I first started working in supported housing 30 years ago.
My first job was in a night shelter in Stoke. It was on its knees; we had to borrow money from the bank each month just to pay the staff wages. It was in 1988 I think, that I was in the kitchen after a night shift, when our Finance Manager came rushing in having just opened the mail, “We got it, we got it!” he cried. He was talking about the first payment of Hostel Deficit Grant – new funding that meant the scheme would stay open and be put on a firm financial footing for the first time.
This was the start of what now looks like a golden age for supported housing.
In the 1970s and 80s supported housing was often located in the grottiest parts of town and was often little more than a hard to let house, that had been given a lick of paint and some cheap carpet. But in the 90s there was proper capital funding and many great new homes were built – where individuals had their own front door, their own kitchen and bathroom and maybe a shared lounge where they could socialise and get peer support when they needed it.
I spent the 90s with Rethink Mental Illness developing new supported housing across Staffordshire with a number of different housing associations. Similar developments were being built across the country for a wide range of client groups.
There was Housing Corporation grant to build the schemes then SHMG and HB to pay for the intensive housing management.
Tenants and services flourished.
The introduction of THB in the lead up to Supporting People saw a big increase in floating support to those struggling in general needs housing; and the introduction of Supporting People itself saw standards rise and a greater emphasis on outcomes and user involvement.
In a period of growth and optimism there is no doubt that supported housing helped many people change their lives for the better after periods in institutions or struggling on their own.
Supported housing has always had its fair share of change to cope with – not least in the way it is funded. But the introduction of the LHA cap could threaten much of the specialist provision that has been built up over the last 30 years.
We know the Government has been wanting to change the way supported housing is funded for a while. 12 months ago, the NHF put together a task and finish group to help think through our position. Meetings with ministers and civil servants identified eight tough questions for the sector. These formed the basis for our work.
A year on and it feels like the Govt really only has one question it is trying to answer:
If the Govt proceeds with its plans then many living in supported housing will have their benefit capped.
Yes there will be a top-up fund.
Yes it will have a ring fence.
But with a focus on controlling costs against a back drop of rising need something has to give. If top-up funding is to be held by upper tier LAs then it seems highly likely that resources will move away from those with lower needs to services that help address LA statutory priorities.
We’ve heard lots of warm words about how much Government values supported housing but we have seen how easily a ring-fence can be removed and what happens when it is.
This is our Staffordshire floating support team in their Christmas jumpers in 2014. At our peak, we were providing housing related support to over 1,000 people at any one time in Staffordshire and employed over 80 colleagues.
But it didn’t last.
By April 2016 Staffs County Council had decommissioned every single SP service.
We were still mobilising our new service when Staffs issued us with our notice. One minute we were welcoming new colleagues to their induction; the next we were meeting with those same colleagues to tell them that their jobs were at risk.
Ring fences don’t last for ever.
When local authorities are strapped for cash they take tough decisions. They have to.
After years of growth; new developments; new services being launched we saw buildings closed and schemes moth-balled. A few have limped on by increasing their charges and cutting back the service to the bone but a line has been crossed.
This wasn’t efficiency savings or re-modelling or any one of the other euphemisms for cuts. This was something new.
We should be under no illusions. The Government’s proposals will see individuals unable to pay their rent and their tenancies put at risk. And it will see providers left with little choice but to close schemes or convert them into general needs housing.
Of course we have to do everything we can to fight the introduction of the LHA cap. We’ve contributed to the PlaceShapers response to the consultation and we’ve run our own media campaigns, lobbied MPs and the rest.
But experiencing what happened in Staffordshire (and other places too) has forced us to confront a whole new landscape and to take some difficult decisions of our own.
We’ve dared to challenge ourselves to try and see the next few years as a period of opportunity and maybe even positive change.
Even with cuts to SP and a cap on spending on supported housing we still have a level of provision now that we could only have dreamt about 20 years ago.
Almost every day we hear stories in the news about the pressure on the NHS and social care; a population that’s living longer and living longer with a range of health conditions.
The NHS and local authority budgets are under real strain and perhaps it’s right that we should think again about the role supported housing can play in helping take some of this strain.
Perhaps the scarce resources available should be targeted at supported housing for those with the most profound needs who simply can’t live in ordinary housing and who need high levels of care and support; extra care housing, supported living for those with significant learning or physical disabilities; schemes that help people move out of hospital more quickly.
When we lost our SP funding in Staffs we had to decide what to do. We had 3 young families’ schemes in the County. Should we use Bromford’s money to keep them going as they were? Should we massively increase the service charges to cover the lost SP income and hope that HB would pay?
We looked at who was living in our schemes and the young families we were housing in general needs. The closer we looked the more alike the two groups seemed. We also realised how inward looking our schemes had become. We provided all sorts of services to the 9 families living in each scheme and they had great communal facilities. But they never really got to know their community. And when we judged that a customer had done well and was ready to move on we made them leave and in many cases, be rehoused miles away…miles away from the place they called home or the support network they had built up.
It’s been an incredibly tough decision to make but we’ve decided to turn the schemes into general needs housing. We are letting what was the communal flat and we have told all the current tenants they will not have to move on.
Our focus now is on how to celebrate strengths and build connections within a place rather than moving people through a service model.
We’ve been talking to others who are on a similar journey like Wigan Council, the Barnwood Trust, Nurture Development, Notting Hill Housing Trust and many others.
In our sheltered housing it is years since we had resident wardens. Now all the support workers have gone too. The service is much more about celebrating the gifts and passions of our customers and encouraging them to run their own art clubs, keep fit groups or men’s sheds. We’ve started to open facilities up to the 86% of our older customers who don’t live in sheltered housing. And we’ve started to build much stronger links with local businesses, clubs and associations.
It’s true that many local authority services have been reduced in recent years but once you start looking and asking people about what works well rather than about what’s broken you find an abundance of community assets and individual talents. Some are already connected but many have the potential to be even stronger and to do even more.
We have been trialing a new way of working with people who might previously have been channeled through very different general needs or supported housing service offers. The focus has been on getting to know all our customers much better. Learning about their strengths and talents as much as about their needs or challenges. And increasingly seeing our role as that of connector and coach. Helping people to remove barriers and make connections.
We’re investing £3m of our own resources to create 150 neighbourhood coaches. Each coach has a small patch and a goal to build a relationship with their customers and community. It’s not a supported housing service and it’s not a reactive general needs housing offer either. We want to give customers and communities the chance to grow and support each other by making the most of the passions and ideas that are there and building on what’s strong.