by Kam Sandhu – @KamBass
As the welfare reforms take their toll, those most in need of help are likely to suffer the greatest. We caught up with Jane Walters*, a housing support officer to talk about what help there is for those that find themselves homeless or suffering from mental health problems, debt and drug and alcohol issues. In the first part of the interview we talk about what Jane does and how the job has changed over the last few years. In the second part on Thursday, we will tackle how the changes to welfare and benefit cuts will affect people…..
Can you tell us a bit about your job and what you do?
“I’m a housing support officer, based in Lambeth**. I work with single homeless people. Historically, we could just contact probation and various services that you would then build up a relationship with, who knew your type of client that would fit in support housing, because in support accommodation you have tenants who are sharing kitchens and bathrooms and things like that. There are some self-contained places but most are shared, so you might go and share in a six-bedded house.
“So the tenants all come through this housing panel. Initially, they are assessed. They will often be in a hostel first which can be quite chaotic because of drug and alcohol or mental health issues.
“From there they come into support housing which is essentially final stage support accommodation. They can stay there for up to two years but our aim is to support them and see through addressing any of their drug and alcohol issues. By that time you would expect them to be engaged and perhaps on abstinence programmes. Obviously there are cases where people relapse but, you have to really build a rapport with people. The whole idea is helping people to change, and facilitating that through having some settled accommodation and offering support, sometimes around general things like self-care, because sometimes you have people spend all their JSA (Job Seekers Allowance) on frozen food, so it’s about daily living skills. But then more importantly now, most services have attached employment to the service. So there’s an expectation.
“But it’s quite structured. They have structured support meetings with the support worker, risk assessments and really you’re trying to help them make changes in their life. So it’s about a counseling model underneath it, because you’re often having to challenge behaviour that’s born out of childhood.”
How does the government fund this?
“All of these kinds of services are funded by what’s called ‘Supporting People’. It’s national, but the SP funds are allocated to individual boroughs, so they make an assessment for where the funding goes. Some might put more money into hostels, some into support housing or ‘floating support.’ ‘Floating support’ is much less intensive and much more short-term. So people who are living in their own homes and get into debt or have a crisis – again either drug, alcohol or mental health, we help in trying to maximise their benefits and get them linked in to relevant services and then the floating supporter goes onto another case.
“With support housing it’s still much more about having a relationship with the tenant where you can have one-on-one meetings on a weekly basis and visit them. So in a sense it’s probably more costly and I’m not sure what’s going to happen to all the funding. There’s definitely a sense of insecurity. People’s wages have been pushed down drastically. Two years ago I was on £30,000 and in one foul swoop I lost five grand and I went back to where I was nearly 10 years ago.
“These organisations, like homeless charities, they’re having to compete for the contract, and so one of the things they do is cut the costs of staffing and therefore you’re not getting as good quality staff, people are having to take on a bigger caseload, some staff are less experienced and so on, so there’s huge implications. But I think there’s a general insecurity among housing workers that their jobs are at risk.
“I was working for another organisation two years ago. I was there 10 years. They lost the contract and some of the projects I managed. The contract involves the workers plus the service so the company that won the contract, the service and the workers transfer over to the new organisation through a scheme called TUPE. But some of the bigger housing associations aren’t recognising TUPE. So there’s a lot of concerns around Union workers that TUPE are not protecting staff, because there are companies trying to get around it.”
How has your job changed in the last few years?
“Supporting People emerged in 2005 and one of the biggest criticisms is that work became less creative – it was very target driven. You had to demonstrate certain actions. There was a huge increase in paperwork. Now obviously it’s important to record how you work with tenants. But now it felt as though it was becoming a paper trail. So you’re much more office based than previously.
“I think that’s always driven by central government – how they want to deal with homeless people. So you’re trying to fit the service around the expectation of central government. There were good things as well because sometimes people can end up rotting in the system, so there’s pros and cons.
“I think the biggest problem is people don’t get recognised for high levels of professionalism. For me, and I don’t think anyone would deny it, there are a lot less professional people coming into the service and they do not have the skills – the interpersonal skills, the motivational skills, the counseling skills that you need to be working with single homeless people. And often people who come into our services often have very disruptive and violent childhoods and there’s quite a skill to break that and build trust and as I say help people turn their lives around.”
So there was a big shift to more paperwork and targets. What would happen if you didn’t meet targets?
“There’s always a risk because it would come under performance. The things that people get pulled up about is either code of conduct or performance. So you can be a brilliant worker in other areas, but you’re too busy with tenants to fill forms out.
“You don’t need to communicate with anyone in order to monitor people, you just go on the system and see the three month support plan is done and the tenant has signed it. So my criticism is that people can just fill them in. To me that doesn’t prove that you’re at all engaging with the client, or doing anything creative because as long as you say ‘I discussed housing’, ‘I discussed mental health’ and so on it’s fine. It will reveal gaps if people looked at them but they just look at the targets. It can be very, very misleading.”
How have the needs of your clients changed?
“People are older than they were 13 years ago. What we did which was successful, because a lot of the young people’s projects and hostels have closed, we did a lot of preventative work. People would come in and you would work with them six months of the year and there was access to housing then, and that was a huge incentive to work with young people in saying that you don’t need to jump through hoops, you need to be able to demonstrate you can manage your rent. So you could have really good, quite positive targets for people to reach – like show you can pay your service charge each week.
“So that has changed a lot and it’s much older. And I think back then, 13 years ago, there were lots of flats available and there was a real incentive to move on. And I believe most of those we helped are still there. Whereas now, I think a lot of the people we are working with are a lot more entrenched in the system. We’re dealing with people with much longer-term drug and alcohol issues. People always had them but I think when you were working with them so young it could be really turned around more quickly, and now there isn’t the incentive of housing. It’s very limited and very difficult.”
*name has been changed **location has been changed