Homes for Cathy unites housing sector for homelessness conference

Around 100 housing professionals came together to discuss and debate housing associations’ role in ending homelessness at the annual Homes for Cathy conference, held on 17 October in London. 

This year’s conference was opened by Mike Amesbury, the new Shadow Minister for Building Safety and Homelessness, who set the scene with a keynote speech on Labour’s priorities for tackling the homelessness crisis. Mr Amesbury spoke of the three ‘pillars’ needed to end rough sleeping and homelessness: cross-departmental political leadership, increasing the supply of social homes and a ‘helping hand’ to provide support where it is needed, including a welfare system that has ‘dignity and compassion’. 

Throughout the day, leaders from 26 Homes for Cathy member and affiliate organisations – including NHF, CIH, Crisis and Shelter – spoke on a wide range of homelessness-related topics encompassing: 

  • Housing associations’ role in ending homelessness – and the risk that an increased focus on tenant satisfaction could exclude the very people housing associations were set up to help. 
  • The impact of race on experiences of homelessness and how funding focused on rough sleeping neglects other forms of homelessness prevalent among racialised minorities, which in turn reinforces structuralised racism. 
  • The unique set of challenges faced by young people who are experiencing homelessness and how a combination of lower benefit levels and strict affordability assessments by providers can lock them out of the stable housing they need to pursue education and training. 
  • The ‘river of co-production’ and the mutual benefits for service providers and service users of equal and reciprocal partnerships.
  • The intrinsic link between domestic abuse and homelessness and how housing is the primary barrier for women attempting to leave abusive situations. 
  • The complexities of migrant homelessness and the importance of fostering links between mainstream housing and the refugee/migrant sectors to deliver tailored housing and support solutions.  
  • The need to make a property a ‘home’ for people moving away from homelessness, the value of that in terms of tenancy sustainment and the strategies housing providers can take to ensure tenants have the essentials they need. 
  • The importance of flexible, person-centred approaches to keep customers in their tenancies – and avoid contributing to a repeat cycle of homelessness, particularly as increasing numbers of tenants face financial pressures amid the cost-of-living crisis. 
  • How the development of more social homes is key to addressing the housing and homelessness crisis – and the policy changes that could unlock supply. 

The conference’s closing plenary was delivered by Liz Laurence, Head of Programme for the Royal Foundation’s Homewards initiative, which is convening stakeholders from both the private and public sectors to find innovative local solutions to end homelessness. 

Homes for Cathy chair David Bogle, chief executive of Hightown Housing Association, commented:

“Despite living in the world’s sixth biggest economy, people are still living with no place to call their home in this country.  Rough sleeping is only the tip of the iceberg – statutory data shows 83,240 households were facing homelessness between January to March 2023, up 5.7% from January to March 2022, while the number of households living in temporary accommodation has also continued to climb steeply with 104,510 people sleeping in temporary accommodation on 31st March 2023, an increase of 10 per cent since last year. 

“It’s clear that the housing sector can and should do more to alleviate this escalating crisis, whether that’s building more homes, developing supported housing solutions that meet local need or working to ensure tenants sustain successful tenancies and avoid repeat homelessness.   

“As housing associations continue to juggle the competing demands of a challenging operating environment, the Homes for Cathy conference provides an ideal opportunity for our members and their partners to think outside the box, learn from each other, innovate and ultimately keep a focus on their social purpose of ending homelessness.” 

Homes for Cathy seeks member feedback on the consultation for Consumer Standards and Code of Practice 

The landmark Social Housing Act has received Royal Assent to become law, transforming the role of the Regulator of Social Housing in regulating consumer standards.   

It is anticipated that many of the reforms introduced by the Act will take effect on 1 April 2024, when the new consumer standards are set in motion.  In the interim, the Regulator has published a consultation on the draft Consumer Standards and Code of Practice, seeking input from the sector.  Homes for Cathy has prepared a draft response to the consultation in collaboration with Crisis and is encouraging members to endorse the group’s proposals in their own submissions to the Regulator. 

Definition of consumers to include prospective tenants

Importantly, Homes for Cathy’s proposed amendments to the Standards and Code expand the definition of ‘consumers’ to expressly include prospective tenants who may be in statutory or non-statutory temporary accommodation or rough sleeping, not only in the scope of the Allocations and Letting section but also in the Transparency Influence and Accountability Standard sections. 

The proposed amendments also explicitly state the actions registered providers should take to implement the homelessness related provisions and require them to benchmark themselves on progress.   

David Bogle, chair of Homes for Cathy, said: 

“We welcome the provisions in the draft Standards and Code, including the retention of provisions in the Tenancy Standard which require housing associations to assist local authorities in their homelessness duties and to try to prevent evictions through tenancy sustainment support.   

“However, our proposals take this a step further, citing how this can be achieved and indicating how RPs’ progress should be benchmarked.  We hope that requiring providers to adopt the practices of the best will help to create a more level playing field for housing associations in tackling homelessness.   

“We also want to ensure that people experiencing homelessness – in other words prospective tenants – are recognised as consumers.  Ultimately, if we cannot provide effective services to the people that are most in housing need, what is our purpose?” 

To read Homes for Cathy’s draft consultation response, click here.  Homes for Cathy members are invited to contact Vicki McDonald at with any comments by Monday 18 September.  The Homes for Cathy Board will review any feedback and consider revisions to the draft before finalising a response. The final version will be shared with members by 12 October

Nurturing partnerships to support people seeking sanctuary

Charlotte Murray, Director of Care, Health & Wellbeing at South Yorkshire Housing Association, shares how local collaboration is ensuring people seeking sanctuary have access to the support they need to settle in the UK.

In June, during Refugee Week, we got together with local people and organisations to build connections, share stories, and learn more about how we can continue to welcome and support people seeking sanctuary.

Our event celebrated everything that migrants and refugees bring to our country and communities, and shared more about our commitment to ending homelessness. We launched our new report: Ending homelessness for people seeking sanctuary in South Yorkshire. The report shares more about how we are collaborating with local organisations to fulfil the Homes for Cathy commitment to Contribute to ending migrant homelessness in the areas that Housing Associations operate; it includes examples of how we’re working with people seeking sanctuary to settle in a safe, secure home, to build connections, and to get into employment, training and education.

“I have lived experience of homelessness, and my goal is to help people. I think we can work miracles!”

– Ashiana service user

Above: Charlotte Murray, Director of Care, Health & Wellbeing at SYHA

We also heard from people that have worked with Ashiana, an organisation that supports Black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee adults, children and young people fleeing domestic and sexual abuse. They generously shared more about their experiences – it was great to hear about what support worked well, their ideas for improving and growing our services, and about their goals for the future.

Above: Sheffield Central Councillor, Abtisam Mohamed

Globalmama provided us with a delicious lunch, and we also enjoyed a lively Zumba class with Shahina, and Sana offered our attendees beautiful henna. A huge thank you to everyone that joined us, including local Councillors Abtisam Mohamed and Nighat Basharat, and to Civica and Node4 for sponsoring the event. The event really highlighted the importance of creating, nurturing and growing great partnerships, and the dedication of local people and organisations to supporting people seeking sanctuary.

Read the report:

Refreshing the Homes for Cathy Commitments 

Earlier this year we held a members’ meeting and strategy day at which we asked the question ‘Are the Homes for Cathy commitments still workable and relevant?’. The answer to the question was a resounding ‘yes’, with both our members and stakeholders concluding that the commitments remain as applicable now as when they were introduced in consultation with Crisis in 2018. However, feedback from attendees was that the wording of some of the commitments could be improved and additional objectives included to reflect best practice.  In response, we have refreshed the commitments to incorporate the following recommendations: 

  • If housing associations are improving on Commitment 2 around flexible allocations, Commitment 3 around solutions for people who are not eligible for an offer of a home is not needed. Commitment 3 may also duplicate the responsibilities of local authorities. Instead, the onus should be on housing associations working with their local authority partners to remove barriers to accessing housing associations properties that disadvantage some applicants. 
  • Moreover, by monitoring refusals, housing associations can gauge their performance on Commitment 2. 
  • The pledge under Commitment 4 to not make homeless any tenant who wants to prevent their homelessness should go hand in hand with tenancy support. 
  • The phrase ‘vulnerable tenant groups’ in Commitment 5 is stigmatising – rather than being vulnerable, some people experiencing homelessness are disadvantaged and underserved by existing policy and practice. 
  • Positive action is needed to address inequality, discrimination and the over-representation of minority ethnic groups in the homeless population, including migrants. 
  • People moving from homelessness need to be able to make their property a ‘home’, rather than ‘ready to move into’ – the latter phrase is too open to interpretation. 
  • Services and policies need to be designed in co-production with those with lived experience. 

The new Homes for Cathy commitments we are proposing are: 

  1. To contribute to the development and execution of the homelessness strategies of local and combined authorities.    
  1. To work in partnership to provide a range of affordable housing options which meet the needs of all homeless people in their local communities.  
  1. To work with local authorities and others to understand and remove the barriers that disadvantage some applicants with a background of homelessness from accessing Housing Association properties.  
  1. To operate flexible allocations and eligibility policies which allow individual applicants’ unique set of circumstances and housing history to be considered and monitor refusals to benchmark performance.  
  1. To understand the inequalities that result in the over-representation of ethnic minorities among people affected by homelessness and commit to meeting the needs of ethnic minority groups, including migrants.    
  1. To not make any tenant who is engaging with their landlord homeless, by offering support to maintain at risk tenancies.  
  1. To design policies and service provision in co-production with people who have lived experience of homelessness and other stakeholders.  
  1. To ensure that new tenants moving out of homelessness have the essential furniture, flooring and other household items they need to make their property a home.  
  1. To lobby, challenge and inspire others to work to end homelessness. 

We are asking our members and stakeholders to complete this survey to gather feedback on the changes to the commitments.  Please complete the survey by Friday 28 July 2023

The feedback will help us to ensure that the commitments remain a workable framework for our member housing associations to challenge themselves to do more to end homelessness and by which their Boards can hold them to account.  

Complete survey

It’s right that the sector focuses on tenant satisfaction but where does homelessness fit in? 

Our Homes for Cathy panel discussion at last week’s Housing 2023 Fringe asked the question: Could an increased focus on tenant satisfaction undermine the sector’s work around homelessness? 

Homes for Cathy chair David Bogle steered the discussion between expert panellists Jo Richardson, Professor of Housing & Social Inclusion at De Montfort University, CIH past president and author of the Homeful report into housing-led approaches to ending homelessness; Callum Chomczuk, National Director, CIH Scotland; and Faye Greaves, Housing Programme Manager at Crisis. 

The discussion was a timely one, coinciding with news that the Social Housing Regulation Bill is set to become law after clearing both Houses.  This signifies the biggest changes to social housing regulation in a decade, including the introduction of a proactive consumer regulation regime underpinned by new consumer standards.   

The Regulator has already identified the themes the consumer standards are set to cover and will consult on the detail of each theme over the summer.  In advance of this planned consultation, the panellists gave their views on how the standards could best meet the needs of those experiencing or at risk of homelessness and the wider system changes that are needed to put an end to homelessness.   

A key area of focus for the panellists was the theme of ‘tenure’; under this theme, the Regulator has cited that landlords’ allocation process must be ‘fair, transparent and accessible to all’ and identified the importance of effective tenancy management so that ‘tenancies are sustained where appropriate’ including ‘supporting tenants, as well as working closely, and cooperating with local authorities in meeting their duties’.    

Here are our five key takeaways from the discussion: 

Three areas where housing associations can have an impact homelessness 

There are three key areas where housing associations can have an impact on homelessness: allocations and lettings to homeless households; tenancy sustainment and avoiding evictions into homelessness.  Despite constraints, the fact that some housing associations perform better than others in these areas shows that there is room for improvement. 

Current tenancy standards are not sufficient 

Under the existing tenancy standards, housing associations’ requirement to support local authorities in the execution of their homeless duties and to help sustain tenancies are not sufficient – we need to challenge housing associations on their nominations through homelessness channels.  If housing associations can’t provide housing and support for people who can’t afford the market, who can?  Unlocking access to social homes for people coming from homelessness is vital.  A code of practice around housing associations’ homelessness expectations based on the Homes for Cathy commitments could be beneficial.   

Processes can come before people 

In an environment where resources are scarce, processes can come before people and individual inconsistencies across organisations can ‘lock people out’.  Leaving the system to work itself out is not working – we need to look at ways providers can do better with regulatory accountability in the background.  One example cited was affordability assessments – as tenant support needs go up and housing-related support is squeezed, these need to be used as enablers and facilitators to give tenants access to the wider support system.   

Scottish RRTP example shows funding is a driver for partnership working 

In Scotland Rapid Rehousing Transition Plans (RRTPs), plans developed by each of the 32 local authorities to reduce the use of temporary accommodation, have created a driver for partnership working between local authorities and registered providers.  It’s proof that with political will and appropriate funding, homelessness can be alleviated (in 2019-20 the share of Scottish RP lettings to homeless households was 45%).  However, both the funding and the approach need to be long-term – we don’t always need to look for ‘shiny new things’ to make a difference. 

It’s a case of supply and demand 

Ultimately, we need more capital investment in housing to provide more social homes – it’s a case of supply and demand.  Currently we are using temporary accommodation as the default housing option.  Planning applications are already substantially down year-on- year.  We need housing associations to keep developing new social homes and not be creating any further development disincentives. 

Written by Vicki McDonald

Vicki is the Social Impact Manager at Hightown Housing Association and leads on communications and member engagement for the Homes for Cathy campaign.

A place to call home for separated migrant children

A considerable proportion of the migrants who arrive in the UK each year are ‘separated migrant children’ (SMC) – young people who reach the UK’s shores alone with no parent or guardian.  According to Home Office figures, there were 5,242 asylum applications from separated migrant children in 2022, up 39% since before the pandemic, making up 7% of total applications last year.   

To mark Refugee Week (19-25 June), Homes for Cathy’s communications lead Vicki McDonald spoke to Dannielle Read, Operations Manager at Hightown, a housing association which is tackling refugee homelessness through a dedicated supported housing scheme for separated migrant children (SMC).  

Tell us about Hightown’s Separated Migrant Children (SMC) scheme… 

We have three services in Hertfordshire that accommodate and support up to 28 separated migrant children at a time. Currently all our service users are males, however, should the need change and female bed spaces are required, we can look to adapt one of the schemes to female only, as we do not offer mixed gender services due to our service users’ cultural beliefs.   

The young people we support are aged 16 and 17 and they can stay with us for a up to 24 months, although the average length of stay is 10-12 months, as a high proportion of young people enter the UK at 17 years old. We occasionally extend a young person’s stay post 18 but only for a maximum of four weeks; the most common reason for this is a lack of available move on accommodation.  

In 2022-23 we supported a total of 57 young people, who had fled countries including Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Chad, Iran and Iraq to find safety. 

Dannielle Read, Hightown Operations Manager, oversees a specialist scheme for separated migrant children

How are young people referred to the service? 

Each local authority with a children’s service is part of the UK’s dispersal programme to accommodate separated migrant children – the National Transfer Scheme (NTS) – which was introduced in 2016 and made mandatory in 2021. Local authorities have a 0.1% threshold for SMC referrals, based on their total child population. The referral process is now well-established, so when a separated migrant child spontaneously arrives in a local authority, they can refer them to another authority if they have exceeded their own threshold. 

In Hertfordshire, where Hightown’s SMC scheme operates, the county council works with organisations such as ours to ensure that suitable accommodation is provided throughout the whole local authority area. Since Spring 2021, the number of young people accommodate in Hertfordshire has almost doubled, from 80 to 151 by December 2022. 

Separated migrant children under 18 are treated as children in need, with the same rights and entitlements as other young people to education, training and employment training opportunities. 

Hightown operates three supported housing schemes in Hertfordshire for young asylum seekers

What type of support do you provide? 

Many of the young people who are in our services have come from hugely different backgrounds and cultural ‘norms’, so it is important for our support team to help them develop an understanding of the local culture, whilst still embracing their own cultural background. For example, some young people come from a home where they cook their food on open fires with limited cooking appliances – our staff show them how to safely use an oven and hob. 

In addition to teaching daily living skills, we also support service users to access education – including ESOL classes – and healthcare, assist them with their Home Office asylum applications and help them with their cultural and wellbeing needs and integration into the local community. 

What are the main challenges and barriers separated migrant children must overcome as they start life in the UK? 

Many of the young people who arrive with us have endured terrible trauma in their home country, including torture, sexual violence, loved ones killed and homes destroyed, and the impact of these harrowing experiences cannot be underestimated. 

Many have taken perilous journeys of up to two years to reach the UK, often living in precarious and hostile situations with no contact with the family from which they have been separated. Some of the young people that come to us seek support from the British Red Cross who help find lost family members – sadly, some never have that contact again. Understandably, growing up without the crucial bond of a family has a detrimental effect on their psychological wellbeing and ability to adjust to life in the UK. 

The challenges faced by our service users are not only emotional – there are also many practical difficulties to overcome, including the language barrier. One of the hardest challenges is the lengthy and complicated process of applying for asylum. Almost a third of the young people in our care do not get a decision on their asylum application until after they have turned 18, which means they are unable to access supported accommodation. Whilst these young people are no longer categorised as ‘looked after children’, the local authority still has a duty to house and support them financially whilst their applications are being assessed. This can be quite challenging for some young people, as they must live with the uncertainty. 

Each young person joins us with varying needs, so we use a person-centred psychologically informed approach to put the correct support in place. Most importantly, we go the extra mile to build each young person’s trust and are committed to providing a safe, nurturing environment in which they can begin to recover. We have seen the lives of many young people transformed as a result. 

Homes for Cathy founding member Hightown Housing Association is a charitable housing association operating in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire which owns and manages over 8,000 homes and runs 89 care and supported housing schemes, including services for young people and adults experiencing homelessness.

Culture shift key to homelessness prevention

A founding member of the Homes for Cathy group, Broadland adopted the Homes for Cathy commitments in 2018, with backing from its Board.  Homes for Cathy spoke to Broadland’s senior local delivery manager, Katie Docherty, to explore how the commitments have driven a culture shift in its housing operations.   

The Homes for Cathy commitments to end homelessness touch on every aspect of housing associations’ work, not just Care & Supported Housing. How did the adopting the commitments impact on your general needs housing operations?

The wording of Commitment 4 – “to not make any tenant seeking to prevent their homelessness, homeless” – was important and one of the most controversial areas for us when we became part of Homes for Cathy.  Without the threat of eviction, would tenants pay their rent?

Our intention was to flip things on their head, so that in situations where tenants wanted to prevent their homelessness, and we were doing everything we could around rent arrears, eviction would not be the end goal.  Instead, our aim was around tenancy sustainment, thereby avoiding all the costs of eviction and all the staff input required in terms of having to go to court. 

We wanted to use that staff input in a more positive way, by supporting tenants to use resources such as our welfare benefits advisor and tenancy support team, and to work with our income officers around budgeting.  We now advise tenants that, if they are covering their full rent, we won’t let their arrears increase and we agree a plan for them to pay off the arrears in instalments, an approach which has worked well. 

Thinking of the person has become the centre of the ‘process’; rather than contacting tenants to threaten eviction for arrears, we surveyed them to find out how they were feeling, what triggered them around their rent arrears.  Training around nudge theory helped us better understand what it meant to receive a brown envelope through the post and the impact of the wording of arrears letters.  

We also looked at case studies which had gone to eviction and used empathy maps to explore the touchpoints where tenants had contacted us, what that experience had been like, what that person would have felt on receiving their first letter about rent arrears and on receiving a final warning letter, what the outside factors would have been.  This helped give us a complete picture of why someone wouldn’t pay their rent. 

Our understanding of the drivers behind rent arrears was also backed up in data; we used the business intelligence platform Power BI to look at the demographics of people who were in rent arrears – including age, ethnic origin, disabilities such as mental health, children or no children, working or not – cross-referencing this with who was most likely not to be able to pay their rent, and who was most likely not to pay their rent at certain times, such as Christmas.  Armed with that data, we were able to plan targeted ‘preventative’ communications before tenants had even got into rent arrears.  For example, we had historical cases who had always missed payments in December or January, so would make a phone call in November to see how they were planning to pay their rent. 

It was a massive culture shift away from the whole process of warning letters and pre-court protocol that was so set in colleagues’ minds as how rent is collected.  It’s all about looking at the whole person.  Fortunately, this culture change coincided with Broadland creating a specialist income team separate to neighbourhood management, which really helped give them a sense of direction. 

Ultimately it costs a lot to evict someone, not to mention the ongoing voids costs of an empty property.  We calculated that the average cost of an eviction is between £8,500 and £11,900.  Since 2018, we have reduced evictions for rent arrears from 18 households to three households, in both 2019/20 and 2020/21, making annual savings of between £75,000 and £178,000.  Over the same period, we have sustained our level of arrears.

How has your approach to tenancy sustainment changed over time?

Rather than working towards eviction, our ethos is let’s work to get this person to stay in their tenancy and how can we achieve that?  The more we have built relationships with tenants, the easier it has become, because we have got to know the people who we need to contact and the people who just need an occasional check in by text. 

We’re having conversations every day with people; our rent officers have the freedom to say ‘What’s going on here?  Your home is the basis for everything, let’s try to figure out why you’re behind on your rent and is there anything we can do to help you find ways to budget so that you can pay your rent’.  At the end of the day, there’s not a high percentage of people who wake up in the morning and say I don’t care about paying my rent and I don’t want to live here anyway.

In terms of staff turnover, how do you ensure that person-centred culture remains embedded at Broadland?

We’ve had new staff members who have found the approach alien, but they can still see the benefits.  The income team has a great culture and a team leader who believes in our ethos and wants to achieve the commitment around not making tenants homeless who want to prevent their homelessness, which is important.  The team also has regular meetings where they support each other, and this helps to keep that consistency and belief in what they’re trying to achieve alive.  Our welfare benefits officer sits within the income team so he’s also part of that solution. 

What has been the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on how you engage with tenants?

Times are very difficult; people are choosing between heating and eating.  For us, it’s about re-examining the data, identifying those tenants on the lowest incomes or who are on the borderline, perhaps working a few hours but still receiving some housing costs, who therefore don’t have access to other grants and benefits, and working proactively with them. 

Commitment 2 is about flexible allocations and eligibility policies that allow individual applicants’ circumstances and history to be considered.  What changes has Broadland implemented to deliver this?

Essentially, the view at Broadland is that if the person can’t afford social housing rent, they’re not going to be able to afford to rent anywhere else, so we don’t turn anyone down based on affordability.  However, we still carry out an income and expenditure check with applicants.  If their projected expenditure is minus disposable income, the applicant will be referred to a team leader, so the appropriate support can be put in place. 

For example, Broadland has a welfare benefits advisor and tenancy support team to which applicants are referred if we consider they’re not maximising the welfare payments they are entitled to.  If the applicant is already receiving the benefits they’re eligible for, we will then go through the tenancy support route to explore if it’s a budgeting matter or if the team can gain access to any other support. 

We have a very low refusal rate for applicants; we had three refusals in total last year.  Typically, refusals will be around anti-social behaviour – for example if the area has suffered anti-social behaviour, we might choose not to house someone there who has a history of ASB.

By carrying out an affordability assessment, we can discuss budgeting and ask open-ended questions to establish any other support needs.  For example, if the applicant has just moved into the area, our neighbourhood officers might put them in touch with Men’s Sheds or the Norwich City community football scheme.  We want to make new tenants aware that we’re not just a bricks and mortar housing association there to collect rent – we’re part of the community and we have a wider offer.  A lot of this is done as part of a four week visit or call, so new tenants have had time to settle in.

How does Broadland approach Commitment 7 ‘To ensure that properties offered to homeless people should be ready to move into’?

We identified that there are some great grant schemes and charities out there who will give white goods – nine times out of ten we are able to source a fridge or a cooker for a tenant.  My view is that one of the key things that makes a property feel like a home are curtains or blinds at the windows rather than big bags or duvets – it helps tenants feel safe and secure, gives them privacy and means there’s no outward sign for neighbours to make a judgement, so they begin their tenancy feeling like they are part of the community. 

Unfortunately, there aren’t many grants available for curtains and blinds.  It’s the same for carpets – if you just have concrete on your floor or bits of carpet or a rug here and there, it’s not homely.  It’s those day-to-day things that can chip away at someone on top of all the other pressures that they might already have and can have a big impact.  We therefore have a specific budget set aside for Commitment 7 and we tend to use it for curtains and flooring to make the property feel like a home.  We don’t have an application form for this; it’s used specifically for tenants who have come from a homelessness background, which is the only criteria, whether it be a hostel, temporary accommodation or rough sleeping. 

We also try to ensure flooring and carpets are fitted before the tenant moves in, so the property feels like home from the beginning.  We probably do one of these a month when it feels like it’s needed.  It’s a relatively small budget but it does mean a lot to the people concerned.

Tackling homelessness has been part of Broadland Housing’s DNA since the association formed in 1963, around the time of the TV film Cathy Come Home.  Today Broadland provides more than 5,000 quality homes across Norfolk and north Suffolk, including sheltered housing and housing with care homes.

Making a property feel like a home for new tenants

Homes for Cathy Commitment 7 is to ‘ensure that properties offered to homeless people should be ready to move into’, a pledge that recognises that a home is not just bricks and mortar, but a place of comfort and safety where people who have experienced homelessness can thrive.  Homes for Cathy spoke to Sanctuary Operations Manager, Ben Tranter and Neighbourhood Partnership Manager, Melanie King, to find out about the housing association’s innovative ‘Welcome Home’ project, which is part of its wider ‘customer-first’ approach. The project provides new tenants with an Argos voucher up to the value of £500, ensuring customers start a tenancy with the household essentials they need to make a property feel like home. 

How did the Welcome Home scheme come about?

MK: I come from a housing background and was a housing officer for 17 years.  We’ve all experienced signing up a new customer and standing with them in an empty property and all they have is a carrier bag full of possessions.  For me and my colleague who developed the scheme, it was something very close to our hearts, as we had seen people come to us in that situation, who had previously been homeless or fled domestic violence with nothing. 

In setting up the scheme, we wanted to be able to provide new customers moving into a Sanctuary property with the household items they need in the first week of their tenancy.  We ran an initial pilot with Argos, whereby we offered people a pack of furniture and other items we thought they would need to start their tenancy, such as bedding, towels, a microwave, kettle, toaster, crockery and cutlery, a microwave cooking set, rubbish bin and a bucket and mop.  However, we found there were always items that weren’t in stock or had to be collected in store, which proved difficult for people without a car.

We learned from that initial pilot and decided that we should give new customers the choice of what they want to buy and what they feel is important for them to be able to move into their property.  We now provide an Argos voucher on the day a new customer signs up and it’s up to them how they spend it. Currently, we offer £400 of vouchers for a single person, £450 for a couple and £500 for a family.

BT: It’s about the principle of trusting customers to know what it is they need, rather than us telling them what they need.  It also gives us flexibility in that we can use the voucher scheme in combination with other services that are already out there, such as charities and other support mechanisms.  Colleagues also have access to our own interactive map of the external support services across our localities, which they can signpost customers to.

How are new tenants referred to the scheme?

BT: It starts at the point of the tenancy offer, when our lettings officers will have an initial conversation with customers to find out more about the situation they have come from and what they are bringing with them in terms of furniture and household items.  If a lettings officer has concerns that a new customer may be moving in with nothing and has no facility to get anything, they will then refer to the relevant housing officer.  During the property viewing, the housing officer will have a secondary conversation to understand what the customer will be moving in with and will decide whether they need the support of the voucher scheme.  It’s very much a feeling and a conversation.

MK: It’s very flexible – ultimately, we’re giving our housing officers another tool in their toolkit to support new customers to succeed in their tenancy.

How is the scheme funded?

BT: Our procurement colleagues and social value development officer have worked hard to develop relationships with suppliers to ensure we can build social value into contracts, and we were fortunate that one of our big supply chain partners agreed to wholly fund the scheme.  We have secured a pot of funding for the initial scheme but we’re hopeful that if we can demonstrate that there is an ongoing need and that the scheme is making a difference, we’ll be able to convince our supplier to continue to support it.

MK: We know that many of our suppliers have their own charitable objectives but are not always able to support a charity themselves, as they’re not operating in the right arena.  Partnering with an organisation like Sanctuary – where we have access to different types of services and skills – means they can find projects that have a good fit with their organisation and allow them to fulfil their charitable aims.  We’re also fortunate in that Sanctuary is keen to support innovation and encourages colleagues to use their initiative to develop projects such as this. 

What are the benefits of the scheme in terms of tenancy sustainment?

MK: Customers coming from a homelessness situation or sofa surfing can have a lot of other issues going on, and sometimes can sign up for a property and not move in.  With the Welcome Home scheme, we can offer people a home rather than a house; not only does it mean there’s one less thing for new customers to worry about, but it also helps reduce the likelihood of abandonments and the costs and issues associated with void properties. 

More importantly, the scheme helps us to make a connection and build a positive relationship with customers, which makes it far easier for them to approach us if they have a problem in the future, for example with their rent.

BT: It’s about the customer having confidence and trust in us.  As a landlord, we’re often seen as an authority figure, particularly by customers who have been street homeless; sometimes this can scare them, and they can pull away.  The scheme breaks down those barriers and helps them understand that we’re here to support them. This is more vital than ever as, sadly, we are seeing more and more people in need of support due to the impact of the cost-of-living crisis.

Sanctuary owns and manages more than 116,000 homes, making it one of the largest housing associations in the country. A not-for-profit housing association, its mission is to build affordable homes and sustainable communities where people choose to live.

Innovation in tenancy sustainment: how Bournville Village Trust has improved engagement with residents

A robust tenancy sustainment service is vital for housing associations seeking to avoid evictions and the potential homelessness that can occur for tenants as a result. 

The Covid pandemic was a catalyst for change in the way that the housing sector supported tenancy sustainment; many Homes for Cathy members have used the lessons learned during the pandemic to their advantage, adopting new ways of working to help tenants thrive in their homes.  Homes for Cathy spoke to Bournville Village Trust’s (BVT) Income Services Manager, Gareth Sinnett, to explore how its Well Winter campaign has influenced the association’s tenancy sustainment work.

What was the impetus behind the launch of the Well Winter campaign?

The initial driver was a response to the impact of Covid; at the time, many of our residents were experiencing unemployment or accessing furlough and we wanted to find a practical, financial response to help them through any short-term financial pressures.  While rent collection was a factor, encouraging residents to prioritise their rent went hand in hand with helping them in other areas, such as food vouchers and energy costs.

Unfortunately, the financial pressures that arose off the back of Covid haven’t relented.  If anything, the situation has got worse; the support packages that were in place during that time have been withdrawn, including the £20 Universal Credit uplift, and we’re now facing high inflation and a major rise in the cost of living, which makes having a package like Well Winter even more important. 

When residents are living hand to mouth and can’t see where their next meal is coming from, the ability to give that direct support makes a huge difference.  It has also benefited our relationship with them; whilst we always provided additional financial support through provision of white goods and home essentials through a tenant support fund, we had not previously directly issued food and fuel vouchers to our tenants before we launched the campaign.

Has the campaign helped improve resident engagement?

Definitely – one of the most challenging parts of our role is to encourage residents to contact us when they foresee an issue with their rent.  The biggest positive from the Well Winter campaign has been in developing that relationship further, to improve the trust between us.  They understand that we’re not here just to enforce rent collection or issue letters, we’re genuinely here to help them thrive in their tenancies.

Historically, we haven’t had always engaged in the same way with residents who aren’t in arrears; the campaign has helped us understand that there are many residents who pay their rent and don’t ever reach out to us, even when they are in financial difficulty.

Residents self-refer for Well Winter funding via an online application form and once they have contacted us, we’re able to have conversations about where they’re struggling and whether we can offer them financial support or refer them elsewhere.  In this way, we’re able to tackle any underlying issues before residents start falling behind on their rent.  Ultimately, it’s far easier to resolve rent arrears before they occur. 

Have you seen a large rise in the number of residents requiring tenancy support?

Caseload numbers ramped up during Covid and have remained high ever since.  However, more notably, the work we have had to put in to get the same results has gone up exponentially.  Not only has the complexity of the cases increased, but we’ve also adopted a more holistic approach to resolving some of our residents’ underlying issues, which takes time, energy and effort.  Meanwhile, with the cost of living increasing, there is a lot more pressure on us as a social landlord to keep our homes occupied and support tenants to sustain their tenancies where previously residents may have been able to access additional support in other ways.

Has your approach to tenancy sustainment helped reduce evictions?

We always promote engagement over enforcement, so if a resident is able to engage and work with us, we will work with them to potentially prevent any enforcement action.  Evictions are always a last resort; any eviction is effectively a failure for us as much as it is for the resident, so we try to exhaust every avenue, for example accessing Birmingham City Council’s homelessness prevention fund to reduce or clear debt on a resident’s account.  In this way we’ve been able to keep evictions down to a minimum – just two in the past 12 months. 

What tenancy support do you provide for new residents, for example those moving away from a situation of homelessness?

All new tenants will go through a financial assessment; this is about working with them to ensure that the tenancy is sustainable. This is supported though our financial inclusion team who will help them to maximise their benefits or seek additional financial support.  The focus here is on providing that support from the very start. For new residents, we can offer support through our community fund for things like furniture and white goods, which are typically higher expenditures at the start of a tenancy and can lead to added financial pressures for tenants who have just moved into a property. All new tenants also receive a decorating voucher of up to £300 when they first move in to support them in making it their home. It’s about making sure that new residents can sustain that tenancy.

How do you engage with your more vulnerable residents and what support do you offer?

Encouraging engagement with vulnerable customers is key to good housing management.  At BVT, we take our role very seriously and our entire front-line services are encouraged to work collaboratively to support our most vulnerable customers to sustain their tenancies.  We also keep a record of our most vulnerable customers and can offer tailored support depending on their circumstances.  Our income and housing management teams are skilled and knowledgeable and work together closely to case manage vulnerable residents’ ability to manage their rent account and sustain their tenancy, resolving any issues that arise.  For example, we can refer to our Money Matters financial inclusion team who offer targeted support and advice around benefits and welfare payments. 

We have also appointed an energy advisor in the past 12 months, a fixed term role funded through the Energy Redress Scheme, an initiative which supports vulnerable energy consumers by distributing voluntary payments made by energy companies that have breached Ofgem regulations.  The advisor offers direct support to our residents on reducing their energy costs, for example by managing their boiler, radiators and thermostat, as well as advocating for residents in situations where they may have been overcharged by energy companies.

What advice would you give to other housing associations looking to enhance their tenancy sustainment offering?

At BVT, we’ve always prided ourselves on a tenant first approach but having the ability to offer the additional support of food vouchers or help with energy costs through the Well Winter campaign means that we can have a very different conversation with residents.  Residents understand that they can speak to us and it’s really helped with engagement and building relationships.  The real jewel in the crown has been that building trust and understanding with residents has gone a long way to achieving earlier intervention and ultimately managing rent accounts on a much lower level.  Overall, it’s been a real success. 

Bournville Village Trust (BVT) is a values-led charitable trust working to create and sustain communities where people can thrive.  A registered social housing provider, BVT delivers a range of services across more than a dozen diverse and distinctive communities in Birmingham and Telford.

Meeting the needs of customers affected by domestic abuse

To mark No More Week (5-12 March 2023), a national awareness campaign focused on domestic abuse, Hightown’s Housing Team Area Manager Kerry Hames explains the association’s approach to supporting those affected and preventing the homelessness that can often occur as a result.

Why is it important for housing associations like Hightown to have an effective response to domestic abuse?

We know that many victims face homelessness when they flee abusive homes; for example, research from the charity SafeLives revealed that 32% of homeless women said that domestic abuse contributed to their homelessness.  The same research showed that over half of domestic abuse victims/survivors need support to help them stay in their homes.

As a founding member of Homes for Cathy, an alliance of housing associations dedicated to ending homelessness, Hightown is committed to meeting the needs of tenants who want to prevent their own potential homelessness, and this includes domestic abuse victims/survivors.  Moreover, we have a safeguarding responsibility for all our tenants, so it’s important we have effective measures in place to avoid any delays in responding to and supporting those affected.  

As a housing association, we’re uniquely placed to identify domestic abuse and support people, due to nature of our relationship with tenants.  When we receive reports of domestic abuse incidents, our housing teams pull together so tenants can receive timely and consistent assistance, information and advice.  We’ve also trained our front-line staff to be able to spot the signs of abuse, which is vital as not all tenants come forward to report it themselves.

What training do Hightown staff receive in order to be able to respond to reports of domestic abuse?

We’ve worked with an Independent Domestic Violence Advisor (IDVA) from the charity Refuge, a role funded by Hertfordshire County Council and the Police and Crime Commissioner, who is co-located at our offices and is responsible for carrying out risk and needs assessments, safety planning and providing short-term support and intervention to victims.  The IDVA has organised training sessions for staff to ensure their knowledge of domestic abuse is up to date, and offers advice, guidance and assistance with referrals to the Hertfordshire County Council IDVA service.

At Hightown, we also have a domestic abuse lead housing officer who provides guidance for staff in relation to housing management cases.  They are also a domestic abuse champion for the entire organisation and trained in multiple aspects of domestic abuse, including the DASH risk assessment model, MODUS case management software and MARAC.  A MARAC is a multi-agency risk assessment conference, which takes place on the highest risk domestic abuse cases.  This information is shared with external agencies like local police, health, child protection, housing practitioners, Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs), probation and other specialists from the statutory and voluntary sectors.

We recognise that our own staff may experience domestic abuse, so we also have a lead for supporting staff who make a disclosure, as well as offering a domestic abuse e-learning module for managers. 

What measures does Hightown take to identify and support domestic abuse victims who do not come forward themselves? 

As a landlord, we are well positioned to identify potential cases of domestic abuse in a tenancy, using both the information we hold about that tenancy and our own professional curiosity to identify situations which require a closer look.

For example, we train our staff in our Asset Management team to look out for signs that can be spotted when they are inside a customer’s home, or when receiving reports about repairs.  This could include a customer with visible injuries or who is being shouted at by their partner; repeat repairs such as a bathroom lock or bedroom door; or signs of physical damage to the property, such as holes in walls or damage to furniture and appliances.  Often it can be a general sense that something isn’t quite right.

This ‘setting the scene’ is not just limited to a customer’s home; we know that domestic abuse victims/survivors  are four times more likely to be in rent arrears compared to the general population.  After a domestic abuse incident, a victim/survivor is likely to go into arrears and if they are already in arrears, the arrears increase and continue to increase.  It can often be disguised, so it’s crucial to listen to what is being said and, again, have that professional curiosity.

We may also identify domestic abuse through reports of anti-social behaviour (ASB) from neighbours.  We therefore check all the relevant information (and that of partners) to build a picture of what is happening before approaching customers and we always consider domestic abuse as a factor.  We do not treat suspected cases of domestic abuse as ASB as this could penalise the victim/survivor or prevent them from seeking help.

With domestic abuse a major factor in homelessness, particularly among women, how do you support survivors to remain in their home or leave a tenancy?

The reality is that women – and their children – need safe and suitable housing options to escape and recover from violence and abuse.  As a housing association, we signpost our customers to sources of guidance and advice, such as SafeLives, The National Centre for Domestic Violence, the National Domestic Abuse Helpline and Women’s Aid.  We work with external agencies to provide support to customers who want to remain in their homes and, where a customer needs to move, we liaise closely with our local authority partners to overcome any barriers and ensure that the customer is placed in a safe place, for example a refuge, until a move to a more suitable property becomes available.  Reciprocal move arrangements with other providers, such as the one Hightown has in place with Buckinghamshire Council, can really help in situations where customers want to re-locate to another area.

Hightown is a charitable housing association (operating in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire) aiming to help people who need support and care or who cannot afford to buy or rent a home at market values.