Two years ago, Sovereign Housing Association made its first commitment to Housing First. Although the idea – which sees people experiencing long-term, chaotic homelessness given a home and wraparound support – has gained traction in recent months, at that time it was not common on a large scale in the south of England.
Sovereign pledged in its corporate plan to roll out 50 Housing First households in its geographic area, reaching from Surrey across to Bristol, encompassing more than 70 local authority areas. The housing association owns or manages 60,000 homes in market towns, villages and other rural locations, and a smattering of cities including Bristol, Plymouth and Salisbury.
As such, its approach to establishing 26 Housing First households in the last two years has taken work. In each new partnership formed between a local authority funder, charity support provider and the housing association, the priority is that the right house must be found for the right person.
Steph Wood, the organisation’s head of supported housing, says: “When people are from a small town and they’re long-term homeless, it’s quite likely that lots of people will know them. This, of course, has pros and cons – positives for example being that they might have folk regularly bringing food, stopping to chat, or know where to find them on a rainy night.
“On the other hand, it can be difficult for those who are trying to change their path, where they want to move on but don’t know how to get out of the local area. It can also be tricky when you look at access to transport, or needing to be able to get to places like chemists, doctors or other support services.
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“We take all of this into account when we allocate a Housing First property,” Steph continues. “We don’t just shoehorn people into available places, we find out what is right for them, what they’re looking for. We need to know whether they want to stay close to family networks for example, or get a bit of space from former friends or associates.”
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I’m already thinking about how I could support other people coming up behind meConnor, 22
<span class="s1">Connor, 22</span>
Dan, 35, has his own place in Dorset. After struggling with ADHD as a child, Dan ended up living alone in a tent for several years. “All my life I’ve had the feeling of not fitting in,” he says. “Hostels and places like that can be very overwhelming. I’m used to my own company, and I wanted a small place, which would feel safe. Sovereign worked with me to find somewhere that was near my family, but where I could start looking after myself.”
He moved into his one-bed home in April last year and now the walls are decorated with maps and the windowsills lined with plants. Dan seems content.
Alongside its Housing First target, Sovereign also focused on improving its temporary accommodation offer for single people and families experiencing homelessness, pledging to open five such places by 2024. The organisation has opened three, which are unique in that close partnership working with local authorities and charity providers results in a far higher element of customer-led, trauma-informed support than usual.
For example, in North Hampshire, Sovereign is working with Outcome Home, a charity that supports formerly homeless people to become peer mentors.
Charlie, 58, came through the more traditional ‘homelessness pathway’ with Sovereign and the local council, stayed in hostels then a temporary Sovereign home, before gaining his own property in an over-55s supported block.
He is the housing association’s first mentor. He’d been working with the local authority before being approached by Sovereign and Outcome Home to take on the role of mentor to people moving into a newly refurbished shared house.
Charlie gets in touch before new residents move in, establishing a relationship ahead of the start of the tenancy, to answer any questions about things like room allocations and shared spaces, helping the newcomers to set their own house rules together. For many accustomed to sofa surfing or living in a hostel, the idea of independent living can be extremely daunting.
Connor, 22, agrees: “You get kind of institutionalised after a while. I know there were people who got offered the Sovereign flat and they couldn’t cope with the thought. Me, though? I was ready. I admire what Charlie’s doing so much, talking to him has really helped. It’s good. I know I’m not being judged, because I know he’s been there too. I’m already thinking about how I could support other people coming up behind me.”
This is Sovereign’s plan. With the support of Outcome Home, they want new residents to one day be ex-residents who see the next generation through. Support is provided by a team of psychologists from Southampton University, who regularly debrief and de-stress mentors, and hold psychological support sessions with mentors and residents.
Although funded as a temporary home, Steph stresses that new residents shouldn’t worry about the prospect of a time limit on their stay.
She explains: “We have a housing coordinator attached to the temporary accommodation. They have an office at the house and they’ll check in for four hours per resident per week, making themselves available to support new residents.
“We ensure that everyone who moves in goes through an accredited tenancy training course, learning how to budget, how to pay bills, the steps they will have to take to either privately rent or apply for a home via the local council.
“They also get support with things like signing up to the Home Hunt register, setting up a phone, starting job hunting, or finding a course that they want to do. Our Housing First and temporary accommodation customers can access the exact same services as any of Sovereign’s other tenants.”
We helped people who were having to choose between heat and eat. But on top of that we offered hopeErica Watts, Sovereign
<span class="s1">Erica Watts, Sovereign</span>
This is where Erica Watts and Laurinda Hornblow come in. Respectively, they head up Sovereign’s employment and training team, and the tenancy support and income generation team. Traditionally employment support at many housing associations, including Sovereign, focused on people considered most vulnerable. But the pandemic brought seismic change, with accessibility to the service open across the board to those renting and in shared ownership properties.
This commitment has been recognised by the National Housing Federation. In a statement in May, as the moratorium on evictions was lifted, Sovereign joined hundreds of other associations in pledging to keep people safe at home; to help people get the support they need; and to act compassionately and quickly where people are struggling.
In 2020-21, Laurinda’s team worked to offer tenancy advice to more than 2,100 customers, many of whom had never claimed benefits before. With great expertise in supporting those on Universal Credit, the entire team turned to helping people to navigate the complicated online systems and application processes, as well as referring them across to Erica’s team for support with training, employment, digital provision, start-up grants and more.
Erica recalls: “People were barely surviving. We gave out £50,000 in support vouchers. We helped people who were having to choose between ‘heat and eat’, providing £30,000 to tackle fuel poverty. But on top of that we offered hope.
“Although it was a devastating time, we helped families who had no tech for home-schooling by providing laptops, we funded 100 people to develop their small businesses and we supported nearly 2,000 residents with employment or training advice.
“As we go forward, we want to continue to make a difference: we’ve got a £100,000 project running on the Isle of Wight, so hard-hit in the pandemic due to its economy’s focus on hospitality. We’ve got new grants that offer help with the practical elements of job hunting that might previously have been ignored. How do you go to an interview or training if you can’t afford the childcare? What if you don’t feel your clothes are smart enough, or you haven’t got money for the petrol? Our grants cover all of these circumstances. We’ve also got 40 Kickstarters joining our organisation over the next three months.”
It’s apparent that Sovereign is stepping up. Building homes – 1,099 new properties last year despite the global downturn – but also building lives, building prospects and building people’s confidence for the future.
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