Housing association chief executive Ron Dougan tells DDN’s David Gilliver about the close links his organisation has established with the treatment sector, and how he’s been persuading other housing providers to do the same
‘I think it’s starting to change,’ says Trent and Dove Housing chief executive Ron Dougan on the reluctance of some social housing providers to take on tenants with addiction issues. ‘There are really good housing associations who invest – both in terms of time and staffing resource – to help people who’ve gone through the recovery process.’
He’s been head of the Burton-upon-Trent-based organisation since it was established in 2001 to take on the transfer of more than 5,500 properties from East Staffordshire Borough Council, where he served as director of housing.
A 30-year veteran of the sector – he helped set up a residents’ association while a council tenant in Liverpool, and worked his way up from there – he’s the first to admit that he had doubts about the client group.
‘I was quite reluctant, to be honest,’ he says. ‘As chief exec of a housing association you want to make sure that tenants are going to fit into the community and not cause problems, so I took some convincing. But my own staff were very keen to convince me.’
The clincher, however, was visiting the nearby BAC O’Connor centre to see for himself. ‘I spent some time there, and what I saw and heard convinced me absolutely to work with BAC. It was the right thing to do, and more than ten years later I’m more convinced than ever.’
While access to decent housing is one of the vital elements of getting people back on their feet, it’s also something that can be overlooked or under-prioritised. ‘It’s absolutely vital if the great work on recovery is going to be continued,’ he says. ‘If people don’t have decent housing at the end of it then the danger is that they fall back into the old ways, and you can understand that.’
Giving people a new place to live can also mean they can avoid going back to old neighbourhoods with their potential problems, pressures and temptations. ‘We’ve got a small independent living team, and when someone goes into BAC that’s when the relationship starts,’ he says. ‘We work with them right up until the time they’re ready to move out and during that period we build up a relationship and discuss all of those sort of issues – where is it best for them not to be, so they don’t go back into situations that aren’t going to help them. When they come out, BAC continue to give them support until they no longer need it.’
The partnership with BAC began more than 10 years ago when Trent and Dove’s independent living team were given the brief to work with ‘any agency that helped to support tenants or local people with any needs above the norm’. People with addiction problems were ‘one particular client group that we knew needed extra support’, he says. ‘They were going into our properties anyway, and some who hadn’t been through BAC were causing problems on the estates, which isn’t good for anyone. That’s how it all started.’
The outcomes however, have surprised the organisation. ‘While you might expect that the tenancies of people coming through with problems – or former problems – potentially wouldn’t be as successful as those coming through the door without those problems, that’s not the case,’ he stresses.
The organisation keeps statistics on successful tenancies – meaning the tenant wasn’t evicted for rent arrears or anti-social behaviour – and there’s a higher rate of successful tenancies for ex-BAC clients than people coming through ordinary routes, ‘a really important message,’ he says. ‘These aren’t people who are going to come into your area and start causing problems – they’re people who have had problems in the past and come out the other end and can be a real asset to the community. That’s what I try to get across to other housing associations.’
He’s helped in that by former clients and members of service user group RIOT (Recovery Is Out There), who accompany him on presentations, while Trent and Dove also actively supports RIOT’s radio station. ‘A lot of the clients are just absolutely inspirational,’ he says. ‘They’ll go out to local schools and talk about the dangers of addiction and go into prisons to tell people there’s a way to get off drugs and stay off, and they can say that in a way that I never could. They’ve been through it so they’re living proof.’
Were there any initial concerns from other Trent and Dove tenants, though? ‘I think in the very beginning there were, and it’s understandable,’ he says. ‘People hear stories about crime and anti-social behaviour and that sort of thing, and initially they don’t know the people coming in so it’s understandable if they’re a bit apprehensive. But once they saw the people and got to know them, it really turned around. The community here is very supportive of both the work BAC does and the people who come out of BAC. Part of that I think is Noreen [Oliver, BAC chief executive] being so well-known and high profile, and she doesn’t make any secret of the fact that the reason she’s doing the job is because she was in that position herself at one time.’
A key element of success is to house people as quickly as possible once they leave BAC, he stresses, while BAC also has its own small unit for semi-independent living. ‘It’s a sort of halfway house. While clients are in there they get in-depth guidance on budgeting and all the things you need to do to have a successful tenancy’, and there’s ongoing support for clients who have moved into Trent and Dove properties.
Trent and Dove has now housed well over 100 ex-BAC clients, with all but around 2-3 per cent having successful tenancies. ‘Those I speak to are really proud to be Trent and Dove tenants, but obviously I don’t get to meet them all,’ he says. ‘The important thing is that they’re independent and stand on their own two feet, so the successes we don’t really get to hear about. Quite a few have moved on to other tenancies, some outside the area, and some have gone on to buy their own properties, which we see as a fantastic success. We don’t necessarily want people to stay in our tenancies for ever.’
Trent and Dove also works with other treatment agencies, although the ‘main one by far is BAC’, he says. The organisation is also closely involved in work with Langan’s café – even sharing a chairman – a local social enterprise set up by BAC. ‘The recovery process is fantastic but if you don’t have housing and employment at the end of it it’s not going to help the continuation of that recovery. It’s a beautiful building, they serve fantastic food and there’s a real buzz in there – it’s really popular with the local community. The chef, the kitchen staff and all the waiters are people who’ve gone through BAC and the idea is that they get the experience to put on their CV to get a permanent job – it’s a springboard.’
Some ex-BAC clients have even gone on to serve on Trent and Dove’s board, he points out. ‘We have a board of 12 – six independent professionals and six of our tenants, and we have a governance training qualification with Derby University that any tenant who wants to stand for a board position has to go through. We’ve had a number of people through BAC who’ve graduated on the governance training and have gone on to serve on the board, which I think is probably unknown. That’s really good. It’s more than just about housing, it’s about taking a valuable and important role and stake in the organisation.’
Trent and Dove works closely with the local authority as well as more than 100 other statutory and voluntary agencies that provide support for ‘a myriad of different services and needs, from mental health to mobility to alcohol, the whole gamut’ he says. ‘The independent living team are central – it’s not just a job to them, they’re really passionate about what they do and I think that passion is recognised by the other agencies. It’s a fantastic thing for the local community.’
How much of an impact have the funding cuts and welfare reform of the last few years had, however? ‘It is a challenge, but what we try to do is think of new ways of working so we can continue to provide the vital services to those who need them,’ he says. ‘It’s not easy but you just have to find new ways to do it.’
Ten years on, other local housing associations are now ‘more than happy’ to take on people with substance issues, he points out. ‘We were the first. By showing it was a success, the others are happy to take on people who’ve been through that route.’
So what would he say to any housing providers that were still reluctant? ‘The first thing I’d say is go and speak to housing associations who have taken this approach. If any housing association wanted to come and see the work on the ground we’d be pleased for them to do it – one of the things we’ve been doing with BAC is helping them persuade other councils outside of East Staffordshire to take this approach.
‘Come and see the work that goes on, and the inspirational impact that organisations like BAC can have. That’s what convinced me, and I’m sure it would convince others.’
Ron Dougan will be speaking about the vital role of housing in recovery at the Recovery Festival, which takes place in London on 1-2 July. Details at www.recoveryfestival.org.uk