Building support

For women working the streets until the early hours to pay their
crack-dealing pimps for their next hit, the likelihood is that the
next day is going to be a wipe out. Given this kind of schedule,
keeping an appointment with someone who can only help you during
standard nine to five office hours might be difficult. Besides
which, says Gill Brown, chief executive of the Potteries Housing
Association, conventional services rarely meet the needs of young
women sleeping rough who turn to prostitution. And often, services
that do exist come with discriminatory attitudes attached.

Since 1993, the Potteries Housing Association in Stoke-on-Trent has
provided an outreach service for street prostitutes and now offers
specialist workers and advocacy tailored to the needs of this
group. Although most of the women it works with are not resident in
its accommodation, those who do stay at least for a time in the
association’s direct access hostel tend to experience much more
positive outcomes. Although it might be surprising that a housing
association would offer services to non-residents, Brown explains:
“We do it as part of our purpose -Êwe are a supported needs
housing association set up to work with single homeless people. We
needed to meet the needs of excluded groups, so initially it
started as outreach, taking condoms and needles, and it grew from

The project has four outreach and drugs workers, and education and
training advice have been bought with Comic Relief funds. About 150
women use its services every year, although workers might make
contact with 30 a month on outreach. “Our service costs about
£100,000 per year, and it has been estimated that this saves
other services several times that amount. But we have to fight for
funding because we work with prostitutes – most people don’t

The benchmark of success is that a woman is not seen working the
streets for a three-month period. So far eight women appear to have
left prostitution entirely, although many more have been helped to
address their drug use and to manage other aspects of their lives.
One unexpected benefit has been the removal of violent men from the
streets: three of the Potteries staff were recently commended by
police for their work supporting women to give evidence in court,
helping to convict men who are now serving life sentences for rape
and sexual assault.

While perhaps not typical, this kind of outcome provides a dramatic
illustration of what can be achieved when trust is built over time
with individuals as they develop hopes of a more stable future.
Many housing associations and homelessness charities have now moved
well beyond the basic provision of bricks and mortar accommodation
and offer a range of services tailored to the needs of specific
user groups.

When asked why so much effort is put into offering services to
groups that might normally expect a simple rent-book relationship
with their housing association, National Housing Federation (NHF)
policy director Danny Friedman says: “There is a credible,
pragmatic argument for investment in the things that make
neighbourhoods good places for people to live in. If you’re living
in appalling conditions, if you’ve got any money at all, you’ll go
elsewhere. It’s those people who are least able who tend to be
trapped in the worst accommodation, and it then turns into a
destructive cycle -Êyour health suffers, your children don’t
go to school regularly, and they in turn fail to be as economically
able as they could be.”

Recent research by the NHF has found that housing associations’
stakeholders felt the product they provided was unattractive. In
response, the NHF launched the iN Business for Neighbourhoods
initiative in September 2003, which is committed to providing
specialist support for people with a variety of needs; to give
individuals choice about the kind of services they received; and to
help tenants with special needs to live in a range of
neighbourhoods rather than creating concentrated clusters.

With 400 or so NHF members now signed up to the manifesto,
representing 75 per cent of available housing stock, Friedman
believes that iN Business offers a strong framework for assessing
the value that housing associations currently bring to

“The starting point for all associations who sign up is to do a bit
of navel-gazing, to look at what sort of services we provide,” says
Friedman. “Can we be potential leaders in that area or are we there
without adding much value – and should therefore consider pulling
out and concentrating on areas where we can offer stronger

Housing associations and homelessness charities that offer support
services often rely on the government’s Supporting People fund,
which has just effectively been cut by 5 per cent. Commissioned
services are being reviewed and providers in the housing sector are

While Supporting People provides three-fifths of funding for
Stonham Housing Association, the largest provider of housing and
care in England for people with special needs, chief executive
Clare Tickell is not convinced that the current practice of
councils administering the money is cost-effective. Nor does she
believe it helps to get services commissioned for unpopular groups,
particularly in rural areas where a hostel for, say, ex-offenders,
would be more visible. Her organisation provides services to some
of the most challenging groups needing long-term support to sustain
their tenancies. While these services are expensive, she explains,
they can be effective in addressing prison overcrowding by helping
to prevent reoffending. Now that efficiencies are being sought,
these valuable though high-cost services are vulnerable.

Supporting People is also an important funding source for services
offered by St Mungo’s, which helps homeless people in London.
However, the charity is disappointed that definitions of how the
fund can help people live independently are drawn in such a way
that not all projects that enable successful tenancies benefit. A
literacy and numeracy project recently established by St Mungo’s to
address the basic skills gap identified by workers as they tried to
help residents with budgeting, finances and rent payments is not
eligible for Supporting People money.

Mike McCall, director of operations at St Mungo’s, says: “The
literacy and numeracy team offer a visiting service to the hostel,
and also go into our high support project. They’ll work in quiet
areas set aside for one-to-one attention, which means people who
are sensitive about not being able to read can learn and gain
confidence. For others who are more comfortable, there is group
work where they do creative writing and a book club. Then over
time, as they develop their skills, we encourage them to take up
community-based courses.”

In the light of the cuts to Supporting People, McCall expresses
concern that future money should follow identified need rather than
political expediency, explaining that offering people the chance to
live independently can mean that they require support that falls
outside the tighter definitions that may be drawn around what
Supporting People money can pay for.

At the Horton Housing project, which supports young expectant
mothers in Bradford, scheme manager Joanne Bew is clear why her
team offers outreach services for more girls than they can provide
housing for. “If there’s a girl of 14, pregnant, living in
overcrowded conditions, or on a friend’s floor, with no secure
base, there’s a real need,” she says.

“I see a big difference between the girls living in council housing
who we go out to see on outreach, and the three girls who live in
our flats with 24-hour wardens and us around to help and answer
questions and offer ongoing support to build their confidence. It’s
often a sink or swim situation, but with support it can be a
turning point.”

– For further information, visit the National Housing
Federation’s website at, which will
be publishing research into possible futures for supported housing
this month; in Business for Neighbourhoods at;  and for Potteries
Housing Association go to

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