Vicky Husdon, is the Operations Manager at Open Door, a night shelter and daytime drop-in for vulnerable people in St Albans, as well as homelessness services in Hatfield. They are managed by Hightown Housing Association
You’ve worked in the homeless sector for quite a while what changes have you seen?
I’ve been working in homelessness for 15 years now and the changes I’ve seen in the housing and homeless sector are massive. We’ve seen changes in benefits, massive reduction in grant funding for homelessness services, more affordable rents coming up for housing associations and local authorities offering less accommodation. Local Councils having to turn people away. Another important factor is there’s not enough money in the NHS for mental health services, so we are seeing more and more people who are profoundly unwell who are slipping through the net.
Can you expand on that?
At a time when we at our most advanced technologically, we are having to help people that, 10 or 15 years ago would have been in supported housing. They would have had mental health support. Whereas now they are not meeting the thresholds.
How many people have used the Open Door service and how has this changed over the last five years?
In 2013/14 we had 182 people using the night shelter, plus 175 referrals. By 2017/18, this was 144 using the night shelter but 277 referrals. As other homelessness services have closed down we are getting the brunt of the referrals. We are getting more referrals from prisons and probation trusts, than we used to have. Presumably, because there is less money available for supported accommodation for those coming out of prison. At least they are being offered the option of a night shelter, in this area. I went to a Homeless Link event recently, where I heard that prison leavers in one London borough, were being given sleeping bags and tents as a resettlement option.
Where are the referrals coming from?
A lot of people self-refer but the reason they self-refer is because the council can’t help them. The Homelessness Reduction Act hopefully means they will get a fair hearing and get the opportunity to present their case. Local authorities have a statutory duty to help these people but there isn’t always enough funding or housing stock available for them to help.
Local authorities need to absorb the spirit of the Act. It’s hard because there is still that gatekeeping attitude, with staff having worked in housing for 20 or 30 years, it’s a whole new mind-set that they need to adopt.
It’s was really interesting to hear Bob Blackam MP, at the Homes for Cathy conference say how within the first month of the Act being in force, that four people had been turned away by their local council but had challenged this. They had found the right organisation to help support them to challenge the decision and they were given accommodation.
How can housing associations can help?
Well, I think it’s great that Hightown’s got a Financial Inclusion Officer, to actually work on homeless prevention. There are people in social housing tenancies who would have previously had support from mental health services. They would have regularly been seeing care co-ordinators but now they don’t meet the thresholds for getting assistance. So they can end up getting into trouble and getting into arrears. If there’s no one there to guide them and support them through the current benefit system, then they end up in massive debt.
Having someone like Maureen, our Financial Inclusion Officer at Hightown, helps them manage their affairs, deal with their debt and navigate the complicated benefits system.
So dealing with debt is a major factor?
When I started working in homelessness, I was a Welfare Rights Advisor, for the first five years and then moved into Supported Housing but was also training people in Welfare Rights. There was a turning point when pay day loans came out. The number of people who have become homeless because they’ve got into tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt because they took out a couple of pay day loans, that they can never pay back. They are just trying to pay off the interest, month after month.
There’s not enough advisors out there now, with the cuts in funding to services like the Citizens Advice Bureau, to be able to help negotiate the benefits system so people give before they even start and end up in sanctions. Or they go to food banks, so having a Financial Inclusion Officer is a massive step forwards. Also having a floating support team who are funded by Herts County Council, help people stay in their homes. It’s also about housing officers actually looking out for the signs that someone is struggling to cope and referring them to appropriate support.
What more can be done?
By training housing officers on what to look out for, you might be able to address a behaviour before it leads to someone being evicted for arrears or anti-social behaviour.
Also, we have seen some cut backs in local Drugs & Alcohol services in the local area but we are trying to work on a solution. Carla, the scheme manger here, and I have been in contact with the organisation that provides the Drug and Alcohol support in this district and we are working on setting up a drop in support sessions, at Open Door. To work with clients from Kent, Martin House and from Oysterfields our floating support service. That’s what we are aiming for, sessions would be once a week or once a fortnight.
It’s not going to fix everything, they would still need to travel to access a doctor and get a prescription but there’s would be somebody here to build those partnerships.