Let’s pull together

For those involved in housing advice, the Homelessness Act 2002,
implemented last July, is something totally new. Finally, there is
an opportunity to challenge the confusion that has long existed in
respect of overlap of services for vulnerable homeless people –
most notably, the problems of joint working between housing and
social services departments.

The great diversity of agencies that can offer support to
vulnerable homeless people can be a problem: a lack of
co-ordination, commitment and planning has, at times, prevented the
effective use of available resources and legislative powers and

In the Homelessness Act the government has enshrined in law the
need for “joined-up thinking and joined-up action”. The act
recognises that homelessness and the dire knock-on effects caused
by it could be better challenged at council level by having an
agreed strategy. This strategy should involve the active
participation of all relevant agencies – public, private and

One potential pitfall inherent in the current provision of services
to homeless people is the link between the duties of social
services (particularly in respect of the Children Act 1989), and
that of housing departments that carry out their homelessness
functions under the provisions of the Housing Act 1996 (amended by
the Homelessness Act 2002). The 2002 act requires housing
departments to engage social services and others to formulate
workable protocols to best deal with the client group they all
potentially serve.

Additionally, much thought is given to avoiding potential
duplication and – conversely – the ability for one overstretched
department or agency to pass its responsibility on to another. At
its most basic level, this serves to protect the 16-year-old
homeless person from being told by social services “you are
homeless. Go to the homeless persons unit (HPU)”, and for the HPU
to tell them “you are a child in need. Go to social services”. We
can only imagine how many people get lost in between, but what we
know is that they are some of the most vulnerable groups of
homeless people: families with children, people leaving hospital,
older people and those with mental health needs.

The act specifically sets out to provide housing to those most at
risk of homelessness by defining them as being in priority need.
This means that the housing department has a duty to provide them
with accommodation. For instance, there is now a duty to house all
homeless 16 to 17-year-olds under the act – save for those defined
as “relevant children” or who are owed a duty under section 20 of
the Children Act. The change is intended to complement existing
social services accommodation duties, but without joint assessments
and joint working, it can reinforce some of the problems referred
to above.

One of the most exciting changes invoked by the 2002 Act is the
requirement that housing authorities adopt a more strategic,
multi-agency approach to preventing homelessness and re-housing
homeless households. Homelessness reviews and strategies represent
a real opportunity to move away from the existing crisis-driven
approach to homelessness, towards a more preventive model. Joint
working is at the heart of these strategies. Specifically, where
non-unitary districts are concerned, the current Homeless Code of
Guidance for Local Authorities on the new act makes the following
demand: “Since a number of people who are homeless or at risk of
homelessness will require social services support, it is unlikely
that it would be possible for a housing authority to formulate an
effective homelessness strategy without assistance from the social
services authority. It will be necessary therefore in all cases for
housing authorities to seek assistance from the social services
authority”. 1

The guidance goes on to place a duty on social services in this
respect: when undertaking a review of services and formulating a
strategy, “the social services authority… shall give such
assistance in connection with (the homelessness review and
strategy) as the (housing) authority may reasonably require”.

Each local authority housing department has until July 2003 to
conduct, publish and implement a review and a strategy. This
strategy offers opportunities to drastically improve the safety net
offered to vulnerable people, if departments work openly and
constructively with each other and make a real commitment to the
service that each potential customer can expect to receive.

Shelter has committed many resources to the implementation of the
2002 act, and in Devon, as elsewhere, it has enjoyed much initial
success in assisting the majority of councils in improving
homelessness and advice services. Where housing departments have
grasped the opportunity to re-examine their role, those involved
across statutory and voluntary sectors have felt the exercise to be

Already, notions of traditional working have been successfully
challenged through a re-appraisal of what a service should provide,
and how departments can work together. Examples of good practice
have included joint inductions, staff secondments and joint
training days for staff. In terms of service provision,
multi-disciplinary panels with representatives from health,
housing, social services, drug and alcohol counselling services and
benefits advice have successfully provided packages of support for
some long-term rough sleepers with a wide range of problems.

Cross-departmental reviews across a range of areas have proved very
successful in my own area of Devon. Having chaired several review
days, I confess it is a pleasure to see how realistic, open and
positive most of the participants are in their wishes and
expectations of what can be achieved through this new way of

However, there is much to be done. A recent Shelter report while
identifying plenty to celebrate, voiced concern that some
homelessness strategies may fail because social services
departments are reluctant to engage in the way demanded by the 2002
act.2 More than 75 per cent of housing departments
surveyed said that improvements were needed in joint working with
social services, and requested a better understanding of each
other’s work and of social services’ role in supporting homeless
people, better communication and more effective planning.

While having enormous respect for the work that social services
perform at the “sharp end”, Shelter’s experience has been that not
all are engaging with housing departments to the level required and
expected. In such an environment, the notions inherent in the Act
will have less chance of meaningful development.

Several issues inhibit joint working between social services and
housing. In two-tier authorities in particular, housing and social
services departments are organised in different ways and there may
be difficulties with county-level services engaging with several
district authorities. Homelessness is an issue that crosses
intra-departmental boundaries within social services, so while it
encompasses young people, older people and mental health teams, for
example, it is the sole responsibility of none. Perhaps most
tellingly though, homelessness is not an area on which social
services performance is specifically measured, forcing it down the
list of priorities when departments’ resources are stretched.

Shelter, like any other agency, is constantly having to face up to
the challenges and expectations of an ever-evolving client group.
Very few of our customers are “only” homeless. Our countrywide
network of housing aid centres feeds back the view that successful
homelessness prevention often requires the participation of several
agencies dealing with the same client. When it works, it’s
magnificent. But when it doesn’t, when the system fails, then the
individual or family concerned is one step closer to becoming a
life-time client of us all – advice services, housing department,
social services, education, health, GP, the courts, the prison
system, even the coroner.

The Homelessness Act 2002 provides a hugely challenging but
ultimately exciting opportunity to every agency that offers
services to homeless and vulnerable people. It is Shelter’s
experience that those social services departments that have decided
to take up the challenge and fully engage in the debate are not

Brian Moore is a fieldworker for Shelter, Devon.

Background Reading

1 Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Homeless Code
of Guidance for Local Authorities
, Code, 1.5, July 2002

2 Shelter, Homelessness Act Implementation
Research: Local Authority Progress and Practice
, 2003


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