Hillingdon’s Safestop initiative offers safe, supported accommodation for young people who otherwise would be homeless. Siobhan O’Neill reports
Becoming homeless is a terrible experience for anyone, but for a young person, with little or no experience of coping in the adult world, it is all the more devastating because it is often linked to a breakdown in family relationships.
Young people aged 16-17 are at particular risk of homelessness. Hillingdon Council in London has developed extra housing support for this age group with its Safestop scheme, which charities are hailing as best practice.
Richard Ashaye, Hillingdon’s housing advice and options team leader, says a rise in homelessness among 16- and 17-year-olds in 2006 led to the development of Safestop. Although there were several agencies already working with the client group in the area, there were problems building trust with the young people and keeping track of their whereabouts while other agencies were brought on board to help.
The council approached the YMCA, which was already working with vulnerable young adults and had local premises, and agreed to rent two of its accommodation rooms specifically for the Safestop scheme.
When a client arrives at Safestop, they can be housed for 28 days in one of the rooms while their needs are assessed and other agencies are brought in to assist. Where the client is homeless because of a family breakdown, mediation services are used to open lines of communication and try to repair relationships. By the end of their stay it is hoped the client will be fully engaged with a support network and be able to return home, or move on to other housing arrangements.
Safestop was run as a pilot scheme for six months. This proved successful and encouraged the council to continue funding the project. A factor in this is that the client is not required to make a homelessness application this saves the council money in emergency housing like bed and breakfast.
Shola Ajibade, senior housing adviser at Safestop, points out that, although some teenagers are referred to the project through other schemes such as Connexions and Navigator, many go directly to it for help. “We’ve been able to assist young clients through mediation, support needs and onward housing,” she says. “We can refer them to social support to help them look for a job, and assist them to other agencies, even after they’re housed.”
The scheme has helped the council achieve government targets. “It prevents homelessness,” says Ajibade. “They have a safe environment for 28 days and they know afterwards they will have permanent housing. We work with them one-to-one and ensure other agencies also address their needs, and we work with their parents.”
For Ajibade and the other agencies working with the Safestop clients, the YMCA’s proximity to the council offices has been helpful. “There were some rough edges at the beginning,” she says, “with clients not wanting to work with support agencies, but we found ways of getting them to trust us.”
Mediation with parents
YMCA housing support officer Beverley Alie (pictured right) says many of her vulnerable clients have been evicted by their parents. Often, parents have reached breaking point because of behaviour issues, and feel they cannot have their child at home. Emotions run high, and this may be coupled with mild mental health problems or learning disabilities. In such circumstances the project offers “a breathing space” and mediation, says Alie. “Sometimes the separation is enough to get them talking again, which is a good outcome, even if they can’t go home.”
Alie has been working with the Safestop team for two years and has seen some great successes with the client group. Often the young people return to tell her how they are. She believes more providers could benefit from adopting this joined-up approach to address the needs of young adults.
In the past two years, Safestop has become so successful that HouseMark, the improvement agency jointly run by the Chartered Institute of Housing and National Housing Federation, has highlighted it as an example of good practice for its members to consider when improving their own housing schemes.
Liz Kenny, assistant director of knowledge management at HouseMark, says homelessness among 16- and 17-year-olds is of particular concern for local authorities, especially as they can be a difficult client group to work with. “What interested us was that it did seem to be a very flexible approach, tailored to the needs of the individual, and that seemed really important,” she says.
“Safestop is a very joined-up approach. In the worst cases, clients might get stuck in a B&B with no support. If the kids are not engaged they may not be there when the social worker comes. Safestop is an initiative that can be replicated in other areas.”
• For more on Safestop: e-mail Richard Ashaye at firstname.lastname@example.org