A home of their own
The number of adults with learning disabilities in need of specialist housing is set to rise by 48,000 over the next 15 years. But as Rhiannon Bury reports, funding constraints and benefit changes could deny them an independent life
Roy Grant’s room is covered in Wolverhampton Wanderers memorabilia. He has supported the football team his whole life, and recently attended his first match.
If staff at his supported housing scheme had not taken him to the Molineux stadium, Mr Grant, 58, who has a learning disability, may still be waiting to cheer from the stands.
He had been cared for by his 85-year-old mother Eileen around the clock for his entire life. As her health declined, coping alone became difficult so housing association Housing Plus arranged for Mr Grant to move into a purpose-built flat in its Vine Court scheme for the over-55s in Bridgtown, Cannock, and for Eileen to move in next door.
He receives day-to-day help, for example with shopping and cooking. Since the move, staff report, Mr Grant has increased in confidence and independence, leading to that treasured first-match visit.
‘For people with a learning difficulty, housing and social care go hand in hand,’ says Beatrice Barleon, senior campaigns and policy officer at mental health charity Mencap. She knows better than most how supported housing can provide a vital route to independence for thousands of people with learning disabilities. However, she is increasingly concerned about its future.
A report published by Mencap last week revealed that 89 per cent of 174 councils surveyed had seen an increase in people with learning disabilities needing housing-related support over the past three years.
Crucially, it predicts that over the course of the next 15 years, based on population growth of adults with a learning disability known to social services, an extra 48,000 people will need similar care.
Put simply, Mencap argues, there just isn’t enough supported housing to meet demand.
So what are the strains on supported housing providers and how big is the knock-on impact likely to be for people with learning disabilities, whose quality of life can be radically improved by independent living?
The report argues that, without more investment, thousands of vulnerable adults could be forced to remain living at home with their families, because there is no alternative.
According to Brendan Sarsfield, chief executive at 21,000-home Family Mosaic which supports around 1,000 people with learning disabilities, this would have a detrimental impact on hundreds of people’s lives.
Karen, who lives in one of the housing association’s schemes in Essex, is one of them (see Case study: Karen’s story). ‘We know from our work housing people who have been living with their parents that they really blossom when they have their independence,’ Mr Sarsfield says.
Providers need to be more aware of the housing aspirations of people with learning disabilities, according to Jo Grainger, head of care and support at 6,000-home Housing Plus.
‘It became quite apparent from the number of applications that we receive for young people with learning disabilities that there’s a choice of residential care or staying at home with mum and dad, and no options for homeownership or renting.
‘There’s [also] a real lack of new residential care developments - often because social care budgets are being hit quite hard. Most local authorities have moved to funding critical or substantial need before they’ll fund care.’
The 174 councils surveyed by Mencap all say one thing is causing them sleepless nights: lack of finance. With local authority budgets squeezed tighter than ever and wider policy changes threatening rental income, there’s every reason to wonder how housing for people with learning disabilities will be funded.
According to Housing Plus, an individual receiving 24 hours of care a week, for example, would receive £300 each week in care costs.
Cuts to the £1.6 billion Supporting People programme are already having an impact on provision. While the government largely maintained the fund centrally, the unring-fenced budgets have been hit hard, with some local authorities reducing their funding for housing-related support by as much as 40 per cent.
Proposed changes to housing benefit have rattled providers, too. On 9 October, a government consultation on housing benefit for supported housing will close.
At present, the reforms suggest a two-level benefit cap: one for conventional supported housing, and one for people with more specific housing needs.
The first would see all applicants receive a standard rate of local housing allowance. An additional amount - and it is not clear how the government proposes to calculate this - would then be paid to meet the cost of providing supported housing.
The second would involve individuals bidding for extra money to fund special services, like help in the home for people with additional physical disabilities.
The level of additional help needed by each individual would result in a ‘reasonable’ amount being paid towards extra costs. It is the ambiguity around this word - ‘reasonable’ - that has providers worried for their balance sheets.
‘There’s the risk that people are going to lose out and face greater difficulties getting access to suitable accommodation, but there’s also the risk that the reforms will jeopardise income streams for providers, which in turn puts existing projects and services, as well as future supply, at risk,’ warns Jake Eliot, policy officer at the National Housing Federation.
Family Mosaic’s Mr Sarsfield says there is a lack of recognition of the need for housing for people with learning disabilities. ‘There’s a learning disability time bomb,’ he warns. ‘What we have is a growing number of people with learning disabilities and that’s not being acknowledged with an increase in funding or support.’
Andrew Van Doorn, acting director at housing charity Hact, says learning disability services are seeing a great deal of change: ‘There is a really strong move to get people living in community situations and providing people with the right amount of support. This has come from people with learning disabilities and their families saying “we want a better deal”,’ he says.
It’s for providers to meet these needs, he states. ‘But the questions we’re asking are, what do these businesses look like, and who should be in the driving seat? The aspiration is there but who is going to deliver it?’
Thanks to the cuts and the planned reforms, landlords will need to be more creative than ever to give people like Mr Grant the chance for an independent life.
Case study: Karen’s story
Karen, who has multiple learning disabilities, lived at home with her parents until she was in her 40s, but when her mum died she was unable to cope alone and started drinking heavily. Following a stint at rehab, she moved into a self-contained flat in a Family Mosaic supported housing scheme in Essex.
The scheme’s onsite staff help her cook, pay her bills and shop. ‘I can now do my own thing, I can eat and drink when I like, I can go shopping when I like and now I have a lovely boyfriend,’ Karen says.