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Homelessness: a problem so human and complex it requires service design and systems thinking

Homeless is a hugely complex problem, with multiple causal factors. Many of these are deeply human: traumatic childhood experiences, mental health problems, and relationship breakdown. Some are more structural: unstable jobs, changes to the benefits regime, and insufficient housing. There are a wide range of statutory and voluntary services whose explicit function is to support people who are experiencing homelessness. Service design can help ensure these are designed with empathy; personalised services that are easily accessible and adaptive to the needs of vulnerable people. But we also need to widen the scope of our consideration. Systems thinking can help us see other touchpoints where people interact with ‘the system’; for example, GPs or the job centre (locations at which service design can be applied), as well as other places – such as affordable housing or legislation – where more systemic design is required.


Homelessness is increasing

Homelessness has been a constant feature in the news over the last couple of years. After a decline during the 2000s, the figure has been rising since 2009. Shelter estimate that over a quarter of a million people are homeless in England, the highest proportion of which live in London (where one in 50 people do not have a secure roof above their heads). The situation is not set to improve. Crisis estimates that in Britain the number will reach just under 400,000 by 2041.

The data is stark. But the human experiences are starker.

Over the last year, we’ve been conducting user research with a variety of people in different homeless situations. As you can imagine, the stories are varied, deeply personal and often heartbreaking: single men whose overcrowded living conditions and unscrupulous landlords have worsened mental health problems and led to evictions; a young woman who – after being kicked out of her stepdad’s and then her ex-boyfriend’s house – was housed with her vulnerable sister in a Travelodge with the tiniest fridge in which to keep her food; a mother of three whose husband walked out on the family, leaving her with no money to pay the rent, and only able to access council services on the day of eviction. All these people require different levels of support services, addressing their risks and boosting their resilience at different times – and in different ways.

We’ve also been working with five local councils on their Homelessness Trailblazer programmes (this time implementing some of the prototypes developed during the homelessness project I led when I worked at the Government’s Policy Lab), and have understood the various challenges faced by local authority housing options services: limited resources to spend time dealing with the root causes of the issue; bureaucratic processes than can feel dehumanising or inevitable; and missed opportunities to work with partners to spot people earlier. And equally, the opportunities that local authorities draw on: new legislation giving impetus to take a more preventative approach, and some incredible staff who go above and beyond and act as coaches, navigators, mentors.

There are clear opportunities to redesign voluntary and statutory homeless services to become personalised services that are easily accessible and empathetic to the needs of vulnerable people.

After all the work we have done, what seems really stark is that the situation cannot just be prevented by improving the homelessness services. We need to think like a system. Homelessness is enormously complex: so complex that I felt I had to draw a map of the system (using kumu.io), plotting out the layers of causes that lead to homelessness.

Whilst as service designers we might be focused on designing a better experience within a particular element, we need to look at the bigger picture and try to agitate the rest of the system. We need to map the complex web of causes and effects and feedback loops that keep people in a revolving door, so we can figure out where we might go next to have the most impact. It is clearly too overwhelming to do this alone; we have to reach out across the system and collaborate with other people disrupting it and designing better services in other areas.

Systems thinking can help us understand where best to act, and service design shows us how to create empathetic, personalised services when we are there.

Over the last few months, I’ve been collecting evidence about how design can work across the homeless system.

  1. Service design can work at different levels of the system. At the national government level, Policy Lab and DCLG co-designed a blueprint for a reimagined local services that could identify people much earlier and support them with a housing and wellbeing plan. Prototypes of these informed a £40m Trailblazer Fund for 28 local areas to take them further, and was also supported by new legislation which says that local authorities have to create ‘a plan’. As such, we’ve been working with five local councils to develop and implement these prototypes, and through them shift the frontline culture from gatekeepers to problem-solvers. In Lewisham we’ve been prototyping a collaborative conversation that changes the initial interaction with the service user entirely. In another area, it is becoming clear that the solution might not lie with the council but with the community, where there is an informal network of local people who can help those at risk navigate the system and find new accommodation themselves.
  1. Working at different prevention stages of the system In order to really prevent homelessness, we need to look across the spectrum of early intervention, near-term prevention and crisis prevention (to prevent homelessness deepening or becoming entrenched). Service design is at work here, too. At the really early stages, Settle is a service for young people who are moving out of care (a predictor of risk) and into independent living. For those who are being threatened with eviction, Ally-bot is a chatbot for single people living in hostels, giving correct information and support around evictions, employment and benefits. For those who are homeless, Pathways for Health is a service comprised of medical professionals and ex-homeless patients who support other homeless patients to access health services most effectively.
  1. Working in different places across the system Service design is at work in different places across the system. In Newcastle, we are working to redesign their housing service (which includes debt relief). Policy Lab have continued their work on homelessness, working with Snook to focus in on ways to improve the experience of the Private Rented Sector. With the Grain have used behaviour change theory to create conversations that change people’s mindsets about expectations of getting social housing, and refocuses them on what they can do to find a house they could afford. Cyrenians is a Scottish service whose personal advisors offer tailored one-to-one support to people who are dealing with relationship breakdown, financial problems and concerns about housing security due to unemployment. Finally, as part of our BBC Radio 4 series called “The Fix”, we came up with a series of ideas about increasing affordable housing.
  1. Focusing on values or relationships Systems thinking looks at not only the elements within the system, but also the relationships and values between elements. There are some entrenched expectations – which have been passed down through generations – about getting a council house, or the ability to stay in the same rapidly gentrifying areas of central London. Unfortunately in areas where there is little social housing and increasing rents, this is no longer the reality. In Southwark, we have been working to manage these expectations, visualising the the amount of benefits available and the cost of a flat.
  1. Focusing in on the reinforcing loops Within a system there are many feedback loops, where the cause creates an effect which in turn affects the cause, creating worsening situations. Stigma is a reinforcing issue that prevents many people from exiting homelessness. It creates a revolving cycle of inability (the inability to get a job or secure private rented accommodation, for instance). In order to get a job or a flat, you need to have an address, but if you’ve been living in a hostel, it clearly marks you out as someone who is homeless. Chris Hindley who is the current designer in residence at the Design Museum in London, has been designing a way of creating a proxy address which – through computer tracking – can make it look like the homeless person is living in an independent house, but will redirect their mail back to the hostel.
  1. Some local areas are already taking a more systemic approach to homelessness. Manchester has co-designed a homeless charter which brings together people from across the system to pledge to end homelessness and sign up to one of the action groups, focusing on employment, housing standards, and young people’s homelessness. In Oregon, the Battle Creek Homeless Coalition have taken a systemic approach to homelessness, mapping the system and choosing points to intervene around stigma, ethical landlords and increasing sufficient living wage jobs.  Lankelly Chase and Point People have put on a number of systems changer programmes for frontline staff in local government or local charities who work with homeless people.

Service design is at work across the system. So how do we make sure that while we are focusing in one area on redesigning experiences, we can also agitate the wider system?

As well as working with five local councils, we’ve been collaborating with Crisis to collect the ideas and experiences of over 140 people with lived experience of homelessness, in order to inform their ‘plan to end homelessness’. We’re bringing together the five councils we’ve been working with and other innovative councils and stakeholders at a Homelessness Innovation workshop on 7 December. Please register if you would like to come.

This blog is based on a keynote presentation that Cat Drew gave to the Service Design Network Global Conference on 2 November in Madrid.


Shelter, a national charity for homelessness has put the figure much higher at 254,000, and has mapped this geographically. 1 in 51 people are homeless in London, 1 in 25 people in some parts of London such as Westminster where rough sleeping is far higher, 1 in 27 in Newham, 1 in 69 in Brighton, 1 in 119 in Birmingham.

[Analysis by Heriot-Watt University for Crisis has found that the number of homeless people in Britain will reach 575,000 by 2041, up from 236,000 in 2016. The number of people sleeping rough will more than quadruple from 9,100 in 2016 to 40,100 over the same period, the research found.]

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