In 2017, local authorities in England were preparing for the impending introduction into law of the Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA); an Act that would overhaul existing processes and increase the duty of local authorities to cover the prevention of homelessness for all households, regardless of priority need. Ealing Council saw the changes that were coming and acted swiftly, becoming one of the early adopters of MRI’s Homelessness Reduction solution (formerly PRAH).
Why Housing Options?
Tanuj Danee, Programme & Improvement Manager at Ealing Council was at the forefront of the project. He describes the decision to implement MRI Homelessness Reduction as “Very much driven by legislation; the HRA came into effect in April 2018, but the journey really began for us in the summer of 2017 when thinking was given to appropriate solutions in the market. MRI Housing Op[tions (formerly Housing Jigsaw) was very much a system in development in response to the upcoming HRA, but we liked what we saw. We believed in the vision and what the software would enable us to do and how it would fit into the way that we would like to work within the HRA.
“The system was evolving all the time and we gave access to our frontline homelessness officers. We let them take it for a spin and we got positive feedback. We made an informed decision and we’re very happy; we very much stand by that decision.”
The implementation of the solution, in Tanuj’s opinion, “was fantastic. Our Implementation Manager was really supportive, really helpful, really friendly, really professional.”
One of Tanuj’s responsibilities at Ealing Council is to train officers to use the software that the council implements. When it came to training officers in MRI Homelessness Reduction, Tanuj found that “It’s a very user-friendly intuitive system, there isn’t a steep learning curve; it’s bright, it’s clear, it’s written in plain English. If I compare Housing Options to our legacy systems and some of our other systems, it doesn’t take long to find your way around Housing Options. We can train users within an hour and they can confidently and competently make their way around the system, then over time they become experts. It’s user-friendly, very easy to use.”
Becoming one of the local authorities piloting the Homelessness Reduction solution, Ealing had the opportunity to shape the system. As Tanuj explains, “What drew us to the usage of the software is the way that Housing Partners (now MRI Living for Social Housing) was working. There were regular roadshows, regular user groups and feedback meetings. I believe that our collective feedback was listened to and the software was shaped to fit into the day-to-day working practices that our officers were experiencing. Along that journey, we’ve been able to shape that vision and shape the software to fit our needs.
“I compare MRI Housing Options to Apple in terms of innovation; to very quickly come to market with a very user-friendly, intuitive software that was highly innovative.”
The MRI Housing Jigsaw solution has always been built alongside frontline homelessness practitioners and in those early months, enhancements and change requests were released at least once a month. For Tanuj, this evolution of the system didn’t end after the introduction of the HRA in April 2018: “I very much see it as ongoing – the software’s evolved. Normally in projects, there’s a requirement or need around which the system is implemented and then you hand it over to the business, but this is very much an organic process.”
HRA compliance and H-CLIC reporting
MRI Homelessness Reduction was built in direct response to the Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA), designed to ensure total compliance for local authorities with the Act. The experience of Ealing reflects this, as Tanuj explains, “The way that MRI Housing Options is structured, it enables us to follow the HRA and really stay in control of the duties. We had an existing process in place and Jigsaw mirrors that.
“It enables you to go step-by-step through the HRA process and ensure that you understand where the customer is within the decision framework and within the statutory duties that are placed upon you. The dashboards and the widgets enable you to quickly see exactly the state of your business; you get a good barometer immediately when you log in with urgent actions and the volume and scale of the business. Without Jigsaw, it would have been challenging to ensure that officers are staying on track and in line with the HRA.”
“The compelling reason to commission Housing Options is that it’s an all-in-one solution, so it ticks all the boxes in terms of HRA, homelessness applications, personalised housing plans, document management, customer portal, and the Government’s H-CLIC reporting. Collecting all the H-CLIC information takes a lot of time, but we’re able to produce the H-CLIC report with one click of a button, which is fantastic because everything’s coming out from source within Housing Options.
“H-CLIC is an absolute minefield and it’s a specialism in itself. We have experts in homelessness and they need to be able to process a homelessness application in order to arrive at a legal decision that’s been well-informed and not have to worry about these technical H-CLIC issues. What Jigsaw does is make the process really simple and straightforward to pinpoint exactly what an error is and then enables an officer to go in and take that corrective action without having to become an IT expert. It’s really helped us simplify a very complex piece of work.”
Supporting Ealing during the pandemic
When Covid hit in March 2020, local authority housing options and homelessness services were forced to completely overhaul the way in which they work. Tanuj describes Ealing’s experience: “We receive around 4,000 approaches a year, which was increased by Covid; initially we were inundated with approaches. We very much take a personal approach to our homelessness prevention service. In order to make a homelessness application before Covid, you’d have to present on-site at our council offices and the homelessness application would start there.
“Now we’re delivering homelessness prevention from home, so having this software has enabled us to continue to deliver with HRA compliant software throughout these times. Jigsaw is accessible from any internet-enabled device; it can be accessed from home, from a council-owned device or personal device.”
The customer portal within MRI Homelessness Reduction allows customers to access their Personalised Housing Plan online, make amendments, attach documents and send notifications to their housing officer. Tanuj explains Ealing’s renewed use of the feature: “Covid has driven us to embrace some of the features that Housing Options has in place, like the customer portal. Without this, we’re unable to receive documents as part of a homelessness application, so it’s been a fundamentally important feature of our frontline homelessness prevention service that’s really enabled us to deliver successful outcomes throughout this time.”
“We have other systems in place but having a customer portal that integrates directly into the software, so it’s seamless, not having it would have put tremendous additional burdens on us. Honestly, without Housing Options we wouldn’t have been able to deliver the frontline homelessness prevention service that we’ve been providing for the past 12 months.”
The Housing Options suite
Following their experience with MRI Homelessness Reduction, “There are additional modules that we’ve purchased; some of that’s been driven by legislation, some of that’s been driven by the way that we’ve changed our processes. So, we’ve reached out to MRI to ask if there’s any other software or modules that we can use.”
The first to be adopted was the Legacy Homelessness module (formerly LAM). “LAM was excellent; it was absolutely needed. It was driven by the legislation that we had to import into Jigsaw and export out of our legacy systems, all homelessness approaches that we’d accepted the main duty for before the 1st April 2018. So, what we did effectively was import 1,800 households and we were able to integrate those records into Jigsaw – and all those records have the same look and feel as an HRA case. That was a very successful piece of work, so we were grateful for that solution.”
Ealing also imported our free-to-use communications and referrals portal, MRI Alert and most recently, “We commissioned the DEX data warehouse solution, which has been really good. We’re very happy with the end result; we’ve been able to create a data warehouse of all the data that’s contained within Jigsaw and bring that into our own environment.
“There’s an overnight feed that we’ve got access to, so we’re able to run high-level business intelligence reports. This is a high-end solution; we are very happy with the way that it’s been implemented, and we’ve actually got some real tangible reports that we can use.”
Over the course of the four years that Ealing Council have been working with the MRI Housing Options suite, “There have undoubtedly been efficiencies and savings in terms of homelessness prevention; it would amount to thousands of pounds in terms of savings.”
And for Tanuj, the greatest outcome in recent times of having MRI Homelessness Reduction has been the customer portal. “Certainly, that’s been a real game changer because it’s enabled us to deliver frontline homelessness prevention service from the comfort and safety of our own homes. Without that customer portal, we wouldn’t be able to do that, it’s a critical system to Ealing.”