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
    there.”

    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
    care.”

    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
    neighbourhoods.

    “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
    support?”

    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
    worried.

    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 www.housing.org.uk, which will
    be publishing research into possible futures for supported housing
    this month; in Business for Neighbourhoods at www.inbiz.org;  and for Potteries
    Housing Association go to www.potteries-housing.org.

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