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Gemma Burgess and Katy Karampour from the University of Cambridge reflect on their CAPE Collaboration Fund project which evaluates modular housing schemes for homelessness in Cambridge. They discuss how co-production and collaboration has worked with their partner Jimmy’s Cambridge and how this will help to inform future policy decisions by Cambridgeshire County Council.
CAPE Collaboration Fund principle investigator and Centre Director, Cambridge Centre for Housing & Planning Research, University of Cambridge
CAPE Collaboration Fund research associate
Co-production research in practice
Homelessness and the demand for temporary accommodation continues to rise (1). The use of modular homes as a type of temporary accommodation for people experiencing homelessness have recently been introduced in the UK by a number of local authorities, social enterprises and charities. Our previous research project shows that the number of such schemes has increased considerably in the last few years.
The first modular units were installed in Cambridge in 2020 during the pandemic and our earlier research shows they have generated positive results both for the people experiencing homelessness living in the modular homes and a range of stakeholders. However, we are at the beginning of understanding the opportunities and limitations of modular homes as part of the policy response to tackle homelessness.
At the conclusion of our first piece of research assessing the effects of modular homes, Cambridge City Council and Jimmy’s Cambridge (the service provider for the delivery of this type of supported accommodation) expressed a clear need for more comparative and longer term research to shape policy making locally and nationally. The task was to evaluate the first four modular homes schemes in Cambridge and to support them in planning the possible further expansion of modular homes in the region.
CAPE provided us with an opportunity to extend our understanding of the effectiveness of modular homes in addressing homelessness by evaluating the outcomes from the four frontrunner schemes in Cambridge in partnership with Jimmy’s.
Co-production research in practice
From the beginning of the project, the research took a co-productive approach. Our professional partner, Jimmy’s, worked closely with us to discuss and agree on the methods, research aims and expected outcomes. Our agreed co-produced goal was to provide an evidence base to achieve real-world outcomes. For Jimmy’s, access to the evaluation done by an independent research body was perceived as important in order to inform their future decisions on expanding their modular home schemes and improving the quality of their current services.
“As a charity supporting people who have been rough sleeping, we want to use evidence and research to base decisions about how we best support our residents and provide our services. Working with the research team at University of Cambridge allows us to get that objective, evidence-based take on what we are doing.”
Mark Allan, Chief Executive of Jimmy’s Cambridge
In collaboration with Jimmy’s we organised co-production activities at the beginning of the project to define the research questions and align our focus points and to discuss how to approach data collection. We continued the co-production process through regular check-ins with Jimmy’s throughout the research, discussing progress with them at various points, including a discussion of our research findings with Jimmy’s staff after the data collection phase. All the data collection activities were carried out by consulting Jimmy’s on the methods and approach.
As agreed with our research partner, capturing the views and experiences of the modular home residents as one of the main stakeholders of the project was considered as crucial. The interviewed residents provided us with first-hand information about the modular homes and to what extent living in a modular home has affected their lives. The co-designed and co-produced approach and close involvement of Jimmy’s facilitated data collection from residents which would have been challenging otherwise. Collaboration with Jimmy’s enabled us to have long-term access to four modular home sites that Jimmy’s manage. Due to the nature of this type of accommodation, interviewing the residents needed to be carefully managed. We prepared information sheets, consent forms, and interview questions in consultation with Jimmy’s before data collection. We asked the residents’ support workers to ask the residents whether they were happy to participate in the research before organising the interviews. Being able to spend time at the modular homes sites with the support workers allowed us to meet the residents and create a feeling of trust. The interviews with residents were very successful and created a rich empirical data set about the very personal causes of homelessness, the lived experiences of homelessness, and the ways in which residents felt that their lives had changed now that they were housed in a modular home.
In addition, Jimmy’s provided us with an anonymised analysis of quantitative data that they collect about their residents on their information and reporting system, Charity-Log, which we could not otherwise have accessed. This helped us to understand the residents’ backgrounds (e.g., their level of need, age, gender) and the changes to their circumstances when living in a modular home.
The commitment of Jimmy’s to this research enabled us to interview the staff members who work with modular home residents, including the management team, housing support workers, maintenance team and data monitoring and research team. We interviewed some members of staff more than once and held conversations frequently with them to address research gaps.
The final research output in the form of a report, coproduced with the residents and Jimmy’s staff, will consequently feature many of their voices and rich qualitative insights.
Outcomes of the partnership
The CAPE fund has enabled us to build a stronger and more formalised research partnership with Jimmy’s. The Fund helped us to compile and share the knowledge of the residents and staff of Jimmy’s and their first-hand experiences to inform future decision making of Jimmy’s about housing investment and management, by providing evidence about the experience of the first four modular homes schemes. The research findings offer evidence about various aspects of this new type of housing scheme, including the lived experiences of modular home residents, the support needed to make the schemes work, the allocation process, the site management strategy, the site design and construction of the units, the issues around accommodation move on, and the planning aspects of the projects.
“The CAPE grant enabled us to continue and expand our primarily qualitative data collection with the different groups involved across four modular homes sites in Cambridge. The grant supported us to expand our rapport with the residents and with Jimmy’s to provide a comprehensive view of the modular homes from a variety of perspectives.”
Dr Gemma Burgess, PI on the project
These findings will be beneficial to a wide range of local and national stakeholders who are involved in the homelessness sector and housing provision, given the interest in developing similar schemes across the country and the number of schemes already in the pipeline. Cambridge City Council have already explicitly confirmed that the evidence from the research will influence decisions about future investments in the expansion of modular housing schemes as temporary accommodation in Cambridge.
This type of research, which is independent but grounded in practice, collaboration and lived experience, is different compared to more traditional research. When conducting research for a funding body, the funder or the academic in charge may have stronger control over the research questions and methods, while the CAPE fund allowed us to co-produce the research with our non-academic partner. This means that we have generated empirically rich research that provides a nuanced and detailed evidence base about the impact of the modular homes on people experiencing homelessness and other stakeholders; the research is able to inform policy and practice, while at the same time is grounded in the aspirations and needs of this community.
“I am grateful for the CAPE funding enabling us to expand our modular homes research; having already informed the national rollout of modular homes for people experiencing homelessness, our co-productive approach across our projects makes me confident that we can represent the nuances of what residents of the homes really experience. In this way we can avoid what numbers and surveys often miss and hopefully enable more adequate policy making going forward.”
Dr Johannes Lenhard, PI on the project
(1) Fitzpatrick et al (2021) The homelessness monitor: England 2021. Available at: https://www.crisis.org.uk/media/244703/crisis-england-monitor-executive-summary-2021.pdf