The quiet heroes housing the homeless.

From individuals pitching in with disaster relief to social enterprises freeing up empty properties, there are many who help to house those in need.

Hurricane Harvey’s effect on Houston has been devastating. Images of the flooding are apocalyptic, the stories of lives devastated are heartbreaking, and the scale of it all is terrifying. Tens of thousands are displaced.

But the response has been as life-affirming as the scenes are distressing: acts of bravery and heroism – like the rescue of 15 elderly care home residents waist-deep in water after a desperate cry for help – have bonded communities. Local baseball teams have pledged donations of over $20m (and rising), while celebrities pitched in – Sandra Bullock donating $1m to American Red Cross, and the Kardashians offering $500,000. Budweiser brewery Anheuser-Busch halted beer production to send thousands of gallons of drinking water to rescue centres.

A growing army of organisations are seeking creative and practical ways to house people in need

And, with predictions that many thousands will still be homeless well into this winter, donations of food, clothing, money and offers of shelter are rolling into charities, including Habitat for Humanity, which in several parts of Texas is leading the way in the recovery action plans that will be vital once the waters recede.

Yet every day millions of people displaced – by war, unemployment or social circumstance – have no media spotlight turned on their struggle to survive. To offer a way out for those in unseen crisis, here on our doorstep a growing army of organisations are seeking creative, constructive and practical ways to put a roof over the heads of people in need.

Habitat for Humanity’s sister charity in the UK has been pioneering ways to provide much-needed affordable homes. Building new accommodation in London, Liverpool and Banbury in Oxfordshire, Habitat for Humanity GB Homes has worked with various property owners to renovate existing dwellings left empty for too long.

The charity recently converted an unoccupied Victorian building previously used as a shop in Catford, south London, into two separate two-bedroom flats for refugee women in need of supported accommodation.

And the Habitat for Humanity GB Homes team – which receives financial support from Big Issue Invest, the social investment arm of The Big Issue Group – now plans to turn an old Quaker meeting house in Tunbridge Wells into nine flats for homeless young people who have been seeking the help of the local YMCA.

There is immense housing need in Britain today,” says Gareth Hepworth, CEO of Habitat for Humanity GB Homes. “Many of the problems with supply are really difficult to fix, but we thought the number of empty or underused buildings out there offered a really good resource to offer affordable accommodation to those who need it.

There are lots of people in desperate circumstances, and if we can provide decent accommodation that’s suitable for specific groups, it can free up housing elsewhere,” he adds.

If we can provide decent accommodation for specific groups, it can free up housing elsewhere

As well as overseeing refurbishment work, the Habitat for Humanity GB Homes team has acted as the key broker between empty property owners confused about their options and the local authorities or other housing managers struggling to house people.

The organisation has now created over 65 affordable homes, and helped more than 400 people into supported accommodation. And, thanks to recent investment from Big Issue Invest, Habitat for Humanity GB Homes hopes to expand the range of its work.

There’s lots more we’d like to do by working with other sympathetic partners to make sure land and buildings are well utilised,” explains Hepworth. “We always want to be able to offer more people a decent home.”

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Another organisation to have taken advantage of Big Issue Invest support is Cromwood Group. Launched back in 2002, the social housing business rents out properties specifically to people registered as homeless. It looks after 1000 properties in London and Manchester, and Cromwood’s development arm continues to seek out opportunities to build new housing.

We started because we wanted to help disadvantaged people in real need of housing,” says Cromwood’s CEO Moses Hirschler. “A lot of families, in particular, really struggle to find big enough houses when they’re in trouble. We work hard, day and night, to find them a decent home.”

In a similar way to Habitat for Humanity GB Homes, Cromwood also offers owners the chance to have properties renovated and rented out to people on local authority waiting lists, chiming with The Big Issue’s ongoing Fill ’Em Up campaign.

Bringing a home back into use is good for a family, good for the owner and good for the neighbourhood

The work has enormous potential. There are almost 650,000 empty homes across the UK, with more than 200,000 left unoccupied for six months or more. One recent study put the value of empty homes in England alone at £43bn. Hirschler says many lie empty for long periods because of probate issues after a death in the family.

It’s a big problem that we want to help do something about,” Hirschler explains. “We spent time going through all the issues and reassuring owners that it’s worthwhile having tenants in. Bringing a home back into use is good for a family, good for the owner who is getting some income, and good for the neighbourhood worried about a building going to ruin.”

Elsewhere, Big Issue Invest has invested in several other housing groups doing crucial and innovative work. Groups such as PHASES, a social enterprise that has given formerly homeless people job and training opportunities through the renovation of more than a dozen empty homes in
south London.

And the London Community Land Trust recently obtained 23 new homes on the site of an old psychiatric hospital being redeveloped in east London. The trust made the flats available to struggling first-time buyers at one third of market value – an incredible feat made possible through the ground-breaking principle of linking house prices to local earnings.

In many parts of the country, affordable housing is the key factor to dismantling poverty,” said Daniel Wilson-Dodd, Head of Lending at Big Issue Invest.

Over the past year some large housing associations have announced that they can no longer afford to build houses, which is one of the reasons why we’re committed to supporting the social enterprises who are finding ways to create affordable housing work. It’s such an important part of The Big Issue Group’s mission.

The above article by Adam Forrest first published on in Sep, 2017.