The Guardian recently highlighted a new report (Tackling homelessness and exclusion: Understanding complex lives) by the Joseph Rowntree Trust into services for the homeless which says that many housing support staff were effectively filling a gap left by qualified social workers.
It called for more “appropriate training, which better fits the reality of the housing support workers’ current role” and called for a more fundamental debate to consider the need for increased professionalisation for workers.
In my experience the role of the housing support worker is often misunderstood and undervalued. It is often characterised as a less experienced, less well-trained, (lower paid) “imitation” of a social worker, a CPN or a (proper) housing Professional. Housing support workers are often characterised in terms of what they are not – for not being experts in mental health; for not being experts in drug and alcohol recovery; for not being experts in child protection case-law or the intricacies of every type of welfare benefit.
I think it is time we started to celebrate housing support workers for what they are – experts in their own specialism – the provision of housing related support. They are experts at listening to and engaging with customers; experts at helping others articulate their dreams and taking the first crucial steps towards realising them; experts at working collaboratively with a range of professionals; experts at having a thick skin and focussing on the customer (when they encounter professional snobbery, jargon and bureaucracy). They don’t just sign post to other agencies, they help their clients understand, access and get the most from other services that can often seem unapproachable or unintelligible.
Does the system need rethinking? Well there is a lot of ignorance about housing in general and supported housing in particular. But organisations can work together; focus on the needs of their mutual clients; take informed risks and problem solve if things don’t work. Bromford Support has examples of this partnership working in services across Central England and I’ve worked with other organisations like Brighter Futures in Stoke and Rethink in Staffordshire where there is no “backing off” from statutory agencies once someone is housed. Rather there is an understanding that each agency plays its part in helping someone rebuild their life and get on the road to recovery. The housing support worker may well be the “glue” that holds the partnership together but there is strong mutual respect and willingness for each party to step up its involvement when needed.
Are housing support workers sometimes overburdened? For sure. But the solution is not to take them away from working directly with service users to spend more time in a class room or an office. Our experience at Bromford Support is that people get into support work because their existing work is unsatisfying and doesn’t seem to make a difference. We recruit for attitude not technical knowledge or qualifications. Wherever our news starters have come from – a bank, IT, customer service – they’ll join a team where they’ll get great peer support, practical “how to” training and ongoing coaching from an experienced team leader.
Sure many housing support workers move on to become qualified social workers, police officers, nurses. But while they are with us they bring an energy, passion and commitment to helping others change their lives.
The real threat to housing support and the services that provide it comes from a lack of understanding of the vital role it plays – from those now making the decisions about how reduced budgets should be spent. Housing support is both a preventative and an enabling activity – helping people avoid or move on from prison, hospital or care and starting to believe in a future, with possibilities. It doesn’t need the dead hand of professionalization to help it thrive – it needs the confidence and a new generation of advocates to champion its achievements to commentators, politicians and decision makers.