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Remembering our eighth commitment

Homes for Cathy members who are made up of housing associations and homelessness charities, are asked to do more to end homelessness by signing up to our nine aspirational commitments. With commitment number 8, focusing on ending migrant homelessness in the areas housing associations operate.

This is why we are supporting the National Housing Federation’s call to ‘to make sure those with no access to benefits or housing assistance don’t slip through the net.’ We support the NHF in their call to suspend the immigration condition that gives some people No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF).

We also support the Local Government Association’s (LGA) call for a suspension of the NRPF condition. The NHF has written a joint letter with the Chartered Institute of Housing to the Minister for Rough Sleeping and Housing, Luke Hall MP in which they are asking the government to lift restrictions on access to public funds for a period, ideally at least for a year. This would enable interim help to be given to all those experiencing and at risk of homelessness. They are also asking the government to consider granting access to Universal Credit for those with NRPF.

You can read the full letter here and find out more here.

photography of person walking on road
Photo by Leo Cardelli on Pexels.com

The supported housing scheme offering a lifeline to vulnerable women

A traumatic past and mental health challenges are a common factor for many people at risk of homelessness.  However, women in particular are often at greater threat of living with complex, multiple disadvantages that can lead to them becoming homeless, especially where dependent children are involved. 

Homes for Cathy spoke to North Star Housing Group, one member organisation that is committed to offering a lifeline to vulnerable women to support them away from homelessness.  North Star’s Hestia Service provides accommodation with intensive support to women in Teesside. In the two decades since the service’s inception, it has helped around 120 women gain the opportunity for a more positive future, with a secure, settled home for life, the cornerstone of its philosophy.

North Star’s Pauline Byrnes, Hestia manager, says, “Our USP is that once our service users no longer require support, they can remain in their home. If they want it to be a home for life, that’s exactly what it can be. Once support is no longer required, the property reverts to general needs property. This provides service users with the stability they’ve never had and from there they can start to address the other issues they may be facing.  All we ask is that they fully engage in the support offered at the outset.”

Hestia’s service users are referred from a range of agencies including the local authority’s homeless service, mental health services, social care and probation and all are classed as homeless.  Some have experienced failed private rental tenancies because of their mental health problems, while others have fled domestic violence or forced marriages.  The service has also supported women with mild learning difficulties, as well as women whose children have special needs, many of whom receive no support from their families. 

Properties from general needs stock

New service users are offered a property from North Star’s general needs stock which becomes a supported tenancy (Assured Shorthold).  These are properties dispersed throughout the local area, rather than located in one dedicated block. They are usually terraced houses with a small back yard, typical of Middlesbrough’s traditional town centre housing stock.  The properties are hand-picked to ensure they are located in areas where tenants can feel safe and come equipped with furniture, soft furnishings, white goods and kitchenware, ready for tenants to move into.  Every property offered is newly decorated to a high standard, ensuring a homely and welcoming environment where tenants want to stay.

Pauline comments, “Our service users take an enormous pride in their new home, often adding their own finishing touches such as cushions and pictures to really make it their own.”

Floating support is provided through a dedicated Hestia service coordinator, offering person centred support. This could include support with all aspects of managing a tenancy, budgeting and rent payments and liaison with North Star’s welfare benefits officer to ensure they are claiming any back-dated benefits they are entitled to.  Service users may also be supported to engage with other services, access recreational activities, education, volunteering opportunities and employment and build links in their local community.

Floating support to break homelessness cycle

Pauline adds, “From the point of referral, we work closely with all the involved agencies such as mental health and social care to identify any risks and draw up a risk management plan.  We also link in closely with other local support services in the area such as the CAB and credit unions.”

The approach certainly works, helping women rebuild their lives and gain hope for the future.  Says Pauline, “On average the support we offer is required for around 18 months but it’s enough to break the cycle of homelessness.  It’s wonderful to see our service users’ self-confidence and self-esteem improve to the point that they can move on in their lives and start to live independently.”

AB’s Story

AB was removed from the family home by Cleveland Police due to concerns regarding her safety. AB is of Pakistani descent, her marriage was arranged, and she moved to the North East to live with her husband and his extended family. During eight years of marriage AB was physically, financially and mentally abused. She was barred from using basic facilities such as the family bathroom and was told to bathe from a bucket of water, even after she gave birth to her daughter. She was beaten regularly by all the family with sticks, hands or pulling out AB’s hair and was made to cook and clean from 7am until 12 midnight every day of the week. AB managed to get to a phone one day and phoned 999, Police took immediate action, and AB was placed in a safe house. AB was unable to take her daughter, and it became clear that her signature had been forged on to numerous documents; one example is that AB’s signature was on a document which gave up her parental responsibilities, another was to claim carer’s allowance.  All documents were signed fraudulently by the husband’s family, without AB’s consent. AB did not have basic living skills, she had had hardly any communication with the outside world, lacked confidence and was unable to do the most basic of tasks. With support from Hestia, AB is now going to the shops, paying her bills and will soon be awarded full custody of her daughter who is now living with AB full-time. The final custody hearing is pending.

Successful tenancies start at the top

Recent welfare reforms including the introduction of Universal Credit have made affording rent harder than ever in recent years. In response, many Homes for Cathy members have introduced tenancy sustainment initiatives, helping thousands of tenants facing financial hardship to stay in their homes.  Homes for Cathy spoke to Christine Ashton, Executive Director of Housing at emh group to discover how the organisation is making sustainable tenancies its mission…

The shift towards ‘Housing First’ is a welcome and humane change in the way organisations respond to homelessness. But it makes sustainable lives, homes and tenancies more important than ever.

Securing a permanent home if you’ve been sleeping on the streets or living in temporary accommodation only counts as a success if you’re then able to use it as the springboard to a better and more settled life. There’s not much point in gaining the short-term relief of a property if your financial, health, family or other circumstances mean that you end up homeless again within a few months. Similarly, housing providers can’t expect vulnerable people with little or no experience of successful independent living to thrive in new tenancies without appropriate personal support.

A whole-organisation commitment

At emh group, we have business plan commitments to both help prevent homelessness and proactively address the impact of welfare reforms – with performance measures to check what difference we make. These top-level aims feed down into everyday decisions about who we house and the kinds of extra support we and our partners can offer to help people sustain their tenancies.

We do this through a detailed sustainability assessment toolkit, an in-house financial inclusion team and a network of partnerships with local money advice agencies, specialist services and the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Together, these give previously homeless people the best chance of sustaining their tenancy. It’s an approach that maximises our ability to offer the intensive and wide-ranging kinds of help that so many people need.

The assessment starts well before someone is offered a home; as soon as we get details of a potential nomination from one of our 45 partner councils, or there’s an upcoming transfer or exchange. We consider each person according to a matrix that weighs up their disposable income against a dozen other personal circumstances to produce an overall risk rating for tenancy sustainability.

The checklist includes factors like age, mental and physical health, benefits entitlement and status, debts, previous tenancies and any history of drug or alcohol misuse, domestic violence or offending to help us objectively gauge each person’s prospects of success in an emh tenancy.

Based on this assessment, we mobilise different levels of support to give every new resident the best combination of housing and help. This varies from straightforward extra contact and checks by our neighbourhood teams, up to comprehensive input from agencies and networks specialising in money advice, family support, mental health or disability.

In exceptional cases, if we feel someone’s needs are more than we and our partners can cater for, we review the nomination – working with the person themselves and the council to explore the best option. We’re honest and up-front about our concerns, and do all we can to help them find a more suitable housing route. Everyone needs to live somewhere of course, but we’re clear about what we can and cannot do, and take our responsibilities for the safety of staff and comfort of other residents seriously. Above all, we want people’s tenancies to succeed.

Clear results

Through joined-up thinking and by targeting our time and resources onto the people we can help most, we’ve achieved some impressive gains, such as:

  • Over £4 million in extra benefits income for residents over the past five years via our Financial Inclusion Team
  • Almost £1 million in additional benefits delivered by Citizens Advice and other local partners in the last two years
  • Greatly improved joint working with DWP and Job Centre Plus to support the more than 2,500 residents now receiving Universal Credit, people with complex needs and help with training and employment
  • Swifter and more streamlined action on rent arrears, which has seen current debts fall to 3.12% of annual rent receivable
  • Closer links with voluntary groups to safeguard vulnerable people and make the best use of our housing stock
  • Greater use of non-legal sanctions and injunctions for anti-social behaviour, with eviction as a last resort.

Doing more together

The scale and social impact of the homelessness crisis demands that we keep on seeking ways to do more. Collaboration is vital – from leasing properties to help local authorities meet their statutory duties to staff donating clothes, toiletries and other essentials to previously homeless people when they move in. Our teams also contribute to a lunchbox scheme, which makes sure that children get a decent midday meal during the school holidays. We’re supporting the National Housing Federation’s Hacking Homelessness project, which focuses on making better, data-driven decisions to prevent evictions. In one case, this monitoring showed that we contacted the resident 263 times to help them sustain their tenancy. And through case clinics, we constantly review how we could act differently or more quickly to help people achieve better outcomes.

We’re clear that it’s up to organisations like ours to take a lead, and believe that partnerships and imagination are the keys to success. We’re happy to share our experience and methods of what works for us, to free the next generation from the misery and blight of homelessness.

Christine Ashton 

Executive Director of Housing

emh group

How is your organisation putting the Homes for Cathy commitments into practice at operational level?  Share your ‘Good Practice’ story by downloading our template and emailing it to us at homesfor.cathy@hightownha.org.uk.

Croydon Council and Crystal Palace FC team up to help rough sleepers

Rough sleepers in Croydon can now get emergency shelter at a Premier League football stadium in extreme weather conditions under a deal between the council and Crystal Palace FC.

The football club and Croydon Council have entered into an agreement where a lounge at Selhurst Park is turned into a temporary overnight shelter for up 10 rough sleepers whenever night time temperatures are forecast to drop below freezing.

Under the deal, people formally identified as rough sleeping are referred by outreach staff to Selhurst Park, where they are welcomed with a camp bed for the night, a hot evening meal, breakfast and washing facilities.

The space is converted back for normal club use each morning, when specialists from the council’s Gateway homelessness prevention service and Thames Reach support workers offer longer-term accommodation, financial advice and help with any medical needs to prevent these rough sleepers from returning to the streets.

The arrangement with Crystal Palace takes effect whenever London temperatures are forecast to hit zero degrees or colder, which triggers the council’s severe weather emergency protocol. This emergency shelter is in addition to rough sleeper referrals who go to the Croydon Churches’ Floating Shelter throughout the winter.

When Selhurst Park is unavailable because of home matches, the council will continue to refer rough sleepers to other emergency shelters in Croydon and central London.

Councillor Alison Butler, deputy leader and cabinet member for homes and Gateway services, said: “Freezing temperatures are a particular safety risk for rough sleepers and this is a wonderful gesture by Crystal Palace for helping us reduce that risk. I do hope that the actions and support of our local Premier League football club will encourage more businesses in Croydon to get in touch and do what they can to help us address homelessness.  Crystal Palace are setting a standard for other clubs to follow.”

Crystal Palace Football Club chief executive Phil Alexander said: “We are delighted to be collaborating with Croydon Council and their partner agencies to ensure that rough sleepers can find an emergency shelter in the event of severe winter weather. The club wants to be a force for good in the community and we are happy to do our bit to help those most in need. A huge thank you to all the volunteers who have given their time freely to make this happen, including club staff, as well as to Sainsbury’s Crystal Palace for donating food.”

Crystal Palace Football Club has a strong relationship with the charity Crisis. First-team stars Mamadou Sakho and Christian Benteke visited the Crisis Skylight Centre for homeless people in Croydon last month.