Needs-led, wraparound services are vital to tackling homelessness, says Vanessa Johnson.
Homelessness is a growing scourge in British society, which the government seems unable – or unwilling – to tackle. People find themselves homeless for a variety of reasons, including mental health challenges, loss of income, and/or substance use.
While many people’s ideas of homelessness are based on street homelessness, this is just the tip of the iceberg. According to Shelter, homelessness applies to anyone without a permanent home – the ‘hidden homeless’ includes those living in unsuitable or temporary accommodation, in hostels or bed and breakfasts, those temporarily staying with others, or those who are sofa-surfing.
Social Interest Group (SIG), as a group of charities, offers a range of integrated support services with an emphasis on prevention, early intervention, integration, and recovery for people at risk of losing – or who have lost – their independence.
We offer support services, interventions, and opportunities through:
- Supported accommodation – either temporary or longer-stay projects for up to two years, with onsite staff support to recover from a period of instability, to prepare for independent living, and to offer a safe and secure home to those who need additional support while focusing on resident asset building and becoming active citizens.
- Housing-related floating support – a peripatetic service offering needs-based individualised support to enable residents to live independently and successfully in their own communities.
- Community-based recovery services – creating community-based opportunities for residents, members, and volunteers to engage in social, learning and therapeutic activities and groups to develop skills and reintegrate into their communities.
I spoke with Emmeline Irvine, our head of services and specialist lead for homelessness and complex needs. She explained how homelessness is tackled across Luton, where she’s based. ‘Like many of us working across SIG, homelessness is an issue and challenge that is never far from our thoughts at every level – from frontline work to partnership working and our trauma-informed approach to policy and best practice development,’ she says.
‘One of my primary locations of concern is Luton, where many of our services are located. More than 3,450 people are homeless in Luton – one in 66 people. Luton has seen a slight decrease in the number of rough sleepers, but our experience suggests that homelessness is becoming more hidden. The cost-of-living crisis and the lack of affordable housing is only going to further impact the number of people needing support to be accommodated safely in appropriate housing with the right support.’
It is vital to offer needs-led, wraparound support to meet the needs of those experiencing homelessness, she stresses, and Housing First is a familiar model to most – ‘whereby safe and secure accommodation is provided, with no conditions of tenancy, offering people who have experienced homelessness and chronic health issues and have social care needs a stable home from which to rebuild their lives.’
Locally, SIG Penrose is part of the Bedford Homeless Partnership and the Luton Homeless Partnership, and the value of these partnerships is vast, she says. ‘They can help to challenge myths and stigma around homelessness and provide opportunities for like-minded organisations to work together, along with local authorities, to gather data and insight and find solutions.’
Understanding trauma is also key. ‘Having a trauma-informed approach is essential, as positive change for people who have experienced homelessness can be a long journey. The links between homelessness and isolation, unemployment, poverty, and mental ill health are well documented and require a truly holistic approach.
‘In Luton, we’ve been looking at the challenge of people not accepting accommodation where offered – we need to work as a partnership to understand the various reasons why the offer of somewhere to live may not be enough to break the cycle of homelessness for some. In December 2022, the Luton rough sleeping teams were aware of 25 people who were rough sleeping, but five of those did have accommodation available to them. For those of us working in temporary accommodation and homelessness provisions, we understand that building trust is key to positive engagement. So we work alongside our homelessness partners in Luton to offer an approach that covers housing, mental health support, substance and alcohol support, and primary care needs, and we take the offer to the street homeless population to make those initial links.’
SIG will continue to play its part in supporting people experiencing homelessness. Our services and geographical locations work to deliver homelessness services, especially in Kent, through our Pathways to Independence services, and in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea through the SIG Penrose Complex Needs Hub. We have a wealth of knowledge and a broad range of services across the group, and we work together to shape best practice. But one thing is certain – homelessness should not become the norm for those who find themselves in difficulties.
Vanessa Johnson is communications manager at SIG.
From the street
As a charity, SIG sees the effects of homelessness firsthand and increasingly supports people experiencing homelessness in some of its services. Two residents share their experiences.
Soren did a variety of jobs in his 20s, usually losing them as a result of his drinking. At 27, his GP referred him to Ealing RISE and he went into detox. Offered a flat by the local council, he was abstinent for around nine months before again losing his job. After a two-week spell in prison he ‘spiralled out of control’, eventually losing his flat. He was offered another detox place but couldn’t accept it as he was homeless. He was then accepted at a ‘wet house’, where he relapsed again.
He was now street homeless, but after attending a series of 12-step programmes he entered Cherington House in Ealing. He’s been there for 18 months and has been sober for around two years. He still attends RISE and goes to AA meetings but believes there’s a lack of understanding around the links between homelessness and factors like substance misuse.
‘For the majority, there’s not enough help,’ he says. ‘People must want to change and need gentle support, not preaching and ultimatums. People that look down on the homeless don’t realise they can only be one or two pay cheques away from being there too.’ He hopes to move on to independent living, but only when the time is right. ‘I will need extra support, though. I know what it takes to stay sober, but I’m learning what it takes to live sober. Because staying sober and living sober is different. That’s where the hard work and aftercare come in.’
Wesley* first became homeless early in 2022, but was not street homeless for very long. He’d been arrested the previous year and charged with bodily harm and criminal damage (to his own property). Although the assault charges were dropped, he went from living with his partner and children to moving back in with his parents. He’d been drinking heavily since 2017, eventually losing his job. ‘Alcohol’s sole intention is to isolate you from everyone so it can control you,’ he says.
After falling out with his parents he went to the Medway Council’s offices and told them that he needed help, and was eventually referred to SIG Pathways to Independence. He now lives in a shared house, and is hoping to be permanently housed. He volunteers, and is in touch with Turning Point and Open Road. He’s also started adult education classes, and has contact with his children and extended family.
‘When you find yourself alone even though there are others around you, with nowhere to go, that’s what rock bottom means to me,’ he says. ‘I’m grateful that I’m in contact with my family again. It took a lot of hard work to build trust again but it’s the fear factor of knowing that I have a lot to lose that keeps me going. I’m tremendously grateful to Pathways. I’m living just for today. I have to make the right choice. My message to anyone who finds themselves in similar circumstances is to ask for help.’
*Not his real name