A friend in need
Edinburgh’s Homelessness Prevention Service is making a big difference to vulnerable residents in the city. Sam Thorp finds out how the council-commissioned service works
When Kathleen Hughes lost her job last spring the depression she had battled since childhood resurfaced. The challenges of surviving on benefits and coping with her depression led to financial difficulties and she soon fell into rent arrears.
A long-standing tenant of Edinburgh Council, Ms Hughes, 52, started receiving letters from her landlord threatening her with court action. It was a very difficult time, she says. ‘I was worried sick - I thought I might lose my flat.’
But 12 months on, the outlook for Ms Hughes, whose career is in the care sector and who lives alone, is far more promising. She is still in her home, paying back her rent arrears each month through a mutually agreed payment plan, and she has just been offered a new job.
Ms Hughes was supported to keep her tenancy by the Homelessness Prevention Service, an initiative commissioned by Edinburgh Council to help those at risk of losing their homes.
Council staff told her about the service run by independent charity Edinburgh Cyrenians. The early intervention programme provides tailored one-to-one support to clients to help them sustain their tenancies, manage their finances and seek employment, and for Ms Hughes, the intervention proved a lifeline. ‘My advisor has helped me a great deal. I’m sure I would have been homeless if I’d not come here,’ she says.
Positive track record
Ms Hughes is one of the 400 vulnerable residents in Edinburgh who have been helped to remain in their home each year since the service’s launch in 2008. Internal analysis of the service shows a near 100 per cent track record in helping people to keep a roof over their heads (see box: In numbers: Homelessness Prevention Service). So how have the Edinburgh Cyrenians managed to turn around the lives of Ms Hughes and
The Homelessness Prevention Service was commissioned in 2008 as one of a raft of measures introduced by Edinburgh Council to help it meet the Scottish Government’s target, which states that all unintentionally homeless households have a right to settled accommodation by the end of 2012. It has been given about £500,000 a year by the local authority to do so.
Working across all tenures, including owner-occupation, the initiative aims to help reduce the number of people presenting as homeless to the council by enabling them to stay in their current home or to move to new accommodation.
Homelessness in the city has fallen by 10 per cent since 2007/08 (from 5,148 referrals to 4,651 in 2010/11), according to the council’s statistics - a ‘huge achievement in these tough economic times’, according to its commissioning officer, Phil Watt.
Local authorities in Scotland have been accused of ‘gatekeeping’ in order to keep the numbers of those classified as homeless down. This is not what is happening with Edinburgh Council’s work with the Cyrenians, states Mr Watt. ‘The homelessness prevention service aims to reach people long before they reach the point of crisis,’ he says.
Each of the service’s clients is offered a thorough assessment and a plan is drawn up jointly, illustrating what action needs to be taken. Visits are typically weekly and often take place at the client’s home. This helps to build up a trusting relationship, explains Orla Doyle, manager of the service.
‘It’s important to develop a good relationship with the client - that’s the basis of the service and because we work within such a short timeframe you have to develop that quickly,’ she says. ‘Our assessment helps us to do that - it’s really holistic and looks at every area of the client’s life’.
Ms Doyle believes that this tailored support distinguishes the Homelessness Prevention Service from other advisory services. ‘I think we’re distinct in the way we work - we treat clients as equals and try to empower them,’ she says.
Unsurprisingly, money troubles are often the biggest problem facing the service users. Advisors try to maximise their clients’ income by enabling them to access benefits or grants to which they are entitled.
But in the current economic climate this isn’t always possible, explains Ms Doyle. ‘We can’t make money out of nowhere. It’s about managing expectations, being realistic and giving quality advice,’ she says.
As well as offering tenants who have fallen into arrears advice to tackle their financial and housing problems by, for example, liaising with housing officers and private landlords, effort is also made to look at any wider problems, such as unemployment or health issues.
A befriending service is an integral part of the service and works to reduce isolation among clients by encouraging volunteering and involvement in other community activities. It also has an in-house mediator, who helps those experiencing the breakdown of a relationship.
Advisors work closely with other services in Edinburgh, from mental health organisations to debt agencies and mortgage advisors - 10 per cent of the service’s clients are homeowners.
Demand for the service has been increasing, particularly since the beginning of the year. It has received 117 referrals since the start of 2012 - during the same period of last year it received 72 referrals, says Ms Doyle, who anticipates that this trend will continue, particularly in light of the current welfare reforms.
‘A lot of people are panicking about welfare reform, especially with the changes to housing benefit, and more agencies are referring clients to us because they realise there are people who need our assistance,’ she says.
Edinburgh Council’s original three-year contract for the service was extended by another 12 months earlier this year, but Ms Doyle remains concerned about its future. She is fearful about the fate of the early intervention service in the face of ever-diminishing local authority budgets - Edinburgh’s budget is facing £90 million in cuts between 2011 and 2014. ‘I’m really passionate about the service. I think it really works. But the climate has changed - we are going to struggle,’ she says.
‘There will be a rise in homelessness and I think the government will put more money into crisis services. But surely it makes sense in terms of costs [to sustain services like this] if you think about the misery that homelessness causes on so many levels.’
In numbers: Homelessness Prevention Service
the average number of Edinburgh residents the service has helped each year it has been running
the number of people the Homeless Prevention Service worked with in 2010/11
the number of service users in 2010/11 who went on to present themselves as homeless within the next 12 months
Further analysis of the experiences of 50 Homelessness Prevention Service clients indicated:
the number no longer in rent arrears - originally 29 were behind on their rental payments, but after intervention by the Edinburgh Cyrenians team, this fell to 11
28 per cent
the proportion of service users who had been struggling to cope before receiving help from the service, but were no longer struggling afterwards (36 per cent were struggling at the beginning of the intervention, but by the end this fell to 8 per cent)
the number of previously unemployed clients who found work since being helped by the service