An “incredible” project that has saved thousands of struggling people in Newcastle from being forced onto the streets has won a prestigious international award.

The Active Inclusion Newcastle partnership has been praised by the United Nations as an example for the rest of the world to follow in the fight to prevent and ultimately eliminate homelessness.

Newcastle City Council says the scheme, which brings together more than 100 local organisations, has helped more than 24,000 households keep a roof over their heads since it was set up in 2014 by identifying people who are at risk and stepping in to help before they hit a crisis point.

That achievement has been recognised with a gold in this year’s World Habitat Awards – an accolade given to just one other project in the entire world in 2020.

The awards were established in 1985 to “recognise and highlight innovative, outstanding and sometimes revolutionary housing ideas” from around the world and are presented in conjunction with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-Habitat.

Former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha, who was one of the judges, said: “I congratulate the incredible coalition, led by the city council, that has been created in Newcastle to ensure the success of the homelessness prevention programme.

“The programme shows that the city council not only understands that homelessness is a human rights concern that must be addressed urgently, but it also demonstrates that preventing homelessness is the only way to truly solve it.

“Now, more than ever, the success of Newcastle must be celebrated, and the lessons learned there must be shared with cities across the world, the majority of whom are facing the same urgent and burgeoning human rights crisis.”

Of more than 125 international projects that applied this year, only Active Inclusion Newcastle and a scheme in Pakistan have managed to secure a gold award – which comes with a £10,000 prize.

David Ireland, chief executive of World Habitat, praised the partnership for being able to identify those at risk of homelessness before they even know it themselves, while judges hailed the fact that the scheme had been so successful despite the North East’s high levels of deprivation and massive austerity cuts to local council budgets.

Mr Ireland said: “Prevention is always better than a cure, but it often goes unnoticed and undervalued.

Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes and deputy Newcastle City Council leader Joyce McCarty
Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes and deputy Newcastle City Council leader Joyce McCarty

“This remarkable long-running project in Newcastle is so special because it has taken a whole city approach to preventing homelessness.

“They’ve not just thought about people’s housing but considered all of the aspects that make people vulnerable to homelessness.

“By using all the council’s services and those of their partner organisations, they are able to identify people who are at risk – sometimes before they even know it themselves - and take preventative action.

“They have initiated this themselves and at a time when resources have been severely reduced.

“This is a real testament of a local authority doing the very best of what a local authority is there to do – to protect its most vulnerable citizens.”

The Active Inclusion scheme is focused on ensuring everyone in the city has the foundations of a stable life – a place to live, an income, employment opportunities, and access to financial services.

In 2019/20, it meant specialist services helped 23,198 Newcastle residents secure almost £29 million of increased benefit payments, helped 329 vulnerable people find work, offered 216 households emergency accommodation, and gave another 1,425 emergency food, gas, electricity, clothing or travel support.

The council has not used bed and breakfast accommodation to house people since 2006 and evictions from Your Homes Newcastle social housing have been reduced by 75% since 2008.

52-year-old Jacqui is one person helped by the project, which allowed her to move out of run-down private rented accommodation that she feared she would “die in”.

She said: “I hadn’t had a cooker for two years, because when I first moved in there was a gas leak and they turned the cooker off. The landlord sent someone out to fix it but they didn’t do it properly.

“After that, the bedroom ceiling came in and then just before Christmas, we were sat watching telly and a big rat came walking across the sitting room.

A young boy on the street
A young boy on the street

“My job was to keep my grandson safe – I was getting more depressed by the day and knew I needed to get out of there.

“I thought, I’m going to be here forever, I’m going to die in this house. I hated it. I’d sit and cry every day.

“Once I’d applied for social housing, it took a few months of thinking it was going to happen, and then when it finally did, I couldn’t believe it – I said I wouldn’t believe it until I was inside the house.

“It’s just amazing. If it wasn’t for the council coming in and helping us, I’d still be sitting in exactly the same situation as I was.

“I feel happy - people say they haven’t seen me smile for so long. I was always so miserable all the time. Now I can just breathe, I’m not worrying all the time.”

The council says that an increasing number of rough sleepers and vulnerable people from other parts of the North East are now coming into Newcastle to seek help, even before Covid-19 added to the problems faced by many of the region’s most in-need.

Last year, the council also pledged to work alongside charity Crisis to become the first city to end homelessness within the next decade.

Coun Joyce McCarty, the council’s deputy leader, said: “We are extremely honoured to see our long-term approach to homelessness prevention is one of only two gold award winners globally this year, and only the fourth to ever receive a top gold rating in the UK.

“As a city we believe it is everyone's business to prevent homelessness at the earliest opportunity and this award is a testament to the commitment and compassion of the many people who continue to work so hard, despite the challenges of austerity, to support vulnerable residents.

“Our ultimate aim is of course to build on our successes to move from preventing homelessness to ending it altogether and, while we know there is more to do, we will share our expertise and ideas in the hope that it can help communities around the world.”