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A reflection of a year working on the Social Impact Bond

By Marc Sunderland, Great Places

As I leave my role and begin to start a new adventure, I cast my mind back to when I first started working with the team at Great Places. Much of my time was spent marching around Oldham trying to locate people who were believed to be street homeless, rough sleeping or sofa surfing. It takes me back to where my life was at back then and provokes some of the emotions I felt at the time and has inspired me to piece some words together about the last 12 or so months on the job.

One of the major barriers to housing for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness is access to social housing. In many cases, people who have rent arrears, a history of anti-social behaviour or exclusion from local authority services are unable to bid on properties. Many of these people are on very low incomes and do not have the luxury of being able to consider properties in the private rented sector. They often have no references and generally little to no experience of managing or sustaining their own tenancy.

These people are left with very few options and more and more often are ending up homeless on the street. As I started to work with and get to know the participants of the project, I really started to learn about the seriousness of the problem and the depth of the task at hand. I was seeing the same story unfold again and again; low income, addiction, debt, rent arrears, eviction, temporary accommodation, mental health issues, relationship breakdown, exclusion from services, prison, rough sleeping, homelessness.

It seems obvious to think that giving a home to someone who needs one has the potential to end homelessness in this country. But it really is that simple and that is exactly what has happened in Finland. There can be a number of reasons as to why someone ends up homeless, including unemployment or family breakdown, substance misuse or unaddressed mental health issues. Most homelessness policies work on the premise that the homeless person has to sort those problems out first before they can be offered permanent accommodation. This ideology is almost impossible in practice and during the process in which someone is waiting for accommodation, the issues that had led to homelessness instead snowball and become worse.

Being in an unstable environment (sofa surfing or temporary accommodation) is a major factor in this and although the person may have been removed from the street, their support needs remain unaddressed and typically these spiral out of control. Even if a person is able to maintain engagement enough get to the point of a property offer, they are usually in such an unstable condition that their tenancy fails, and they fall back into the cycle of homelessness again.

The SIB has been able to provide the vital link between the housing provider and the entrenched rough sleeper. Failed by traditional pathways, the project it has been able to access suitable accommodation for those who need it most. Once people are re-housed it can support with furniture provision, opening of a bank account, access to benefits, drug & alcohol treatment, mental health support and if possible, entry into training, volunteering or employment. Participants are all at different stages of their lives and may have varying levels of stability. A person-centred approach is taken from the start and importantly, the goal is defined by the individual not the service. Sustaining a tenancy is in itself a success for some; getting out of the cycle of homelessness for a period of longevity provides the platform to accomplish personal goals and achieve positive outcomes.

The main reason I wanted to write something like this is to to add some insight into what the role entails out in the field. There is no such thing as a typical day once you’re out there and it often felt like there were no limits to what the job involved. It was not so much about what was expected of you by anyone else, but more like what you expected of yourself and usually you were left frustrated and itching to do more. Sometimes it felt very ‘us against them’ in that many services had been operating in the same way for a long time. Considering the wide variety of services, we interact with on a day to day basis as well as being involved in decisions that had a massive bearing on people’s lives, naturally, this created a lot of room for conflict and disagreement.

I found it difficult at first with Universal Credit (UC) and all the jumping through hoops that people were made to do to access benefits. I managed to have a lot of success in the end (after much trial and error) and was able to help most of my customers onto the higher bracket of UC and/or into work related capability groups which meant they were no longer required to look for work. This alleviated a lot of the stress that goes with UC such as potential sanctioning and accumulation of rent arrears and this paved the way for us to work towards achieving their personal goals and targets. I also managed to get a number of substantial back payments for those who were being underpaid for long periods and this was great for setting people up in their new homes for things like furniture, TV’s and clearing debts etc.

A key part of the role and one which I wasn’t expecting was the fundamental need to try and change people’s attitudes towards this particular client group. There is often a stigma that goes with moving people into a scheme or housing block when they have spent a spent a lot of their lives on the street or when they have very little experience in their own tenancy. I certainly experienced this with a number of tenants and neighbours, but more surprisingly this was also an issue with services and partners. I spent a lot of time explaining the idea and principles of the project and the importance of everyone pulling in the same direction. This continues to be an area where the team struggles and I believe the only way forward is to keep having these same conversations, reinforcing the same rhetoric that people have the right to chose the way they live their lives, addiction should be treated as a mental health issue – not a crime and that people are all capable of change.

Another area of frustration was with access to mental health services. People who use substances find it extremely difficult to get entry into mental health treatment. The general response from services is that their condition is exacerbated by their drug use and their answer to maintain a more regular intake of their prescribed medication. For people who do not have a home, the idea of a routine of this kind is but a distant fantasy, so this was really frustrating to hear.

An area where I feel like I had some success is furniture. There are so many different welfare schemes out there to assist people in their new homes but they are not always readily available upon the sudden transition off the street and into a flat. The sourcing of the furniture was not difficult but having access to a van to deliver the large items proved to be a massive challenge. The idea started when we hired a rental van to collect and deliver furniture. This evolved into us using a company work van and in no time the whole team were involved with driving and delivering furniture. This created a really strong team work ethic that I am proud to have been a part of. It was a great feeling to be setting people up in their new homes (as well as getting a workout in at the same time!) The success of this manifested itself into the idea of a furniture re-use scheme and this concept really started to grow legs when it was recognised as a great idea within the company.

Carrying out a job with such a high level of responsibility requires a certain amount of empathy and it was near impossible not to be affected by people’s situations and circumstances. I have worked with some amazing people who have been through some quite unbelievable ordeals and the mental strength they have built up really is inspirational. Over the last year or so I believe I have become a much better person, and this is perhaps due to a new found sense of gratefulness for the opportunities I now realise I have. It has been amazing to be able to work and learn from these people, to build relationships and to not just hear their stories but actually become a part of them. We are all just a bit of bad luck, a few missed pay cheques and the odd poor decision away from losing our homes and we all have the potential to become homeless at some point in our lives. It has been incredibly rewarding to be doing work that has had such a positive impact and made such a big difference to people’s lives. On a personal level I am happy with many of the outcomes I have helped people to achieve and I have learned a lot about myself and this area of work. It’s certainly not been all plain sailing and I’ve got plenty of things to work on but I’m continuously learning and hopefully improving everyday.

If you are still reading thank you so much for reading until the end! I really hope this has helped you to gain some perspective into what is involved with the project and indeed this line of work (if you didn’t know already). I am going to be taking charge of blogging duties in my new role with Housing First so will be able to share and reflect much more on the work we are doing in addition to a few case studies and (fingers crossed) some success stories.

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