJCB) contributed £1 million for the 2nd phase, due to the recognition of the health and social costs of rough sleeping and the fiscal benefit of a prevention over cure approach.
Despite the room for improvement, ABEN was set up to reduce the numbers of non-priority need people sleeping rough in GM and the research suggests that it has done so. Further to ABEN’s success so far, the GMCA have shown a commitment to continued improvement and co-production with people with lived experience. ABEN appears to be a good model for similar settings to reduce rough sleeping and there is ample feedback from different sources on how the model could be further improved.