Sunday, 26 March 2017

Helping the homeless

CATHY AT 50 200px

A few hours after deciding to write about homelessness in this blog, my friend, Trevor Smith, said this to me: “Homelessness is centre stage in the induction programme I am designing. If new entrants to the housing sector don’t ‘get’ homelessness, they won’t understand what we’re about.”

Trevor runs the support programme for the Centre for Partnership’s GEM (Graduate Employment and Mentoring) Programme. His comment started me thinking about the extent to which homelessness – and finding solutions for it – remains at the heart of what we do or whether, at times, we forget about it in the rush to keep step with the government’s latest housing initiative (I understand that it’s ‘buy as you go’ this week).

I touch base regularly with Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis. Two years ago we were discussing how homelessness was increasing, and that measures such as the overall benefits cap would only make it worse. He said he thought that the pendulum would swing back by 2017. The fantastic work that he and the Crisis team have done to promote the Homelessness Reduction Bill is a strong indicator that he got it right. Two or three years ago the government was so busy weakening the safety net for homeless people it would have been inconceivable that such a measure could have succeeded. Now the bill, which was taken forward by Conservative MP Bob Blackman, has the support of the Communities and Local Government, local authorities and, we hope, parliament. That is an astonishing result.

We also have a housing minister who is bothered about homelessness. He says he is, and I choose to believe him. Recently he stated that “solving our housing crisis is a moral priority”. Homelessness is back on the radar.

There is the fantastic work that David Bogle and the Homes for Cathy group are doing which will be showcased in parliament in February, and which has spawned a myriad of national and regional events. South Yorkshire Housing Association (SYHA) showed the original Cathy Come Home at our local independent cinema last week, and it was followed by a panel debate which included the housing lead on the local council, a homelessness agency and a young woman who had experienced homelessness. Next week we are reprising this as part of a programme for local schools. Then, in a couple of months, the brilliant Cardboard Citizens theatre company (which includes homeless actors) is coming to the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, with an updated version of Cathy. The Homes for Cathy group of associations are also sponsoring Inside Housing’s competition for young filmmakers to produce a ‘Cathy’ for the 21st century. 

So what else are associations doing? There are the obvious answers such as increasing housing supply (40% of all new homes last year, for example), working hard to sustain existing tenancies and working closely with local authorities to support their homeless strategies. The two performance indicators I look for first at SYHA are the number of tenants we have evicted and the proportion of new tenants who have been homeless or at risk. 

There is another dimension to this – the way in which we work with our tenants as individuals. Every time we intervene to support one of our customers into a training or employment programme, we take them one step further away from homelessness. Every intervention to support someone’s health, well-being and self-esteem does the same. Placeshapers associations do loads of this stuff.  Its We Work programme is a great showcase for the tens of thousands of people who have been supported in this way. Immediate examples at SYHA include our arts programme, Moments of Joy, and our Ageing Better project which tackles loneliness and isolation.

I have tried – and failed – to track the origin of the much-quoted statement that any one of us is only two bad decisions away from homelessness. If we are better connected, better informed and better supported, we will be less likely to make these mistakes.

At the end of every meeting our board assesses the decisions we have just taken against our risk framework. We think about how each decision has affected our risk profile, risk appetite etc. A lot of associations do this. Perhaps we should also be thinking about the impact of our decisions on homelessness in the same way. To what extent are the decisions we take on, for example, new developments, tenure, or sales strategies likely to improve or damage prospects for homelessness locally? Like those GEM graduates, we need to ensure we still ‘get’ it.

Tony Stacey, chief executive, South Yorkshire Housing Association

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