A personal perspective

There is nothing like personal experience to inform your thinking, especially about the issues facing single people in housing need. I have worked in the housing field since 1989, predominately in the supported housing sector, and felt I had a good grasp of the issues facing the people we accommodated.

In 2015, I was faced with the reality of being a ‘person in housing need’ – trying to secure my own accommodation, that I could move into immediately and at a rent I could afford. I was fortunate enough to find places for the first few nights (at a friend’s, the office floor, a night in a Travel Lodge), which gave me more time to find a room in a shared house. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was how challenging this would be.

To start off with, the costs of renting a room these days have gone through the roof (typical shared room rents are now approaching £650 pm in London), then you have to add in the website fees to even have a hope at seeing a vacancy before it gets snapped up. On the odd occasion I spotted a room that I could actually afford, I had to see it that very day, with others being shown around at the same time, to get a chance of showing an interest. Add in to that the concerns of landlords and other sharers about whether or not they want to live with a 40 something and having to find a weighty deposit as well as rent in advance, I really had my work cut out – a room in a shared house or flat really isn’t accessible or affordable at all.

What I found really surprising, though, was the sense of worthlessness/hopelessness this process instilled in me. There I was, a ‘housing professional’, with all my so-called knowledge and insight of these issues, now facing the very challenges thousands of people in housing need experience very day. My thoughts quickly became irrational; I was becoming emotionally unstable and finding it almost impossible to focus at work.

In the end, I was fortunately offered a temporary room in a colleague’s house and another one linked me up with a local family who took me in and gave me the space I needed to make longer-term plans.

What did I learn? Well, the shared housing market can be ruthless and very expensive, especially if you have no access to savings; it is particularly geared to young professionals. Local authorities and the housing sector cater poorly for people who need immediate, and affordable, accommodation.  And the uncertainties that being in this position can bring can quickly lead to a downward spiral of emotional instability and a sense of vulnerability.

This experience has also motivated me to look again at how the housing sector can better respond to people in need of accommodation, quickly and affordably. I’ll be sharing some more thoughts, and perhaps an idea or two, in future posts –  please keep reading.

Don’t put new wine into old wineskins

Changing times, such as these, often require new words, definitions or narrative. For many the term supported housing has almost become toxic -perceived as either a welfare benefit hungry machine, which has single handed driven the nations deficit, or an unviable drain upon an organisation’s resources. Over the last few years, intensive housing management has become the buzz phrase, but we have now seen this become associated with high rent regimes; it’s not particularly liked by local authorities and can be seen as a way around cuts in grant funding -some truth there.

All too often when we read, or speak, about supported housing; it conjures up thoughts of high rents, reliance on grants, resource-hungry models. The danger is we’ve made too closer association between the term supported housing and the financial models that support it.  This is evidenced by the withdrawal of many providers from the sector following cuts in supporting people funding and providers no longer planning new services as they await the government review of funding for the supported housing sector. As an alternative, providers have turned to intensive housing management rent increases, but this can fundamentally undermine the sector’s core purposes of helping people prepare for independent living.

Last year, when I was assisting in negotiations between a provider and a local authority to take on some empty care homes for young people’s accommodation, I was trying to convey to both parties that the new use (single person accommodation for people moving on from supported housing) was neither general needs nor supported housing. Traditional definitions couldn’t adequately convey the intended role of the scheme. I ended up using the term ‘transitional accommodation’ to convey the message that the project was to provide a ‘light-touch nurturing’ environment.

I believe transitional accommodation has the potential to invoke an image of a place where people are already on that journey to living independent and sustainable lives. Such projects don’t require lots of staffing, night cover, intensive housing management or one-to-one support but more flexible, person-centred interventions and use of peer support, group work and volunteers. Crucially, such models have much reduced running costs, so can then charge lower rents; with the higher levels of affordability aiding and encouraging the transition into paid employment. ‘Transitional accommodation’, ‘general needs plus or, ‘supported housing light – whatever it’s called -should not be dependent on high rents or Supporting People funding. Yes, there will likely always be a place for traditional supported housing, accommodation for the most vulnerable in our society, but I think the majority of current supported housing clients maybe better served by transitional accommodation schemes that can act as good stepping stones to fulfilling, independent, sustainable lives.

Let’s start using a new narrative, attitude and approach in our sector, and make a positive response to the challenges our sector, clients and government face.


re:visioning supported housing

There is an ancient saying:

‘mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers; mountains are once again mountains and rivers again rivers.’

I can see the truth in this for the supported housing sector; as we see a seismic shift in welfare and supported housing policy, we struggle to see a future for supported housing. The old ways no longer fit. To be honest, many in the sector have been grappling with the reality of bloated costs and ‘sophisticated support systems’ leading to unsustainable rents and questionable outcomes. For many providers, they have exited the sector completely and I can see this tide continuing. However, for others, they are seeking to redefine supported housing in a way that hopes to avoid it being a monster that requires feeding, but allows for innovation, risk, creativity, and voluntary spirit.

We have an opportunity to redefine the sector, by embracing the reality, and return to values that we held as true in the past – freeing ourselves to do what we do best. Perhaps this way we can look forward to a better tomorrow for both providers and the people we serve.