Category Archives: Best practice articles

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. 

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.

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.