Injecting hope

How can supported housing providers help drug
users change the ir lifestyles for the better and become drug-free?
Sharon O’Hara of the English Churches Housing Group offers some

Over the past few years the English Churches
Housing Group (ECHG) has seen a fundamental shift in the kinds of
people using its services. Traditionally catering for a single
homeless population, many with alcohol problems and a history of
rough sleeping, all our schemes across the country are seeing a
significant rise in the number of young people struggling with drug
problems. Recent research by Crisis found that of 389 homeless
people interviewed, 83 per cent had used a substance other than
alcohol in the past month. This is borne out by the experience of
ECHG. For the safe management of the risks posed to our staff, we
must adapt to this changing population.

At any one time ECHG helps more than 2,300
people in 81 supported housing projects. It has always sought to
accommodate and support individuals turned away by other providers
because of their level of need. Drug users experience particular
difficulty in finding housing providers willing to assist them, and
so the growing number presenting to us is not a surprise. It is
possible, however, is that the increasing presence of drug users in
our projects repels people with other problems who may have turned
to us for assistance. Staff are used to being at the sharp end and
responding flexibly to day-to-day challenges, but the changes we
are experiencing in adapting to increased drugs use are having a
profound effect on the management of our schemes and our future

Our experience is that many of those
presenting to us do not initially feel free to discuss their drug
use. There are various reasons for this, including the fact that
they may not have acknowledged the extent of the problem or the
role it has played in creating their circumstances. They come to us
as homeless and once they are settled and have begun to develop
trusting relationships with their key workers, the existence of the
drug problem either makes itself apparent, or is admitted to by the

It is important to acknowledge the major role
that trust plays in reaching a point where someone is willing to
address the issue of their drugs use. The breakthrough follows a
gradual process of working with a client and when the point is
reached specialist agencies must be able to react quickly. And it
is our experience that they often can’t. We frequently find that
there are limited options in terms of the statutory assistance
available or long waiting lists. This situation often means that
residents lose their motivation by the time treatment is

What is needed is more provision offering a
more flexible range of treatment services. It is our view that no
drug user should have to wait more than two weeks for specialist
help, rather than the six weeks which is not an unusual situation
at present.

One way that ECHG is responding to this is to
develop a series of specialist housing-based services around the
country. These may provide a detox facility or a drugs-free housing
project offering a safe environment plus counselling, group work
and skills training. Having access to these services means that
ECHG can respond at the point where the resident knows they are
ready. It also means that we can move people from our generic
provision to more suitable accommodation, freeing up bed-spaces for
new referrals.

It is our view that more resources need to be
invested in harm reduction strategies, treatment and education
services for drug users – even if this is at the expense of crime
prevention and enforcement activities. Massive expenditure on the
latter has so far failed to reduce the supply of or demand for
illegal substances and the emphasis placed on it often serves to
demonise the drug user and heighten public anxiety and fear.

In addition, the government, our regulators
the Housing Corporation, and statutory providers need to recognise
and acknowledge the incredible balancing act required to work
positively with drug users while working co-operatively with the
police, and local communities. Our staff and services benefit so
much where we receive advice, support and training from the
statutory agencies, and we would welcome more of this across the
country. Supporting this client group also costs money. There is a
higher cost of risk management generally; wear and tear costs on
the accommodation are greater, as are staffing levels. More
security measures are also needed in terms of CCTV and so on.

As preparation for Supporting People gets
under way we have been fortunate that many local authorities have
welcomed our approach for increased services and funding, met
through transitional housing benefit. We are concerned however that
the situation may change after April 2003, when the money transfers
to each local authority. Illegal drug users are a high-risk group
and no one should expect to obtain high-risk services on the cheap.
We need an acknowledgement from the government, from the Housing
Corporation, our regulatory body, and from local authorities of the
practical difficulties of housing and supporting this difficult
client group.

Supported housing provision is now at an
important crossroads. ECHG’s experience of increasing drug use
among its clients has compelled us to adapt our services. There are
tremendous opportunities for housing to provide an important way in
for people who want help with drugs and other addictions. But we
are under no illusion that we can do this alone and we need local
and national support.

Drug-free options in Hull

In Hull the English Churches Housing Group has
responded to increasing levels of drug and alcohol use among its
clients by developing a range of supported housing projects and
move-on housing services that reflect people’s need for an easy way
into drugs rehabilitation.

Our support is targeted at getting people
through initial entry into a hostel environment. There, we make use
of our dedicated staff teams and a large dose of trust from our
residents, to start to look at what drugs-free options each person

Our range of eight supported housing schemes
offer varying access and support, depending on the needs of their
mainstay client group. They range from a 24-hour direct access
hostel, through to longer term supported flats in projects. The
circle has now been completed with the addition this month of the
newest project, called the Ozone.

The Ozone is an eight flat, fully furnished
drugs-free project. Working closely with a small group of residents
– all of whom are former drug users – each person has made a
commitment to remain drug-free and participates in daily
counselling, group work and skills training sessions. 

All residents are referred by the probation
service, social services or from other ECHG projects and agree to
pre-entry and regular follow-up drugs tests as part of their
commitment to a drugs-free lifestyle.

When each person is ready to move on, our
staff help find accommodation and provide contact support to ensure
that people do not feel isolated and can manage independent

Along with three other ECHG projects dotted
around England, the Ozone is a prototype for what ECHG believes
supported housing providers will need to offer more of. 

The case for this type of supported housing
support is strong and growing. At the Ozone’s opening one of the
clients, Maureen Ahmed, expressed this perfectly:

“I was on heroin for two years and had been
homeless. I ended up at ECHG’s hostel in Roper Street – I had
nowhere else to go. I was really underweight and still using drugs
but I just knew I had to get off them as they were killing me. In
the end I got a place at the Ozone where I got lots of help and
advice from the staff team. They really helped me but in the end I
knew it was up to me to make a go of it. I’ve been drug-free since
24 December 2001.”

Sharon O’Hara is head of supported
housing policy at the English Churches Housing Group.


1 English Churches Housing

2 Home Office Drug Prevention Advisory
Service at

3 Drug misuse information at the
Department of Health


5 Further information on treatment and
support from the following sites run by charities and

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