Personal touch offers long-term benefits

Finding someone a bed is relatively easy. The challenge is then to tackle rough sleepers' problems, while offering support and motivation.
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The Independent Online

For Richard, 22, the move from sleeping rough marked the beginning – not the end – of the challenge he faced to rebuild his life. As with so many of his homeless peers, the recent expansion of hostel places, half-way houses, special units and flats means there's no difficulty in getting off the streets. Rather, the problem lies in staying off the streets.

"For ages, I'd only last a week or so in a hostel," he explains. "I hated them because I hated sharing my space. On the streets, I could find an old bin shed or somewhere else quiet. Hostels also reminded me that I didn't know where to get help. When they used to tell me, it was such a long list of different charities and organisations that it intimidated me and I just threw it away."

Saving the day was one of the multi-disciplinary Contact and Assessment Teams (CATs) that the Rough Sleepers Unit (RSU) set up last year. These CATs adopted a new holistic approach to helping vulnerable rough sleepers like Richard by approaching them on the streets and ensuring they get not only the package of services best suited to them, but easy access. "My CAT worker said that because of my history with hostels, he could get me straight into my own supported flat," Richard says. "He got me counselling too and a place in a day centre where, for the first time in years, I had something to do. I got some training and now, I've even got a job.'

A report published by the charity Crisis found that homelessness is the symptom of other problems – in Richard's case, family breakdown – and these need to be addressed so that people can come off the streets for good.

According to the CATs, a staggering 75 per cent of rough sleepers have mental ill health and substance misuse problems – or both. Not surprisingly, these factors draw people back to the streets even more commonly than an aversion to hostels, perceived lack of access to services and lack of family support. The Hungerford Drug Project is one of the growing number of charities that now offers client-centred, long-term strategies specifically aimed at addressing these issues.

"In the past, these rough sleepers got a detox and/or lots of intense counselling from specialist charities. To be brutally honest, it didn't work for many people because it was too quick," says Andy Simmons, manager. "Now, we offer counselling at a pace that is set by the individual and offer a skills programme, which motivates them, alongside."

Keeping people off the streets is not just the responsibility of charitable organisations, however. That's why it is crucial to ensure that car park attendants, shopkeepers, police and security guards – who are greater in number than outreach workers and are in contact with rough sleepers – have somewhere to call if they meet anyone returning to rough sleeping. Brighton and Hove Safer Streets Scheme does just that. "The fact is that many entrenched rough sleepers do go back on the streets," says spokeswoman Carolyn Bond. "But now, they can be immediately referred to us and we can refer them on to the relevant agencies to make sure that all the work that's been done with them is not undone."

Of equal value in Southampton is a monitoring system. "In partnership with relevant local charities and surrounding local authorities, our system tracks an individual's personal case history using a unique identification number," explains Barbara Compton, housing strategy manager. "It identifies periods when people have been homeless and resettled as well as their needs and how they have changed – in other words, it builds up a comprehensive picture. From that, we can tailor solutions to individuals, ensuring that we don't repeat strategies that have previously failed, which we've found is the key to cracking the problem of people returning to the streets. In addition, we can make sure they don't slip through nets."

Southampton is also one of a growing number of areas that link volunteers with former rough sleepers to befriend and support them in the community. "The befriender, who has usually been homeless in the past, spends a few hours a week with someone who has recently moved into their own accommodation – a critical make-or-break time for entrenched rough sleepers, particularly if they have alcohol, drugs or mental health issues," says Julie Stoop, team manager. "It works because this is not only someone who knows how they feel, but it's someone who wants to spend time with them. There is a power base in most relationships that ex-homeless people have, but not here."

Increasingly, hostels themselves are taking a "look ahead" approach to helping rough sleepers – not only by specialising in, say, alcohol abusers, but by making sure that residents know they're there to help them, not cage them. This requires the hostel working in partnership with a range of organisations and the whole area taking on a co-ordinated approach.

John Thompson, company secretary of the Newcastle Homeless Liaison Project, which is based in the local authority's Housing Advice Centre, says: "Part of Newcastle's success in keeping people off the streets is a database that matches rough sleepers with the hostel that is best suited to them in terms of rules, specialisms, atmosphere and so on."

Another example of how Newcastle is achieving its aims are its "Learning Zones," which are a step on from day centres, providing pre-vocational and vocational training to help former rough sleepers back into paid employment. They work on the premise that education, training and employment are effective ways of giving people self-esteem, social networks and greater economic independence – all of which improves the likelihood of social inclusion.

Little wonder that charities specialising in employment opportunities for ex-homeless people receive enormous praise from users. Consider Aspire (see page 6), which employs former rough sleepers to organise and distribute a catalogue that sells gifts and products to the public, as well as manage the company. "We pay a set weekly wage rather than commission so that employees feel stable," explains supports manager, Amy Fuller. "Although flexible, we aim to employ people for six months so that they have time to build up self-confidence, skills and a track record of a full-time job with a reference – in other words, be ready to move on to something else."

Fuller admits she was naive when she first joined Aspire. "These are vulnerable people and not everyone succeeds first time. That's OK, though. We give second and third chances here." Aspire also provides loans for deposits, which are deducted from salaries over a long period, in some cases enabling employees to go directly from rough sleeping to private rented accommodation.

According to the RSU-funded Tenancy Sustainment Teams (TSTs), it used to be at this point that support often stopped abruptly. "Yet accepting a settled lifestyle, keeping up rent and avoiding debt and isolation can be the biggest challenges of all for former rough sleepers – especially when there are alcohol, drugs and mental health issues," says Chris Hampson, head of policy, strategy and service development at the East London TST.

"That's where we come in – to recognise that it's no good plonking people from the streets into a home and saying, 'Here's your key, have a nice life.' That simply leads them from being socially excluded on the streets to being socially excluded in their tenancies – and that leads to a revolving door syndrome. What they need is ongoing support to carry their tenancy forward and to that end, we work in close contact with community services ranging from job centres, debt schemes, landlords and substance misuse workers to leisure centres and cinemas – for as long as it takes."

Harry, a former rough sleeper, says: "I can't say to anybody that I won't drink anymore. But I know I've got the support there if I do slip again."