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 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.