Improving services for the homeless

Homeless7 June 2012

By Edwin Colyer

Many homeless people with complex needs do not receive the support they need from agencies, a recently completed research project suggests. The ESRC-funded HOME project assessed whether services are more geared to meeting the priorities of the agencies rather than those of homeless individuals.

Providing the best possible support for homeless people is very complicated, with many economic, social and personal issues that need to be addressed. The HOME project, led by researchers at the universities of Salford and Nottingham Trent, suggests 12 ways to improve support for the homeless population.

A team of researchers interviewed support providers and homeless people. They specifically focused on speaking to single homeless people with complex needs. "This particular group faces many challenges and is quite isolated in many ways," says Professor Peter Dwyer from the University of Salford, "and we wanted to see whether their needs were adequately met."

But trying to track down and engage with homeless people, especially those who suffer from social exclusion for several reasons (anything from drug addiction to mental ill health to a history of institutional care) is a tricky task, so the team recruited some formerly homeless volunteers to work as peer researchers alongside the academic team. They helped to develop research methods and provide advice on the most effective ways to make contact with homeless populations.

In the end 108 homeless people were interviewed. The results were compared with 44 interviews of support agency staff, from both the public and voluntary sectors.

These interviews revealed that some homeless people are not accessing the care they need - their personal priorities and aspirations were not in line with those of the agencies trying to help. "The priorities of different agencies are very important," explains Professor Dwyer. "Agencies might have bought into an ‘interventionist’ approach that reflects their particular remit, and their policy-driven priorities may focus their attention on certain situations or individuals, while other homeless people drop down the rankings for accessing help."

In certain situations homeless people perceived agencies as interfering in their lives, and making unrealistic demands upon them. The research found that organisations were often acting according to institutional agendas, which sometimes clashed with the needs and opinions of the individuals they were helping.

"They were always saying to me 'What jobs have you gone for'? I’m a heroin and crack addict. I’m not going to any jobs. 'Oh, we’ll sign you off then'. I'd have to b******t them into giving me my giro. I got sick of doing it. I tell you what - stick your giro. I’ll sell the Issue." (N14, Homeless male)

Professor Dwyer says the research also found agencies were often stymied when they encountered homeless migrants. "For example, failed asylum seekers and other migrants, whose rights to support are compromised because of their immigration status; they cannot routinely be helped by accommodation providers as they have no recourse to public funds."

Dr Graham Bowpitt, co-investigator from Nottingham Trent University, emphasises that the HOME project was not out to point the finger; it also explored solutions and discussed examples of good practice and alternative approaches to dealing with the homeless population: "What really made the biggest difference was when support workers went beyond their brief to provide personalised support, commitment and friendship to homeless people."

"Many of the people we spoke to said they found it difficult to find suitable accommodation and support because they did not meet the required local connection rules," Professor Dwyer continues. "We have recommended that neighbouring councils work more closely together and collaborate with one another in the way they interpret these rules under homelessness legislation.

"Ultimately the aim of the HOME project was to change practice and create impact by getting the results from our frontline interviews in front of stakeholders."

The results of the project have now been presented to a range of practitioners and policymakers, including the Department for Communities and Local Government and HomelessLink. The project also informed a Joseph Rowntree Foundation publication presenting findings from the Multiple Exclusion Homelessness programme at a Shelter event September 2011.

The research team hopes that despite cuts in budgets – with some of the interviewed services already closed - the HOME project will improve support for homeless people. "We have identified several ways to improve services, based on fundamental principles and approaches rather than future investment," adds Professor Dwyer. "We hope these ideas will help to change practice as homeless support agencies look to the future."