Long housing waiting lists cause tensions among service users but can be alleviated by housing and social care staff working together
BASW policy development officer Joe Godden explores how social workers can work better with their colleagues in housing
The need for decent and adequate housing is fundamental for people and something the great social reformer William Beveridge recognised. He described squalor as one of five “giant evils” and since World War Two there has been plenty of legislation covering housing, for example, the National Assistance Act 1948 (part 3).
This placed a duty on councils to provide, first, residential accommodation for persons who by reason of age, infirmity or any other circumstances are in need of care and attention which is not otherwise available to them; and, second, temporary accommodation for persons who are in urgent need.
Also important is the Community Care Act 1990. Section 47 places a duty on social services departments to assess whether there is a situation of vulnerability, including unsuitable or undesirable housing circumstances for the elderly, sick, mentally disordered or disabled. It also requires social services to invite a housing authority to assist in an assessment if it appears that a person has such needs.
There have also been many legal cases interpreting local authority duties in relation to the 1990 act and the 1989 Children’s Act.
The engagement of social workers with housing departments and providers varies greatly. There may be a lot of co-operation when finding suitable accommodation for people with certain disabilities but difficulties arise more often when an assessment of “intentionally homeless” is made or organised local opposition (nimbyism) kicks in.
Practice guidance and legislation urge co-operation between housing and social care, but this is not always easy. For a start, there are different traditions. Housing departments and providers have been major allocators of scarce social housing and, therefore, look for “good” tenants who will be custodians of properties. Long housing waiting lists cause tensions as a result of perceived queue jumping by those with urgent needs and questions about whether social services or housing should pay. An advocacy role has evolved in social work, which contrasts with the community cohesion model that is more prevalent in housing.
In the late 1990s many adults’ services were reorganised to integrate departments that recognised the interconnectedness of housing and social care and most councils have some kind of partnership policy between the two. More recently the focus of partnership has been with health and the previous management structures have been dissolved.
There is a lot of constructive work between social care and housing, particularly concerning supported housing and housing for people with complex needs. However, social workers are aware that housing providers too often drive the supported housing agenda with a re-emergence of ghetto-like developments driven by provider convenience rather than service user wishes.
So what can social workers do to improve co-operation with housing? They should:
● Understand how housing provision is organised and find out about joint housing and social care policy.
● Recognise housing’s different historical perspective.
● Think about how to forge relations in a planned way rather than waiting for conflict.
● Know the legislation, much of which expects joint working and disapproves of shunting responsibility between agencies.
● Get to know their housing colleagues. Arrange regular meetings and discuss with them the prevention agenda. Mutually social workers have much to offer in terms of support and information to avoid family or service user breakdown and improve quality of life.
● Apply their understanding of groups. It’s easy to see the world as them and us. The more we know people and the more we work together, the greater the chance of positive solutions. Avoid the blame culture.
● Draw on their code of ethics and social work principles where there are genuine causes for concern and if a challenge is right, challenge.
● Make senior managers aware of difficulties and help them find solutions that remove barriers.
● Don’t ignore politics – there is a real shortage of housing and it’s getting worse, so be political.
● Share lessons and successes with your social work colleagues and networks.