The great divide

    Housing and social services staff often deal with the same
    clients but have different takes on services and how to provide
    them. Ruth Winchester and
    Katie Leason ask what social services and
    housing might usefully do to improve relations with their opposite
    numbers.

     

    An eight-foot hedge is great when you want to sunbathe in
    private, but it’s not so good when you need your
    neighbour’s help with the barbecue. Housing and social
    services have often been less than cordial neighbours, but times
    are changing for both parties and keeping the dividing hedge under
    control is now more crucial than ever.

    Different priorities and perspectives are clearly part of the
    problem. Housing managers worry about the antisocial behaviour of a
    few tenants driving other residents away, and are reluctant to
    house those who might cause problems.

    Social workers struggle to secure housing for vulnerable people and
    then see them evicted just when things start to improve. One side
    blames the other, they both feel aggrieved, undervalued and
    misunderstood. But how much of this is really about “cultural
    differences”, and how much is simply a lack of
    communication?

    Social services’ view of housing

    Lack of mutual respect is definitely an issue, says Andrea
    Cannon, Supporting People manager at Surrey Council, who has worked
    in both social services and housing. She says: “There’s
    a real need for each party to respect the professionalism of the
    other and the particular skills and knowledge that they
    bring.”

    But there are plenty of other sources of frustration for social
    services. One is housing’s lack of awareness and tolerance of
    clients’ needs. Vulnerable clients – for instance those
    with mental health problems or drug and alcohol issues – may
    struggle to keep to the narrow terms of their tenancy agreements.
    Many social services staff complain of a harsh line from housing
    agencies, leading to eviction and homelessness that compounds the
    problem.

    The shortage of social housing also means that people who
    desperately need homes are turned down or left waiting for months
    or years, often to the immense frustration of social services.
    Social workers report working intensively with birth families in
    order to return children to them, only to find that the reunion is
    impossible because appropriate housing is not available. And
    leaving care teams say housing agencies are often reluctant to
    house homeless young people, which creates problems for councils
    which may have a duty to provide accommodation and support. The
    Audit Commission is now investigating lettings policies (news, page
    13, 24 June).

    More mundane requirements can also cause headaches. Greg Everatt,
    assistant integrated commissioning manager at Cumbria Council, is
    involved in services for people with learning difficulties. He says
    that they often need someone with them during the night for health
    or security reasons, which necessitates an extra bedroom.
    “Not all housing providers recognise this and it can be a
    cause of tension.”

    Everatt also complains about housing’s limited focus on
    bricks and mortar, compared with the broader range of issues dealt
    with by social services. “In social services there’s
    much more of a sense of working with people in their whole life
    – we are more flexible about boundaries,” he
    says.

    Another gripe is the time it takes to get housing to act. Michelle
    Coleborn, a care manager for older people’s mental health at
    Hampshire Council, says it is sometimes a case of “he who
    shouts the loudest” gets the results and that getting action
    can take months. She cites the case of a physically disabled man
    who was unable to get to his entry phone to buzz visitors in. His
    carers came four times a day and had begun to pester his neighbours
    in order to gain access. Coleborn says all that was required was
    for his bell to be moved into the kitchen, where he spent most of
    his time. “But this took eight weeks to sort,” she
    says.

    Difficulties can be caused by the way that housing responsibilities
    are divided up in some areas. While county councils are responsible
    for social services, the housing remit falls to borough and
    district councils. So some social services departments have to
    liaise with more than 10 housing departments, each with different
    policies, procedures and eligibility criteria.

    Mark Stainton, head of social care at East Sussex Council, says his
    local authority has tried to counteract this by setting up special
    needs housing officer posts funded half by the county council and
    half by the borough and district councils. But despite the added
    complexity, Stainton would not want housing to be brought within
    the county council alongside social services, arguing that
    “it’s important that housing is focused on a more local
    basis”.

    Social services and housing have taken significant steps to improve
    the way they work together but divisions remain. Not everyone is in
    favour of merging the two departments in order to achieve better
    joint working, but there is little doubt that learning more about
    the “other side”, through joint meetings, training, or
    work shadowing, could help to keep the hedge trimmed and
    manageable.

    Housing’s view of social services

    A day in the life of a housing manager: a morning spent
    wandering the local housing estate with a clipboard noting
    overgrown gardens, followed by an afternoon explaining to a
    succession of sofa-surfing teenagers and single mothers why
    they’re not any nearer the top of the housing list, and why
    they really ought to be talking to social services instead.

    But spare a thought for these hard-nosed accountants. It might be
    tempting to conclude that they’re simply too interested in
    the bottom line to notice that some of their residents might be
    vulnerable or struggling on low incomes. But in fact, social
    services have to shoulder a fair part of the blame for the state of
    the boundary hedge. Talk to a few housing people and you soon find
    that there are many things social services could do to be more
    neighbourly.

    One of the major irritations is when social services start pinching
    their cash. Sue Witherspoon is director of strategy for English
    Churches, a large national housing association. She claims social
    services have misappropriated a large amount of funding which was
    intended for housing-related services for people with low to
    medium-level support needs. She says: “Supporting People was
    a funding stream designed to help people with relatively low levels
    of need. But it was a very large pot of money which proved a bit
    too tempting for social services. A lot of Supporting People
    funding is legitimate but there are some extremely high cost client
    groups in there who were always funded by social services and who
    are now funded – I think wrongly – by Supporting
    People.”

    As a result, many housing organisations are concerned that if, as
    expected, the Supporting People belt is tightened social services
    will cut back on services for those with lower support needs.
    Witherspoon believes this will put some housing projects at risk
    and could exacerbate the feeling among housing staff that they
    “have to watch people deteriorate until they meet the social
    services criteria”.

    A second factor is the turnover of staff and pressures within
    social services. Rebecca Pritchard is director of services for
    homelessness charity Centrepoint, and runs their hostel programme.
    “Large numbers of vacancies in some social services
    departments mean they’re too busy fire fighting on things
    like child protection to focus on the way their care leavers are
    being housed.

    In others there is a massive turnover of staff, and in that climate
    it’s very difficult because co-operation between housing and
    social services often depends on individual workers getting on well
    or developing a good understanding of the issues. If that person
    leaves after 12 months, you’ve spent all that time building
    up knowledge and relationships only to have to start again from
    scratch.”

    She believes lack of co-ordination can also be a problem.
    “Centrepoint has one project where two-thirds of the unit
    were reserved for referrals from the local leaving care team, yet a
    lot of the spaces were empty. Not because they didn’t need
    the places, but because they were very badly organised. Lots of
    social services departments are under huge amounts of pressure, and
    there’s a sense that they don’t often help themselves.
    It can be a real challenge to work with them.”

    Witherspoon goes further. “It’s about quality of staff,
    too. Someone who’s working on big complex projects, dealing
    with million pound contracts, large amounts of land, new buildings
    and so on needs to be a highly competent project manager to oversee
    it all. But in social services the turnover of staff and the
    problems in recruitment sometimes mean that the quality of staff
    just isn’t there.”

    Many social landlords also resent the fact that social services
    seem to think they’re all rich and mean. Says Witherspoon:
    “There’s a perception that housing associations are
    rich, so social services believe they ought to be able to get
    something for nothing. It’s a fallacy – we might have
    reserves of £25m but that’s not money sitting in the
    bank, it’s just a reduction in our level of
    borrowing.”

    Another gripe is that housing doesn’t get the full picture
    from social services. Many housing workers said they felt social
    services were being deliberately misleading by not passing on all
    the facts about the clients they referred to housing, and some
    reported housing staff having been put at risk as a result of a
    failure to share information.

    In terms of what might help, there were several suggestions.
    Co-locating teams was one suggestion, though not all approved of
    the idea. Others suggested that joint training, job swaps, away
    days, and even transposing housing and social services staff on
    secondments into the other department would help to build
    relationships and ease tensions.

    Another suggestion was for social services to keep up the pressure
    to get what they want from housing agencies. Sheila Spencer is a
    housing consultant with expertise in working with substance
    misusers and homeless young people. She says the reluctance of many
    social landlords to house social services clients “needs to
    be tackled head on. You need to keep banging on about it and not
    accept decisions lying down. Eventually it does pay
    off”.

    At Centrepoint, Rebecca Pritchard says clear national guidance from
    government is needed. “We badly need a national steer on how
    housing and social services agencies should work with each other
    – an expectation at national level about how and when it
    should happen. We really need some firm guidance.”

    Perhaps government policy also needs to be addressed.
    “Housing associations are now expected to be more proactive
    about managing antisocial behaviour,” says Witherspoon,
    “and they are also required to consult tenants about it and
    draw up strategies which consider tenants’ views.

    “A lot of tenants are understandably worried about antisocial
    behaviour and so through consultation we sometimes end up with
    policies and procedures which are more punitive than we might
    otherwise have chosen. But if I was an elderly tenant in supported
    accommodation, I’d want to be at peace. I can see both
    sides.” CC


    Social services’ gripes about housing

    1. Everything takes so long.

    2. Housing doesn’t fully appreciate what clients need.

    3. Housing focuses on housing and knows little about social
    services.

    4. There’s not enough accommodation and too many temporary
    places are used.

    5. There’s not enough flexibility over tenancy
    agreements.

    Housing’s gripes about social services

    1. Using the Supporting People money for things they should fund
    themselves.

    2. Having such high eligibility criteria that we have to watch
    people deteriorate without a service.

    3. Thinking that housing organisations are rich and can give
    something for nothing.

    4. Staff moving on just when you’d got a workable
    relationship established.

    5. Failing to share information.

    Why we annoy each other – comments from housing and social
    services staff

    “Social workers give people too much rope and allow them
    to build arrears and take time. This is against housing practice,
    law, fiscal reality, political balance and probity.”

    “Social services don’t want to retain responsibility
    for clients that they have placed in our schemes. They have a
    tendency to think of placed clients as ‘problem solved’
    whereas we have taken them on the expectation that there will
    continue to be an ongoing relationship, including the provision of
    a care package.”

    “Housing often lacks knowledge about the legislation that
    applies to social services – and they rarely show much
    interest in finding out more.”

    “It would be useful for housing departments to have a
    delegated person to provide a link with social services.”

    “The problem isn’t necessarily between housing and
    social services but starts much higher up the chain of command.
    There is a problem with joint commitment and joined up thinking in
    the various central government departments, and this creates
    tensions and difficulties locally.”

    “Local authorities need to have a small emergency team
    where social workers and housing staff work together. They also
    need to hold a stock of flats, houses, and units in common so that
    deals and arrangements can be sorted out.”

    “Internal communications between departments in councils
    are sometimes poor. Staff talk of sitting in meetings with
    different departments of the same council, where they express
    surprise at what each other is doing.”

    “We have an ‘at risk’ monthly meeting attended
    by health, social services, housing, and the police. Care managers
    and those from other disciplines can register and discuss anyone
    they feel is either at risk or potential risk. It’s helpful
    for moving housing issues on.”

    “Job swapping wouldn’t work because the legislation
    on housing and social care is too complex.”

    “Housing agencies are taking a counterproductive line over
    arrears. A  single mother with three young kids can be threatened
    with eviction because they are in rent arrears of £700. For a
    council that’s nothing; it could be written off in an instant
    to avoid them becoming homeless.”

    “Housing is changing – it is less about social
    responsibility and more about being ‘in business for
    communities’. Local authority housing teams tended to take
    their responsibilities to vulnerable people quite seriously;
    that’s not so much of a priority for housing associations.
    Their allegiance is to the majority, not the minority who are in
    the greatest need.”

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