More than a place to stay

Single people in supported housing don’t just need a roof over their head. They need to make friends and be part of the community, says Gerard Lemos

Many single people living in temporary supported housing who have been homeless may have had mental health problems or a long stint in hospital; or they may be ex-offenders, recovering from drug and alcohol problems or have learning difficulties. As a result, they also receive help from social care agencies.

Supported housing staff see their objectives as helping people to move to permanent housing, usually in the social rented sector. And, increasingly, supported housing agencies are also helping with training and employment.

But are these goals the ones that service users have for themselves or are they looking for something different?

Lemos&Crane undertook research with leading supported housing agencies in London, including Thames Reach Bondway and the Carr-Gomm Society. The participants concluded that service users often had a different set of goals for themselves to the ones ordained by government policy and pursued by supported housing and social care professionals.

As well as practical independent living goals, they also wanted to build their self-esteem and strengthen their sense of positive identity. Forming lasting and loving one-to-one relationships is also important to many people. Building and re-building relationships with family members and friends also features as a profound need. Homes and work often came lower on their list of personal priorities than these social and emotional aspirations.

Many vulnerable people have repeated their stories of problems so many times to so many professionals that those problems and the labels that they bring have become part of how they have come to see themselves, not just how others see them. Meanwhile, more positive aspects of their identity, perhaps from their more distant past, have receded and been obscured. They may no longer think of themselves as a father, a Catholic, a chess lover, a supporter of Brentford Football Club or a martial arts enthusiast.

Positive aspects of identity are derived partly from inheritance: pride in ethnicity or religious beliefs are often handed down through the generations. Others are chosen: interests or hobbies, for instance. And with those interests comes group membership and solidarity.

When Elvis impersonators get together they talk about Elvis, not about their past or present problems. So one challenge for professionals supporting vulnerable people is to help people to recover those aspects of their past which are a source of pride, while building new interests and associations to develop new dimensions of positive identity.

Nearly everyone wants to be in a lasting and loving one-to-one relationship, not just Bridget Jones. Vulnerable people are no exceptions. Indeed many are in relationships, though social care professionals may be unaware of them. But relationships are important sources of support. Research in the US with old men who had been young offenders several decades earlier found that those least likely to re-offend over the long term were those who formed lasting relationships and married.(1)

The partner’s support was instrumental and practical. They might intervene in physical conflicts or take their husbands home before they became too drunk. They introduced them to new friends and new activities, breaking cycles of bad habits and bad company.

In supported housing, vulnerable people already in relationships may have difficulty being re-housed together, sharing a support worker, making a joint support plan or having joint key working sessions. Approaches which validate rather than deny relationships are still too rare in social care and supported housing. Best of all would be access to positive help in forming and keeping relationships. After all, many people seek help with their relationships without being stigmatised for it.

The importance of family and friends to people who have had disrupted or chaotic lifestyles has also been researched.(2) Even if a family or relationship breakdown was the cause of disruption or homelessness, strong ties may remain with the wider family. Grandparents and adult siblings are often generous and undemanding, even when relationships with parents or partners have deteriorated or collapsed. Many homeless people keep in touch with some members of their family and some of their old friends but would like help to rebuild and strengthen those relationships, perhaps through the involvement of family mediation.

Drugs practitioners have also noted that encouraging people to go into rehab is more likely to be successful with the help of family members. Again, informal support is an important instrument in improving social care outcomes.

But sometimes relationships with partners, family and friends have ended sadly and badly and cannot be fixed. If isolation is to be avoided, new friendships and interests are needed. And preferably these new friendships will be with people with shared interests, but different histories, not people with shared problems.

Mutual support is empowering to a point, but after a while it’s time to move on. A book or a gardening club, a new church or place of worship will often welcome new members without making judgements about their history. Volunteer befrienders can be important bridges into these wider groups. Professionals may not have time. It may also be easier for a vulnerable person to be open with and confide in volunteers because they have no coercive power in the way that lurks in the background of encounters between clients and professionals.

An important landmark of independence is reached when a vulnerable person starts to see themselves as a giver, not just a receiver. They may want to volunteer themselves – and not just to help with their former peers.

After a long stay of a year or two in a hostel or shared house, where proximity and intimacy are impossible to avoid, the prospect of living alone in a scantily furnished flat on an unknown, distant council estate may be less than enticing. Making a flat or a house into a home depends almost as much on who and what is nearby as it does on the flat itself. Being near family members and friends, places of worship and interests, groups and activities are what makes an area feel like your community.

These social and emotional aspirations should also form part of the work of social care and supported housing professionals. They need to feature in care and support plans and reviews and in key working discussions. Some practitioners have commented that going into these subjects is too intrusive, bursting the thin protective membrane from past pain without much prospect of future happiness. That is a counsel of despair. Future happiness will indeed prove elusive if vulnerable people do not receive support in achieving the goals they share with everybody else. CC

Gerard Lemos is a partner at social researchers Lemos&Crane. He is the author of Steadying the Ladder: Social and Emotional Aspirations of Homeless and Vulnerable People, published by Lemos&Crane.

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This article considers whether social care and supported housing practitioners are taking sufficient account of the social and emotional aspirations of vulnerable and homeless people. It suggests new ways of working with vulnerable people which would strengthen their sense of positive identity, help them start and sustain lasting and loving one-to-one relationships and sustain relationships with family and friends.

(1) J Laub, Developmental Criminology and its Discontents: Trajectories of Crime from Childhood to Old Age, Sage, 2005
(2) G Lemos, S Durkacz, Dreams Deferred; The Family and Friends of Homeless and Vulnerable People, Lemos&Crane, 2002

Further information – for information on approaches to meeting the social and emotional aspirations of homeless and vulnerable people. – for more research on social networks, homelessness and supporting vulnerable people. – for information about meeting the needs of vulnerable people from ethnic minorities.

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