Homelessness: voluntary sector projects’ best practice

Graham Hopkins reports on examples of good practice in voluntary schemes working with homeless people

Even if you have a roof over your head you can still be homeless. You may not have any rights to stay where you live or your home might be unsuitable for you. Thanks to sustained and determined work from projects such as those described here,
homelessness in the UK is below 20,000 for the first time since the early 1980s.

Here we look at three good practice voluntary schemes working with the homeless.

No real names have been used in the case studies.

BASED: East London
WORK: Supporting women to leave street prostitution

Eighty-five per cent of street prostitutes are homeless or rough sleepers. They are the hidden homeless: those who do not sleep on the streets but on the floor of a friend’s place; or are trapped in an abusive relationship with their pimp or boyfriend; or stay in a squat or disused buildings.

Because of their lifestyle, they do not come into contact with many of the other homelessness charities. They are not visible
rough sleepers at night, and they are seldom out and about during the day.

U-Turn meets them on the streets when they work – three nights a week in the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham. The outreach provides basic practical needs, such as food, hot drinks, condoms, as well as advice and information on available services.

“The women are instinctively mistrustful,” says director Rio Vella. “Only by going out regularly and meeting the women on their territory on their terms have we been able to slowly build their trust. They find it difficult to cope with being sent from one agency to another, to get help with their health, their housing, their drug habit, and so on.”

U-Turn also runs a centre where women can freshen up. Vella says: “Being homeless, many don’t have access to washing facilities, and this adds to their low self-esteem, and reduces their willingness to engage with the very agencies that are trying to help them.

This is about treating the women with respect and dignity. No one has ever done that for them before. We aim to reinforce
their self-worth, rebuild their self-confidence and support them to make their own positive choices in life.”

Sarah, who was working hard to come off drugs, was in poor health and sleeping rough in a disused warehouse. The day
after meeting U-Turn through its nighttime outreach work she phoned, asking for help to find somewhere to stay.

Eventually, the keyworker found an emergency bed-space in a mixed hostel.

The next day, Sarah (who carried her possessions around with her in a bin bag) and her keyworker met a housing officer. But Sarah had no ID nor was she was registered with a GP, so had no medical records to verify her vulnerability on health grounds.

Although she had provided police evidence of being a victim of violent assaults, the confidentiality rules made it difficult to share the information between police and housing.

The keyworker began sorting out the ID and other required information.

Meanwhile, Sarah complained about being offered drugs and being sexually harassed and propositioned at the hostel. The workers were threatening to evict Sarah because she was “bringing more problems” to the hostel.

Several weeks on, Sarah now has a small flat. Her keyworker retains contact and continues to support her progress.

NAME OF PROJECT: Streetwise Opera
BASED: London but active nationally.
WORK: Increasing opportunities through music

“Our mission,” says chief executive of Streetwise Opera, Matt Peacock, “is to give homeless and ex-homeless people opportunities to further their personal development through participation in music making of the highest professional
quality and to promote more positive attitudes towards homeless people.”

This mission is made possible by running weekly music workshops at homeless centres, and organising a work placement scheme providing opportunities to work in arts organisations. The scheme has recently resulted in participants finding paid work
at the Royal Albert Hall.

Streetwise Opera, which works with about 400 homeless people each year (95 per cent of whom say their confidence and self-esteem increase), also stages a professional annual opera production. Last week it staged Whirlwind, a new opera by
Will Todd, at The Sage Gateshead, starring homeless and ex-homeless people from across the North East. One participant says:
“It’s hard for me to believe nine weeks ago I was sleeping rough in a cemetery, hopelessly addicted to drugs, a suicidal mess. Now I’m performing in front of 200 people. I actually got up there and did it.”

Eric, 64, has been a street drinker for years. He was often seen by the homeless agency staff as a problem because of his drinking and volatile nature. They are amazed that he not only engaged with Streetwise Opera’s sessions but continues to attend through bouts of rough sleeping and temporary housing.

Through the sessions it emerged that Eric was well-educated with a glittering sporting history as a young man – something
unknown to centre staff but which has now helped with his support.

Eric says that, to prepare himself for the Tuesday afternoon session, it is the one morning a week he doesn’t drink.

Says Peacock: “Given his age, Eric will never achieve a ‘normal’ life – but for two hours every week, he is listened to,
applauded and not judged. This has given him pleasure, pride and security.”

RUN BY: Shelter

BASED: Rotherham, Yorkshire
WORK: Homeless prevention with young people

Ricochet, a young people’s housing resource in Rotherham, was named by young people themselves, reflecting their feeling of being passed between agencies without resolving their problems.

The project was the outcome of a three year research project carried out by Shelter and other agencies in South Yorkshire during the late 1990s, looking at developing a scheme to co-ordinate services for young people in housing need in Rotherham.

Ricochet, which has worked with about1,250 young people, aims to prevent homelessness and improve housing support to young people through expert advice, information and advocacy. Importantly, it also takes the lead in developing plans to tackle
youth homelessness.

Naming the service was only the start of the involvement of local young people, who also take an active role in providing services, such as the peer education programme.

Peer educators take part in a 12-week training schedule and hold sessions in schools for year 10 and 11 pupils on challenging
stereotypes about homelessness, the advantages and disadvantages of leaving home and leaving home in a planned way.

A BTEC award in peer education, equal to two GCSEs, is available to peer educators who complete the programme.

Kira Todd, 22, left home at 16 because her family relationship broke down. She recalls: “I ended up sofa surfing with family and friends because I did not know that the council had a duty to house me. After a while I started feeling guilty because I am not the sort of person to put on people.”

In 2003 she moved into a council flat. “After two months I was threatened with eviction because I did not pay the bills and rent. I built up debts of more than £800. I always had so many people in my flat, who I later realised were not there to see me but were using me for my home and playing loud music. That got me an antisocial behaviour order.”

Shelter went to court on Kira’s behalf and managed to stop the eviction and pay off the debt in small monthly sums. Kira says: “I became involved with Shelter’s peer education programme two years ago and have now passed my BTEC qualification in
peer education.”

She is determined to have a career in youth work.

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This article appeared in the magazine on the 26th October, under the headline Voluntary Aid

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