Research into practice

Homeless older people are often described – if they are noticed at all – as “invisible” or “forgotten”. As stereotypes they may be familiar and seem an intractable feature of life in urban areas. But their needs are more complex than the stereotypes imply. The causes of their homelessness are also varied.

This challenge to accepted beliefs is made in a recent report.1 This explores the work of voluntary sector organisations working in older homeless people’s services and provides evidence about the users’ lives and circumstances.

From this report we learn that older homeless people are often isolated, suspicious and alienated from mainstream services and networks. This may lead to a misconception that they want to be left alone and that they either cannot or will not resettle into housing.

The research suggests that they can be helped, but it takes time and commitment. Their lack of trust in services may mean that approaches similar to assertive outreach are most effective. For many of those interviewed, a day centre was an important link with some form of support. Changes in day centre policies or working practices may result in these becoming less acceptable to older service users who may find bureaucracy off-putting or younger age groups disruptive.

Specialist support workers are seen as effective means of helping homeless older people into accommodation and supporting them afterwards. Although much of their work concerns building a relationship, finding tenancies and helping with practical matters, the researchers point to the need to untangle the complexities of benefits and the ways in which responsibilities need to stop being passed between agencies.

Many specialist workers have their base in voluntary agencies, like those described in this report. This seems to provide a flexible work-base and allows them to concentrate on support. But this location has its drawbacks. Funding for such agencies is often unpredictable and their activities have to follow funding sources and today’s initiatives.

A second study from the same research programme explores the use of sheltered housing in resettling older homeless people.2 This may be increasingly seen as a win-win response to the housing problems of older homeless people and to the difficulty in attracting tenants to sheltered housing. But the fit is not as easy as it sounds. Older homeless people may have a range of needs. Sheltered housing staff may have to provide individualised support for tenants who are perhaps younger “old people”, have a variety of backgrounds, such as an unsettled way of life or hostel residence, may have alcohol problems and may be male rather than the generally female clientele of sheltered housing.

This study provides detail on 21 schemes in north west England that have taken on resettlement as an explicit part of their work. Issues relevant to practice include: the boundaries of confidentiality between the housing staff and social services or probation workers; the relationship of housing staff with social care assessors and providers; and involvement in risk assessment before tenancies start.

As social services become more involved in supporting people through housing-related social care, this report is an informative overview of management issues as they affect the day-to-day work of resettlement.

1 J Pannell, R Means, and H Morbey, Surviving at the Margins, Help the Aged, 2002. Available from Help the Aged, 207-221 Pentonville Road, London N1 9UZ, price £18.50

2 I Blood, Sheltered Housing and the Resettlement of Older Homeless People, Help the Aged, 2002. Available as above, price £10

Jill Manthorpe is reader in community care at the University of Hull.

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