Door’s always open

Kathy Jones tells Graham Hopkins how the homelessness service in Telford and Wrekin had to change its emphasis soon after she joined as manager to embrace the prevention agenda

Kathy Jones CV

With homelessness increasing nationally in recent years local authorities have been looking for temporary accommodation, including bed and breakfasts, to plug the gap. However, two years ago the government signalled a change of emphasis: it wanted to eliminate B&B use for families except in emergencies, and even then it should be for no more than six weeks.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister also announced that by 2010 a “choice-based lettings scheme” should replace the traditional housing register and the use of temporary accommodation should be halved. All of which required a policy and practice shift towards preventing homelessness in the first place.

Around this time, in September 2004, Kathy Jones took up her post as manager of the 36-strong housing needs business unit for Telford and Wrekin Council. “I followed in the footsteps of someone who had been here for many years in this role,” she says. “She was a strong character with a get-up-and-go personality, popular with the team, many of whom had been here for 10-15 years. The staff were all comfortable with each other. So, I think all of that was a challenge in itself.”

Jones needed to work on changing attitudes and culture. “This was partly about the move to prevention but it was also about helping staff move on from just focusing on the operational day-to-day job and bringing in the wider strategic picture,” she says. “This created tension because this different type of work brought in more enquiries and complaints from people who were saying ‘you’re not helping me, you’re making me stay here’.”

One method was to promote the benefits of the new approach to staff. Jones says: “In our team brief every Thursday morning we look to report something positive that has come out of our prevention work and share a success. We also look at what we can learn from other authorities.”

Through this Jones hoped to instil in the team belief, trust and confidence. “Nearly a year ago we set up a prevention fund,” she says. “We told our officers you have total discretion to spend this money on what you think will prevent a person becoming homeless. But only now are they thinking ‘yes, I could use that’. We want to encourage these good, experienced officers to take the initiative. And they can now also see the positive impact they are having on people’s lives.”

Inevitably a degree of restructuring was necessary. Two teams – homelessness (with four staff), whose responsibility it was to process and investigate homelessness applications, and housing advice (five staff) – were merged.

“We now have only two homelessness officers,” says Jones. “This caused a great deal of apprehension because they feared their workload would double. “I explained that it wouldn’t because we were putting all this effort and resource into prevention. They have their other seven colleagues around them who will be doing all they can to prevent a person becoming homeless.”

Promoting the service and the importance of homelessness on the wider social inclusion agenda has helped raise the team’s profile and boosted morale.

“People tend to think in terms of education, health, child protection, domestic violence, substance misuse or employment, but housing has an impact on all of that,” Jones says. “It’s difficult to get a job or register for health services without an address. It’s about making the team feel they are playing a key part in somebody’s overall social inclusion.”

From bit player to centre stage is no mean feat in 18 months. And, by continuing to deliver home truths, Jones and her unit have successfully opened the door on a world of possibilities.

Always consult the whole team before making decisions which you expect them to implement.
Lead by example.
Don’t be afraid to try something different.

Tell your team what to do – it shows leadership.
When you delegate work let staff get on with it. Supporting them means you don’t trust them.
Share information by e-mail alone – it’s more efficient.

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