We strive to support every victim in the way that is right for them

Karolyn Barta, Group Community Safety Manager at Homes for Cathy member Abri, explains its person-centred approach to supporting domestic abuse victims and how its ‘See Something, Say Something’ process is encouraging disclosures from colleagues across the organisation.

As a social landlord, we’re really pleased to confirm that we have a dedicated team of Community Safety Officers, that are trained to support all disclosures of domestic abuse (DA) from either our customers or colleagues alike. We’re aware that one in four women and one in six men will experience DA at some point in their life and as a housing provider, and an employer, we’re uniquely placed to deal with a disclosure both sensitively and with knowledge.

A perpetrator may use a tenancy agreement as an extension of control

It’s very apparent that a perpetrator of DA may use a tenancy agreement as an extension of control over a victim, and many victims will unfortunately find themselves having to choose either homelessness or staying in an abusive relationship. At Abri, we work very closely with our local authority (LA) providers to support victims as best we can and this could include management moves but also offering target hardening (to make a property safer) should an LA nominate someone fleeing abuse to one of our properties.

At Abri, we regularly raise awareness of DA to our customers via social media, our website and through customer newsletters. The Community Safety Team made a pledge to put our customers at the heart of any decision-making, as we strive to support every victim in the way that is right for them. Support may include completing risk assessments, offering target hardening (which could include supplying addition bolts, window or personal alarms, security lighting to name a few), discussing housing options, working with partner agencies such as the police, fire service, DA support workers, the LA and attending multi-agency meetings, sometimes known as MARAC.

Concerns by colleagues are reported through to a specific number

As a landlord, we know that we have an opportunity to carry out home visits for any number of reasons. We have developed a process called ‘See Something, Say Something’ where any concerns by colleagues are reported through to a specific number and triaged to the appropriate team, which at times, might mean coming through to Community Safety. One of our officers will then complete a desktop review to establish if there has been a history of DA and may make contact with the customer, if it’s safe to do so, to offer further support. Even if there hasn’t been a history of DA, we may still visit the customer, using a different reason for the home visit, as this may then lead to a victim feeling able to share their experience with us. Although we would never pressure a victim to make a disclosure to us, we have a duty to report any concerns in order to safeguard an individual or other people. In doing this, we always put the person at the centre of those referrals and with consent wherever possible.

Throughout the various lockdowns, and challenges that we faced during the pandemic, we had to adjust how we supported our customers. However, Abri made a firm decision that supporting victims of DA was a priority. The Community Safety team continued to work with victims, in-line with appropriate risk assessments and PPE. We continued to coordinate management moves, to allow customers to move more quickly, to a safer area. As a team, we did rely more on email, providing the victim was happy and felt their email account was safe.

We do not consider rent arrears to be a barrier to moving

One area that I believe is best practise is that if a disclosure is made either on a mutual exchange application or nomination from the LA, the Community Safety team are notified, so that once the move is agreed, the incoming customer is contacted and an Officer will offer to meet and discuss any additional security measures and provide the contact details of the relevant DA support. Not all housing providers do this, but I believe that it may stop a situation reaching crisis point. Furthermore, if a victim has rent arrears, we would continue to support the customer if they wanted to move, and at Abri, we do not consider rent arrears to be a barrier.  

The most challenging situation that the team faces is when a victim needs to move out of area. Some LAs have refused to accept an application if the customer is from another area. We do our best to support victims that do need to move out of area, and one of the tools we use is a supporting letter from either the police, social services or DA support agency, for example. It’s fantastic that the new Domestic Abuse Act is insisting that LAs review their current guidance for dealing with DA victims.

As previously mentioned, we do have a host of safety options to help a victim stay safe within their home, if they choose to remain. We may ask the police to ‘flag’ the property (with the victim’s consent) so that any 999 call is treated with complete urgency. The police also offer ‘cocoon watch’ where they may consider talking to neighbours in the locality, which could mean a neighbour calling the police if they have concerns, again this is with the victim’s consent.

Our colleagues in Home Care recently attended our Community Safety team meeting and talked through additional property safety measures which was really informative and has helped to give a broader understanding of other options available. Something that we’re currently working on is ensuring that our Abri vans have the right stock on them so that they can complete DA repairs and target hardening as a priority.

As a team, we’ve recently had DA refresher training to ensure that every colleague in the team can offer the best service to our customers, as we appreciate it can be incredibly stressful for a victim, particularly when a lot of agencies are involved.

Looking ahead, we’ll be looking to arrange some further training, with a focus on male victims and also victims within the LGBT community. It’s vital that every customer of Abri that is a victim of DA receives a tailored approach, and we do offer visits where possible, that reflect a customer’s protected characteristics.

And finally, the team will be organising some internal training to our colleagues across Abri, to give everyone the opportunity to learn more about DA, so that if a disclosure is made to them, they give the best possible response possible and with empathy. It’s vital that our customers trust us, as there is so much that we can do to help a victim take control and have their voice heard.

Karolyn Barta is Group Community Safety Manager at Abri, one of the largest housing associations in the south of England, managing 35,000 homes with 100,000 residents living in them.

Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility: how Grand Union Housing Group is supporting victims of domestic abuse

To mark No More Week (5-12 March 2023), a week of raising awareness against domestic abuse and sexual violence spearheaded by the national campaign UK SAYS NO MORE, Homes for Cathy caught up with the Partnerships Team Leader – Domestic Abuse & Safeguarding at Grand Union Housing Group, to learn more about how the housing association is working to prevent homelessness for customers experiencing domestic abuse.

The lockdown had a major impact on cases of domestic abuse; according to figures from the charity Refuge, between April 2020 and February 2021 calls and contacts logged on its National Domestic Abuse Helpline (NDAH) were up by an average of 61%.  Was this reflected by your experience at Grand Union and how has the association prioritised supporting victims of domestic abuse?

Previously we reported safeguarding and domestic abuse together and in 2017, across both, we had 35 referrals annually, which increased to 110 in 2018 when Grand Union implemented safeguarding training and colleagues started to gain a better understanding of the issue. In 2019, referrals grew to 165 and in 2020 they stood at 131. In 2021, when I started in my role and we created a distinct domestic abuse team, we began reporting safeguarding and domestic abuse separately; that year there were 156 referrals for safeguarding and 122 for domestic abuse – a total of 278 – which was a significant rise. As a result of continued awareness raising within the association and work with various teams including our property services operatives, the figures have remained high; in 2022, we had 157 referrals for domestic abuse alone.  To put that into perspective, our combined totals for domestic abuse and safeguarding referrals for 2022 is 417.

We know that the biggest reason why women become homeless is because of domestic abuse. In 2020 we changed the structure of our housing department to be able to provide targeted support for customers, including those experiencing domestic abuse.

We no longer have housing officers, instead we have specific teams with niche roles including a payment support team, a financial wellbeing team and a safeguarding and domestic abuse team, each of which has expertise in what they do and refers into one another. Our team aims to prevent the homelessness that could potentially occur within a tenancy because of domestic abuse, so my role is to support customers who are already in our properties.

In the past few years, we have seen many customers who have made themselves homeless because of domestic abuse and who have nowhere to go. For example, one customer with four children went to stay at a campsite over the summer and declared herself homeless because she was too scared to return home to her partner.

In terms of housing management, what are the biggest challenges in preventing homelessness caused by domestic abuse and how do you overcome them?

As a housing association, joint tenancies can be the most difficult thing to deal with. We had a customer who was in a joint tenancy and was paying the rent every month and the perpetrator agreed to take himself off the tenancy. The victim of the abuse had been working to support herself financially, with no monetary contribution from the perpetrator. However, on her own, she didn’t meet the affordability criteria for a sole tenancy. We therefore supported her to maintain her tenancy in that property, making our financial wellbeing team aware so that she could access discretionary housing payments and other assistance such as food parcels to be able to make ends meet.

In situations where it’s not a joint tenancy and the customer wants to stay in the property, we will look to move the perpetrator, bearing in mind they may not always be a partner. However, there’s also the question of where to house the perpetrator to prevent their homelessness.

There’s a notion that people should flee their homes to go and be safe somewhere else. Ultimately, it’s about asking the customer who has experienced the abuse what they want to do, where they want to go and how we can support that. If they do want to leave the property, we look at our internal stock and whether we can offer a direct let but if that’s not an option and there are no suitable properties, we must take it further afield and approach the local authority.

Most recently, under new guidance brought in with the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, children are now also recognised as the victims of domestic abuse and will receive automatic access to support like mental health and safeguarding services. Consequently, we have logged our first child domestic abuse case, where previously the family came as a ‘package’.

What provisions do you make for customers who have experienced domestic abuse to remain in their homes and so avoid homelessness?

We are led by our customers so if they want to remain in their home, we provide ‘target hardening’ measures through our sanctuary scheme to ensure they can safely do so. This can be anything from installing a camera doorbell, to reinforced fencing, arson proof letterboxes, film across windows, fire doors, floodlights, to taking a wall out in a property. If necessary, we offer customers support from our Life24 service, incorporating a personal alarm and callout system which links directly to the Police.

We also attend court and provide emotional support; the lines can sometimes become quite blurred but ultimately, we aim to offer the support the customer needs at that time.

How have you upskilled colleagues to support customers who are experiencing domestic abuse?

With just three of us on the operational front in the domestic abuse and safeguarding team, we don’t have the capacity to stretch around 400 colleagues. Fortunately, we have been able to team up with Bedfordshire Domestic Abuse Partnership, which runs a two-day domestic abuse responders programme; we worked with them to train four colleagues as domestic abuse responders to supplement the core team. These responders are dotted around the association across central services, visiting services and customer experience – it means that colleagues have a port of call within their team who is trained in domestic abuse and who has a good knowledge of services and support available for those affected by it.

You mentioned working with Grand Union’s property services team. What role have they played?

I worked very closely with the head of property services and was asked to join their team away day to discuss safeguarding and domestic abuse. I asked them what they would do if domestic abuse happened to someone they knew?  Likewise, how would they respond if they saw a hole in a wall in a customer’s property? My message was that if something doesn’t look right or feel right, there’s nothing to lose by reporting it. The discussion really piqued their curiosity and, as a result, over the following six months, our property services team created the most domestic abuse and safeguarding referrals in the entire organisation.

We know that if a customer has a crisis in their property, for example the boiler is leaking, a maintenance operative is more likely to visit them in their ‘natural habitat’ and is therefore more likely to see if something is not right. We do not want to put pressure on our maintenance teams but our viewpoint is that safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility.  Consequently, we have made it as easy as possible for colleagues to make domestic abuse referrals by making a referral form available on our intranet, which can be accessed through colleagues’ phones, as well as on the tablets our operatives use to record jobs. To make the form accessible and avoid creating extra work for our operatives, we also made it ‘speech to text’, so colleagues can quickly and easily submit referrals.

Once a referral is made to the abuse and safeguarding team, we find honesty is the best policy when contacting customers and will let them know that our operative has expressed some concerns about what they saw or heard at the property and that we want to check that everything is OK.

In addition to our internal property services team, we have also delivered training to our external gas contractors, who are also going into customers’ homes.

Grand Union is working towards DAHA accreditation. What has accreditation entailed and has the process made you think differently about the way you handle cases of domestic abuse?

It’s been a long journey but that is because we want to feel like we have the accreditation rather than just look like we have it. It’s taken a lot of awareness training and lots of joint working internally, which started from the ground up as we were a new team.

We had to establish ourselves and make domestic abuse its own niche area, separate to safeguarding.

The perpetrator management side was quite new to us and the one thing we have learned is not to label someone as a perpetrator; trauma comes in all shapes and forms and some people do not necessarily recognise that they are perpetrating. It’s not about us telling people that they’re abusers, it’s about encouraging them to think about their actions.

We definitely have a better understanding of the need for an intersectional approach, recognising how factors such as gender and race can overlap to create discrimination and disadvantage. We have worked hard to improve accessibility, introducing a website referral form for customers in recognition of the fact that not everyone wants to pick up the phone. The domestic abuse information page on our intranet links to many different support organisations, including helplines for men and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Additionally, we launched an online Safe Space jointly with the charity Hestia as part of the 2021 No More campaign on domestic abuse. By clicking the Safe Spaces logo on the Grand Union website, people experiencing abuse can access a portal providing information and resources, which leaves no trace on their internet history and allows them to safely access support. This can be accessed in many different languages.

We also recognise that colleagues as well as customers can experience domestic abuse, so we have a domestic abuse policy for colleagues, and we do a lot of internal and external communication around the subject.  For example, to coincide with the 2021 16 Days of Action awareness campaign, I shared my lived experience of abuse via our intranet and it was fantastic to see other colleagues come forward who anonymously shared their lived experiences.

Grand Union runs several women’s refuges in Bedfordshire. How do you ensure that service users can move on and access social housing?

We own four refuges in three local authority areas which are managed by other service providers. In Central Bedfordshire, if anyone in refuge is ready to move on and has applied via the housing register, there is a quota system to nominate customers for priority banding. By enabling customers to move on to live independently when they are ready, a vacancy is created within the refuge for someone else in need. If applicants bid on a Grand Union property and cannot afford the four weeks’ rent in advance, we will discuss other options and review the customer’s circumstances to make this an easy transition; this could be a payment plan.

What advice do you have for other housing associations who are looking to improve their approach to domestic abuse?

Use every platform you can to raise awareness. We have a domestic abuse banner on display in our office and sometimes I see colleagues or visitors taking photos of it; it’s about asking questions and stirring colleagues’ curiosity and encouraging them to see things differently.

Grand Union Housing Group provides 12,500 homes for more than 27,000 people across Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Hertfordshire.

Interested in discovering more about why domestic abuse is a housing issue? Click here to read Chartered Institute of Housing’s report on the importance of the housing sector’s response and the difference we can make (please note the report is available to CIH members only).

Breaking the link between domestic abuse and homelessness

Domestic abuse and homelessness are intricately linked, particularly for women, with 2021/22 Government statistics* revealing domestic abuse as the most common reason for ‘loss of last settled home’ among households with children seeking a local authority homelessness relief duty.  Social housing providers are uniquely positioned to identify and respond to domestic abuse – and avoid the homelessness that can happen as a result – but it does require a shift in organisational culture, policies and practices. To mark No More Week 2023 (5-12 March), Homes for Cathy spoke to Alistair Smyth, Director of External Affairs & Social Investment and Sam McDermott, Tenancy Enforcement Team Manager at The Guinness Partnership, a social landlord that has made tackling domestic abuse an organisational priority.

The Guinness Partnership is one of several housing associations that has been awarded accreditation from DAHA, the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance. What was behind the association’s decision to work towards it and what does it entail?

AS:  Our journey towards this began around five years ago when the CIH launched its “Make a Stand” campaign set up by Alison Inman. As well as being inspired by Alison, we were also in touch with DAHA’s founder, Guddy Burnett, another hugely important person in progressing this agenda. We decided that we wanted to do two things to both go further in our approach to reducing and preventing domestic abuse and in demonstrating to the wider world how seriously we take domestic abuse as an organisation.  Those two things were to first: sign up to the Chartered Institute of Housing’s Make A Stand Pledge, with the support of our executive team; and second to start the journey towards DAHA accreditation, which took around two years and which we achieved in 2020.  As part of that journey, we appointed an operational lead within the tenancy enforcement team to drive the project and do everything required to meet the eight DAHA commitments.  This included setting up a project working group, introducing specific policies and a domestic abuse training programme for frontline colleagues.  We also appointed a dedicated domestic abuse and safeguarding team of six people, who are part of our wider tenancy enforcement team.

SM: DAHA sets out a benchmark of standards of how the housing sector should respond to domestic abuse.  In addition to the eight priority areas that focus on an organisation’s operations, there’s also a focus on the principles and values that we should be adhering to and embedding in our services.  It’s around being non-judgemental, showing empathy and empowering people – things we certainly do in Guinness.  The eight priority areas look at subjects such as policy and procedures, perpetrator accountability and staff development, something that I think is vital.

Alistair Smyth, Director of External Affairs & Social Investment
Sam McDermott,
Tenancy Enforcement Team Manager

What changes to policies, practices and provision have you made to strengthen your approach to supporting people experiencing domestic abuse?

SM: There’s more of a focus on being survivor-led and person-centred, leading our service so that it’s based on what the person experiencing the abuse wants to happen.  We’re also more trauma-informed – for example, where possible we’ll gather information about an incident from an independent domestic violence advocate, rather than asking the person involved to relive it again and again, which can be very traumatic.  We work very closely with our lettings team to identify high risk cases and use managed moves to help people move on from situations where it’s not safe for them to remain in their homes, avoiding them becoming homeless.

AS: The Make A Stand Pledge and DAHA accreditation were also big drivers behind us creating a standalone domestic abuse policy.  While a standalone policy is a requirement of accreditation, it’s also an important part of the process, as it ensures domestic abuse isn’t solely seen as ASB, but wider than that. 

In addition, we’ve expanded our domestic abuse work with external partners, participated in a Housing First scheme specifically for women who have experienced abuse and introduced an annual internal communications focus on domestic abuse with the 16 Days of Action campaign.

Together, these factors have made the organisation more aware not only of domestic abuse and the types of domestic abuse that can occur, but more importantly, what our role is as a housing association.  Rolling back several years, there was a prevailing view in housing that domestic abuse wasn’t necessarily something we could act on, but our understanding has moved on so much in recent years driven by the work of DAHA.  We’re much more aware of the things we can do and the action we can take – it’s not just a matter for the police, it’s a matter for us.  That cultural shift is what the DAHA accreditation process achieves.

You’ve launched a domestic abuse toolkit and booklet for maintenance staff.  What was the decision behind it and what impact has it had in terms of how staff respond to residents experiencing domestic abuse?

AS:  We recognised that repairs teams and contractors who visit properties daily were well placed to identify cases of abuse in tenants’ homes.  We therefore developed the toolkit in conjunction with MD Group and DAHA.  Domestic abuse takes many forms and is not always obvious to the untrained eye – the toolkit was created with that in mind and helps those members of staff identify signs inside people’s homes, from across the range of domestic abuse. 

SM: We’ve had cases where contractors have seen and heard domestic abuse, including verbal abuse and harassment, and referred it to Guinness’s dedicated domestic abuse team.  Contractors receive on-going ‘toolbox talks’ training from our learning and development team, to help them recognise different types of abuse, how to identify signs and indicators of abuse and how to report it.  The toolkit and other domestic abuse resources are also on our intranet, so our repairs and maintenance teams can access it easily when they’re out and about.

AS: Additionally, because we’re a national organisation and quite geographically spread, we share information on domestic abuse organisations in each locality, both on our intranet and on our website.

Has the journey to DAHA accreditation also had an impact on practice in terms of supporting new tenants fleeing violent situations?

SM: We’ve been working closely with our lettings staff to ensure that new tenants who have fled domestic abuse are automatically referred to the domestic abuse team, so for example, if they have moved from a different area, the team can signpost them to local support agencies.  The team will also assess their home for extra security measures if required.  People who have fled a violent situation might be moving in with very little, in which case they will be referred to our customer support team who can offer financial assistance and access to our hardship fund, for example to buy furniture items.

Guinness has partnered with several local specialist domestic abuse charities to support residents experiencing domestic abuse.  How did these partnerships work?

AS:  Part of our approach to social investment is to work with community partners to deliver support, not just to residents but also to the wider community.  In response to the increased reporting of domestic abuse incidences driven by the pandemic, in 2020/21 we decided to support community partners working specifically on domestic abuse.  Working with local colleagues, we identified seven organisations in the areas where we have the largest number of homes and liaised with them about how financial support from Guinness could help them achieve their goals.  There was a bespoke arrangement with each charity, including funding for additional clinics, more frontline staff working in refuges, extra capacity to run an advice line and upgrades to facilities.  We then fostered links between each charity and our customer liaison colleagues for the local neighbourhood, so that they were able make referrals either way.

What have been your key learnings and what advice would you give to other housing associations looking to improve their response to residents experiencing domestic abuse?

SM: The most important thing is to be person-focused on the person experiencing the abuse, ensuring you are listening to their views, following their wishes and being trauma-informed, so you can resolve the situation in the way that person wants.  I would also recommend that providers sign up to the Chartered Institute of Housing’s Make A Stand pledge and look at DAHA accreditation – we’ve found it so valuable for our organisation. 

AS: As a sector, it’s also learning that this is our responsibility, it’s not something we can overlook and there are specific things we can do to help, whether that’s providing support over the phone to target hardening in people’s homes to helping someone to move quickly and linking in with support agencies.  It’s still a journey the sector is on but domestic abuse is not an issue that’s going away.

Originally founded in 1890, the Guinness Partnership has more than 140,000 residents across the country, living in almost 65,000 homes. The organisation was founded to improve people’s lives and create possibilities for them, and this remains its purpose today.

* Source: DLUHC Statutory Homelessness Annual Report 2021-22, England

Interested in discovering more about why domestic abuse is a housing issue? Click here to read Chartered Institute of Housing’s report on the importance of the housing sector’s response and the difference we can make (please note the report is available to CIH members only).

The case for social housing that puts women’s needs first

While homelessness can happen to anyone, it’s an issue that affects men and women differently; women experiencing homelessness are often ‘hidden homeless’ and most have been subjected to violence and abuse.  Homes for Cathy recently caught up with Jess Page, Director of Housing at group member Women’s Pioneer Housing, to find out more about the drivers behind women’s homelessness and why there is a need for a housing association that champions and understands women.

Where does Women’s Pioneer Housing operate?

Women’s Pioneer Housing has been providing affordable homes to single women in some of the most expensive parts of West London for over 100 years. We currently own just over 1,000 homes, mostly one bedroom and studio flats. 

Why is there still a need for women’s only housing?

In many parts of the country housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable, most people tend to rent or own their homes as couples, for single people there is an increased pressure on affordability. ONS has found people living alone spend 9% more of their disposable income than two adult households on bills.

The affordability crisis is particularly serious for single women.

A recent report by the Women’s Budget Group showed that women needed 12 times their salary to buy a home, while men needed eight. The report also showed that housing as a ratio to earnings is unaffordable for single women in every region of the country, while single men can afford to rent in every region apart from London.

Ultimately the gender pay gap has a knock-on effect into a gender housing affordability gap.

What issues do women face that can make them more vulnerable to homelessness?

While it is often single men who are sleeping rough, households with single adult women are over-represented in less desirable housing situations, in statutory homelessness and in temporary accommodation. In particular, the interplay between domestic abuse and financial dependence also has a specific impact on women and their housing options. Further, women are likely to experience sexual harassment from their private landlords; a recent study by Generation Rent and Mumsnet found that one in twenty women they surveyed said they had been offered either free or discounted rent in exchange for sexual acts.

At Women’s Pioneer we specialise in single women’s accommodation, which means almost all of our properties are studio or one-bedroom homes. We offer lifelong, assured tenancies to single women who come to us through different routes. We have a 50% nomination agreement with most local authorities we operate in; having control of the allocation of half of our empty properties (known as voids) means we have the opportunity to provide affordable housing to a broad range of women.

Women’s Pioneer Housing provides affordable homes to single women in some of the most expensive parts of West London

How do you work collaboratively with LAs and other agencies to support women experiencing homelessness in the areas in which you operate?

We operate a public waiting list for single women who earn less than £40,000 a year, have minimal or no savings and are not eligible for housing through the local authority – i.e. they don’t meet the ‘priority need’ category. Through our waiting list we have house low paid women in their 60s who have always lived in shared homes, women who work locally and otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to stay in the area and keep their job and others who have faced pretty horrific private renting circumstances. We hear from women who have lodged with their landlord only to find them naked in their private room at night or have suffered physical abuse at the hands of their landlord.

We also work with referral agency partners to house women who wouldn’t usually be eligible for local authority housing support or who need an urgent move. For example, we work with IKWRO (Iranian Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation) who do exceptional work moving women out of homes where they face ‘honour based’ violence.

Through these partnerships we also work with Housing First projects. We find having a range of partners, nominations and the waiting list gives us a balanced and resilient community of women who support each other. Our partners for Housing First – Standing Together and Crisis – have an excellent track record of providing support and while sometimes these tenancies can face challenges, we work well together to do all we can to find innovative solutions to keep women in their homes.

We are always looking out for other partners to work with, and our staff are used to signposting women they meet who are homeless to our waiting list or our partners to help them access housing, whether it’s on their way to work or when out and about at the weekend.

What support services do you provide to help existing tenants at risk of homelessness to sustain their tenancies?  Are there any issues around tenancy sustainment that disproportionately affect women and how is the support you provide tailored to take this into account?

In terms of tenancy sustainment, we are a small organisation with limited resources, but in 2018 we created a Financial Inclusion Officer role which was been incredibly successful. The role is wide ranging and has supported residents to clear down energy bills, access grants, furniture, claim benefits and escape poverty.

We also operate a Welfare Fund like many organisations much larger than ours. We have set up a partnership to be able to provide immediate vouchers in times of crisis for fuel and food. And of course, we have partnerships with local food banks, employment support organisations, mental health charities and other support services.

We are fortunate that as a single women’s organisation very few of our tenants face domestic abuse, though a significant proportion have experienced this in the past. When we think of PTSD we often think of army veterans but PTSD is prevalent amongst women who have experienced sexual assault and domestic abuse. While our homes are not women only spaces (we have sons, boyfriends and husbands) the vast majority of our homes are lived in by women and tenants tell us time and time again this creates a community of feeling safe and supported. We also do not provide joint tenancies; even when a tenant marries a man, the tenancy will always be a sole tenancy in the woman’s name.  This future proofs women against abuse and having to lose their home or being saddled with debt as a result of leaving an abusive relationship.

Furniture provision ‘piece of the puzzle’ to sustainable tenancies as cost of living escalates

Social housing tenants moving on from homelessness should be offered a home, not just an empty box, writes Claire Donovan, Head of Policy, Research & Campaigns at End Furniture Poverty

Members of the Homes for Cathy alliance work tirelessly to end homelessness but at End Furniture Poverty we believe that there is a missing piece of the puzzle.

Homes for Cathy Commitment 7 says: “To ensure that properties offered to homeless people should be ready to move into.” We believe that this means they should be offered a home, not just an empty box.

Furniture prices have risen by 50%

The vast majority of people moving on from homelessness will have no furniture or household appliances, or the resources to buy the items they need. The cost of furnishing a home is even more challenging now as furniture prices have risen by 50% over the past 10 years.

End Furniture Poverty has been supporting social landlords for several years, helping them to understand the benefits of a furnished tenancy scheme and to prepare business cases for new schemes.

We have now been able to take it one stage further thanks to funding from the Fusion21 Foundation and have produced a Blueprint for Furniture Provision in Social Housing.

This step-by-step guide helps landlords to understand how a furnished tenancy can work, how to set the appropriate service charge, and how to ensure that they can support their tenants who could otherwise be living without essential furniture items.

It explains how the capital cost of the furniture can be recouped through the service charge element of Universal Credit making schemes sustainable and allowing landlords to help many more tenants.

The Blueprint also examines the different ways furniture can be provided, through more traditional furnished tenancies, and also separate furniture rental agreements. It provides information on operations, staffing, data strategy and performance measurement, case studies on existing furniture provision, and a full financial modelling section.

Devastating impact of living without essential items

Living without essential furniture items has a devastating impact on people’s mental and physical health, and their social and financial wellbeing. Tenants can build up huge debt if they turn to high cost credit to buy items, leaving them unable to pay their rent, and even leading to tenancies failing.

In these challenging times, other sources of support are becoming much harder to access as more local welfare assistance schemes are being closed by local authorities and the grant giving charitable sector are becoming overwhelmed with applications.

We explored the extent of furniture provision in social housing in No Place like Home, a report published in 2021 which showed that only 2% of socially rented properties were let as fully or partly furnished, compared to 29% in the private rental sector and looked at the impact living without essential furniture was having on tenants, and on tenancies.

Some social landlords have pots of funding to support tenants to set up their home but this approach can be unsustainable and as budgets face further pressures in the months ahead, furnished tenancies can provide an ideal solution.

Conversations with landlords across the UK over the past year have shown that interest in furniture provision is growing as organisations realise that tenants are struggling to furnish their homes and much more help is needed and we hope our Blueprint will help many more to get schemes off the ground.

End Furniture Poverty are holding a webinar on Friday, 18th November, 10.30am to 11.30am, to talk through the steps outlined in the Blueprint. Ian Fyfe, Furnished Tenancy Manager from Torus, and Paul Aitkin, Group Commercial Manager at Karbon Homes, will also be sharing best practice from furnished tenancy schemes. Email info@EndFurniturePoverty.org to register to attend.

If you are unable to attend the webinar on November 18th, we are happy to meet with any landlords to offer one-to-one support. Just get in touch to find out more.

We are facing the worst cost of living crisis in decades and tenants urgently need support. Furnished tenancies provide a sustainable solution with benefits to landlord and tenants.

Quite simply, why wouldn’t you consider it?

Together we can End Furniture Poverty.

To view the Blueprint, visit https://endfurniturepoverty.org/research-campaigns/furniture-provision-in-social-housing/a-blueprint-for-furniture-provision-in-social-housing/

Claire Donovan, Head of Policy, Research & Campaigns at End Furniture Poverty

A lifeline for prison leavers

People leaving prison are at high risk of homelessness – often they are released with nowhere to go or with accommodation options that are unsustainable.  On release, they may struggle to find accommodation with a private landlord or to access welfare payments.  Supported housing for ex-offenders, such as Longhurst’s Group‘s specialist accommodation and floating support service in Grimsby, can offer a lifeline. Rob Sumner, Service Manager – NE Lincs Housing Related Support, shares how the service is helping ex-offenders build independence and move forward with their lives.

Since the loss of industry in Grimsby, the area has become one of the most deprived in England. It has high unemployment, with more people claiming welfare benefits – including in-work benefits – than the national average.

The crime rate for the area currently sits at 134 per 1000 people, with 11,811 crimes committed in the area in 2021 – the majority of which are violence, sexual offences, criminal damage, and anti-social behaviour.

Longhurst Group’s Accommodation and Floating Support service in Grimsby operates 17 shared properties, mainly in the East Marsh region which is one of the most deprived areas in the town.

There are a total of 48 bed spaces, with customers occupying rooms on licence agreements. Four in five customers have some type of criminal history and the aim of the service is to provide customers with a second chance.

Often, we find that offenders are released back into the community with very little support. Customers are often told to attend probation at a certain time and are often left with no accommodation.

This has a huge impact on them re-offending and often when speaking to customers they’ll state they’ve previously re-offended to access prison as this is a better option than homelessness.

Rob Sumner, Longhurst Group’s Service Manager, NE Lincs Housing Related Support

We risk assess all customers and try and find the most suitable placement for them. Our colleagues operate a positive risk approach and work closely with the local authority and Probation service and generally house customers who’ve been released from prison with no accommodation.

Colleagues operate a holistic supportive service. Our philosophy is that if it hasn’t worked before, that doesn’t mean that it won’t work now. Each stay, we hope to achieve some outcomes, whether they’re big or small, and build upon this on each time.

This proactivity works to reduce stigma around common issues, as many of the customers accessing the service feel that they’ve been let down and are judged based on their criminal history, drug use and/or mental health diagnosis.

The nature of the service means that a significant number of customers are recalled back to prison, usually for breaching bail conditions. To prevent homelessness and to meet the obligation in the Homelessness Reduction Act, our colleagues will work with probation officers, Housing Benefit teams and other statutory bodies to try to keep accommodation available for customers if the prison stay is short, but any stay in prison isn’t a barrier to accessing the service.  

Each property has an allocated support worker who visits every day during the week. We don’t operate the service over a weekend.

This enables customers to build independence and to live with as much normality as possible, with the aim of supporting customers to move on to independent accommodation.

One of our customers stated that she’d used substances since she was 21. She’s now in her 40s. She’d committed several shop thefts to fund her drug use.

As a service, we find that criminality is often used to support drug use. Her last conviction was for criminal damage and assault, with the sentence being three years in prison. This was committed whilst under the influence of Valium.  

She had lived in social housing for eight years but due to her criminality and sentencing, this property and tenancy was withdrawn. Upon release, she had no accommodation and ended up sleeping rough and fell back into drug use. The local authority made a referral to several homeless accommodation providers, and we accepted the referral and placed the customer into one of our shared accommodation units.

Since being in the service, our customer has managed to access support for substance misuse and accessed health appointments that she wouldn’t have been able to access previously.

She’s also received support with her mental health and is now on medication. She’s due to move into a new property with her partner and has stated that without the support of the service, this wouldn’t have ever been possible.

Rob Sumner is Service Manager – NE Lincs Housing Related Support at Homes for Cathy member Longhurst Group, one of the leading housing groups in the Midlands and East of England, providing more than 23,500 homes and a wide range of care and support services.

Bucks homeless move-on scheme a stepping stone for Stuart

Homes for Cathy member Hightown has recently expanded its homelessness services to Buckinghamshire, working with Buckinghamshire Council to co-produce a new move-on service that is proving a lifeline for single people

Opened in 2021, Ardenham House is Hightown’s first specialist homelessness service in Buckinghamshire.  Located in the centre of Aylesbury, the RSAP (Rough Sleeper Accommodation Programme) funded service was co-produced with Buckinghamshire Council to provide a vital stepping stone between emergency accommodation and independent living. 

Service users at Ardenham House live in their own self-contained studio flats and are supported by our on-site team for up to two years as they prepare to secure and maintain their own tenancy, receiving help with health issues, substance use, budgeting and housing applications. 

Stuart moved into Ardenham House in October 2021 after he became homeless through alcohol addiction.  He says:

“I fell into a bit of a dark place really.  I was living in a rented bedroom and was drinking a lot.  The drink became a problem and that’s why I lost the tenancy and became homeless.  I got put into temporary accommodation and was put in touch with AHAG – Aylesbury Homeless Action Group – who helped me.  I was also in hospital for five weeks due to the alcoholism and was referred to One Recovery Bucks, which specialises in supporting people with alcohol addiction.” 

Stuart has access to 24/7 support at Hightown’s Ardenham House service

Whilst in temporary accommodation, Stuart was assessed for his suitability for a tenancy at Ardenham House.  Since moving in, he’s made great progress.

He adds: “I get all the support I need here.  They help me with letters, bills, monitoring my alcoholism – they’re just fantastic.  They are there 24/7, day and night.  If I need to go and knock on the door, there’s always someone there on the other side. 

“I’ve recently gone back to work, back to the job I used to do before.  They took me back on and my colleagues there have stood alongside me.  At the moment I’m just taking it day by day with the help and support of the staff here, AHAG and One Recovery Bucks.  Having my colleagues at work also makes all the difference.

“At the moment I’m taking it week by week at work; it has been a struggle because I was off for 15 months and I’ve gone straight back into it.  I’ve achieved a lot because 15 months ago this was never possible.  It just goes to show that there is help out there but people need to work towards it, help themselves.  Being here has changed my life – life is finally getting back to normal.”

Abri partnership preventing homelessness for people in mental ill health recovery

Homes for Cathy member Abri – a 35,000 home housing association operating in the south of England – has partnered with Southern Health Foundation Trust (SHFT) and homelessness charity The Society of St James (SSJ) to provide the ‘Step Out Pathway’, housing and support for people discharged from acute mental health services.

With one in four people in the UK experiencing mental health problems each year, mental health services are becoming increasingly stretched. Part of this is a lack of move-on accommodation support for people in mental ill health recovery, which is becoming a growing crisis for the NHS. Across Hampshire, this is resulting in substantial housing need as well as cost pressures for the NHS.

SHFT reported that limited spaces were being blocked by people who could return to the community if there was supply of appropriate accommodation. Around 60 people (many from Southampton) were, as a result, being housed in temporary accommodation in cities such as Manchester, Bradford and Liverpool at an average cost of £600 per day.

In partnership with SHFT, Abri provides access to a portfolio of 15 properties to help alleviate the issue. Situated on the outskirts of central Southampton, the Mansbridge location encourages independence and helps people in recovery to be close to community facilities, while distancing from other negative influences. These properties are granted through a lease agreement to The Society of St James (SSJ), a Southampton-based homelessness charity, who take on full housing management and landlord responsibilities. Abri has a good working relationship with SSJ, established over many years of working together on other initiatives.

The Keep Well Collaborative was instrumental in the conceptualisation, design and development of this ‘Step out’ pathway, facilitating the approach as part of their wider commission by the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Integrated Care System to address health inequalities through a focus on the home.

Abri now has eight leases in place and the partnership is looking to explore more opportunities. It has been a challenging process, with people moving from acute inpatient units with long-term mental health issues, but the partnership is proud there have been no hospital re-admissions and there are signs of the residents establishing themselves within the local community.

The longer-term leases (seven years) also provide time and space for people to think differently. Removing the timeline for people moving out of the properties reduces pressure and enables them to focus on making the changes they need to make in their lives.

Avril Ansell, Abri’s Partnership Living Manager, said, “It’s been such a positive piece of partnership working and is such a clear fulfilment of our strategic aim around community, as we’re building on our relationships with both the NHS and also a specialist housing management provider to help people to move on with their lives in a really clear way. I know that my team has really valued seeing the smiles on people’s faces when they’ve seen the properties that they are about to move into, knowing that they are hopefully turning another significant corner to improved health and wellbeing.

“Having a place to call home, establishing roots and finding opportunities for personal development can make a significant difference to people’s lives. We’re excited to continue working in partnership to provide these homes for years to come.”

Jon Pritchard, Associate Director of Housing & Community Inclusion at Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust added, “This collaboration between Abri, Society of Saint James, and Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust provides an excellent discharge solution for people who, traditionally, haven’t had many/any accommodation options at the point of discharge.  With the support of our partners, Abri and SSJ, we are discharging people from our inpatient care much sooner than we would be able to do otherwise. 

“Using a consistent person-centred approach across all of our organisations we can ensure that the property is right for the individual (close to support/family networks/transport links, and meets their accessibility requirements etc).

“The individuals receive intensive, time-limited support from the Southern Health Community Rehabilitation Team when they move in to their new home, which transfers to the Community Mental Health Team over time.  This structured support really helps to make the discharge sustainable.

“Our partnership brings the constituent strengths of each organisation together, delivering the greatest impact for our service users.  We very much look forward to continuing to grow this innovative approach.”

Are you doing enough to prevent women’s homelessness?

As we mark both NO MORE Week (6-12 March) and International Women’s Day (8 March), Homes for Cathy’s Vicki McDonald examines the link between women’s homelessness and violence against women and calls on the housing sector to challenge itself to do more to tackle the issue.

The stereotypical image of someone experiencing homelessness is usually a male, usually a person living on the street.  While the official statistics show that most people rough sleeping in England are indeed male – amounting to 85 per cent of the total – what often isn’t recognised is that women experience homelessness differently to men.

According to the Kerslake Commission on Rough Sleeping‘s final report: ‘Women are often hidden whilst homeless or rough sleeping, finding secluded sleep sites or using tents, staying with friends or family, sleeping on buses or with strangers who expect sex in return for shelter, or wearing baggy clothes to hide their gender‘.

We also know that women’s experiences of homelessness are typically shaped by gender-based violence.  As highlighted in the Centre for Homelessness Impact‘s 2021 report: Women, homelessness and violence: what works?, one in five women who have experienced violence end up homeless, compared to 1 in 100 who have no experience of violence.

Positively, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 placed new statutory duties on local authorities to support victims of domestic abuse, including the requirement that all eligible homeless victims of domestic abuse are classed as ‘priority need’ for homelessness assistance.  Last month, the Government also announced an additional £125 million funding pot for councils across England to provide vital support services to help victims of domestic abuse rebuild their lives.

So, as housing providers committed to tackling homelessness, how can we as a sector best respond to the needs of homeless women who have been victims of violence?  Homes for Cathy explored the topic at a workshop last November, during which we heard from Dr Kesia Reeve from the Centre for Regional, Economic and Social Research (CRESR), an authority on the gendered nature of housing disadvantage. 

Housing-led interventions

Dr Reeve outlined the effectiveness of housing-led interventions, including rapid re-housing models for women, such as the Westminster VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls) Housing First Project, where the housing element is provided by Homes for Cathy members Peabody and Women’s Pioneer Housing, amongst others.  Such models can offer a viable alternative to temporary accommodation, particularly if the support element provided is tailored to the needs of women who have experienced violence, for example support to address trauma or substance misuse or practical assistance around aspects of the legal system such as restraining orders and access to children. 

Another good example is North Star’s Hestia service, which provides settled self-contained accommodation, dispersed throughout the community, for vulnerable women, together with floating support to help tenants deal with a wide range of issues.  Properties provided through the Hestia service come with essential furniture, vital for women who may have fled their home with nothing.  Hestia’s USP is that once a tenant no longer requires support, they can remain in their home, with the property reverting to a general needs tenancy.

Preventative measures

Dr Reeve also stressed the importance of ‘upstream interventions’ – such as continued staff development – to prevent homelessness, as well as the importance of promoting an organisational culture that recognises the needs of women facing multiple disadvantage.  Training should be offered to all employees who come into contact with tenants, including repairs teams.  At Gentoo, repairs staff have a ‘Something Not Quite Right’ button on their handheld devices to document a cause for concern and trigger a follow up by the Neighbourhood Safety Team.  Other preventative upstream interventions include Sanctuary Schemes, whereby the perpetrator of violence is moved from a property and security measures are installed to keep the victim safe.

Gender-informed homelessness services

Where temporary accommodation is the only option, gender-informed services can make all the difference for women who have experienced violence.  According to Dr Reeve, gender-informed services need to be trauma-informed.  One example is Elim Housing Association, which is part of a gender-informed, strategically designed homelessness pathway commissioned by Bristol City Council, offering guaranteed single sex accommodation.  The formalised pathway means that information can be shared easily between providers, so women don’t have to go through the traumatic experience of retelling their story time and time again to different organisations.  It also allows for continuity of support workers, so that women are supported by the same person through the course of their journey through different providers.  The Mapping the Maze model is a good resource for providers seeking to understand how to make their services more trauma-informed.

As we mark both NO MORE Week and International Women’s Day – a focus for advancing gender equality – perhaps now is the time to consider whether your association is taking women’s needs into account in your policies, procedures and provision relating to homelessness.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are your teams trained to recognise the signs and impact of domestic abuse and ask tenants the right questions? 
  • Could you install extra security measures in the properties of tenants who have experienced domestic violence?
  • Could you partner with a local authority to deliver a Housing First service tailored to women, single sex emergency accommodation or temporary supported accommodation?
  • Could properties be equipped with essential furniture and white goods for women fleeing violence? 
  • Are your existing homelessness services gender and trauma-informed so that women feel safe and have access to tailored support? 

Vicki McDonald is Homes for Cathy’s communications and marketing lead

Unlocking a more stable future for rough sleepers in your area

Just over a year since the government announced the first tranche of Rough Sleeper Accommodation Programme (RSAP) funding allocations, over 5,700 move-on homes for rough sleepers have been delivered by councils and their partners across England. 

In that time, many Homes for Cathy member organisations have risen to RSAP challenge, working closely with their local authorities to co-produce move-on schemes and create the long-term capital assets that will contribute to local plans to end rough sleeping.  For many, it’s been a steep learning curve, complicated by the pandemic, a booming property market and rocketing building costs.

Fulfilling housing associations’ social purpose

However, it’s shown that where there’s a will, there’s a way; housing associations committed to their social purpose are playing a valuable part in solving the homelessness crisis.  What’s more, it’s clear that those organisations who already have strong relationship with local authorities – as set out in the Homes for Cathy commitments – have been able to act at speed to respond to local need.

With the recent announcement of RSAP bidding cycle five, now could be the last opportunity until 2025 for providers to deliver long-term move-on homes; the majority of the capital funding remaining is available for the financial year 2022/23, with only a small amount available in 2023/24.  Revenue funding – to provide the support element that is crucial to helping former rough sleepers re-build their lives – is also available for the financial years 2022/23, 2023/24 and 2024/25.  Councils and their partners have until 13 April 2022 to submit their co-produced proposals and work must start on site by 31 March 2023, with completion required by the end of March 2024.

Tips for co-producing a move-on scheme

So, what do bidders need to take into account when considering co-producing a move-on scheme?  Here are our tips:

  • Focus on additional provision – DLUHC’s objective is to grow capacity in the sector, therefore no more than approximately 10 per cent of housing units will come from existing social housing stock currently in use or where historic grant has been invested.
  • Be creative – any route that can bring about a solution will be considered, from converting shops and commercial spaces to modern methods of construction (MMC) on brownfield sites.
  • Flexibility is welcome – dispersed, self-contained accommodation can offer the best outcomes but it’s recognised that, in high value property areas in particular, acquiring or building that type of property may not be viable, so shared accommodation is an option. 
  • Sustainability is key – for example, new build properties must have a minimum life expectancy of 60 years, ‘off the shelf’ dwellings that are acquired must a life expectancy of 30 years and longer leases will be prioritised.
  • Social investment is an option – for providers who would have difficulty accessing funding, social investment funds can offer a solution to purchasing properties at speed.
  • Help is on hand – the bidding process is just the start of an on-going relationship with Homes England; the team is available throughout the delivery period to help iron out any issues that providers may encounter along the way.

For more information, the full RSAP guidance is available here.

Vicki McDonald, Homes for Cathy Communications & Marketing Lead