Homelessness prevention: Providing a platform for frontline staff to share ideas

Homelessness prevention: Providing a platform for frontline staff to share ideas

Ahead of an upcoming webinar on homelessness prevention, James Mullaney and Ursula Hofeldt highlight how people who work or volunteer in local communities can play a role.

As homelessness rates continue to grow in Scotland, it’s clear we need to build more homes. But that’s only part of the answer. Because while more affordable and social housing is critical in supporting people out of homelessness, there’s also a growing recognition that more must be done to stop people from becoming homeless in the first place.

Scotland is on the brink of introducing ground-breaking legislation to help do that. Learning from across Europe and building on changes to the law in England and Wales, the Scottish Government is proposing to introduce legislation which puts prevention at the heart of our approach to tackling homelessness .

That’s why the Scottish Government asked Crisis and Cyrenians to lead a Task & Finish group investigating how homelessness prevention could be embedded in the work of all public sector bodies.

Reaching out to frontline workers

Over the past year, as part of the work of the Task & Finish group secretariat and the Scottish Frontline Network, we brought together frontline staff and managers from across housing, health, justice, and education in a series of online events. We wanted to hear their views on the proposals to place a duty on staff in public bodies to ask about people’s housing situation and identify if someone is at risk of homelessness, and then to act within their abilities to help find a resolution.

At each webinar, we explored their understanding of homelessness, their current role in preventing it and the barriers they face. Attendees were asked how they felt about homelessness prevention becoming a bigger part of their role and any concerns they might have. Participants also shared good practice and discussed the tools they already had at their disposal to help prevent homelessness, or that could be repurposed or extended to help stop more people from losing their homes.

“It was good to get different perspectives of how people are trying to prevent homelessness or dealing with homelessness once occurred” (feedback from participant)

In total, 126 frontline workers from both statutory and third sector services attended the workshops, including health staff, social work staff, housing officers, prison staff, and other third sector advocacy, outreach, and support workers – some of whom had lived experience of homelessness themselves.

Training and tools needed

Despite the wide range of attendees, there were common and consistent themes across the sessions. Most frontline attendees agreed more had to be done to prevent homelessness and thought they could play an important role.

However, there was some apprehension, particularly among staff in traditionally non-housing focused roles, about moving into an area they knew little about. Many staff said they would need training on how to identify the early warning signs that a household may be at risk of homelessness, as well as how and when to ask someone in a sensitive and trauma informed way.

“There should be a widespread focus on understanding how a person might become homeless and the triggers to look out for, including training, webinars and peer-led experience sharing.” (feedback from Justice webinar)

Some were also concerned that asking about homelessness risked opening up conversations around topics they were not trained or experienced in talking about. There was agreement that frontline workers should not be expected to become housing experts themselves, but they would need training and awareness-raising.

“Training and induction packages should contain enough information to provide a baseline level of service which will allow people to identify when someone is at risk of homelessness and what resources they have available to meet their role responsibilities around ‘act’” (feedback from Justice webinar)

The importance of clear referral pathways

People also shared concerns around asking about homelessness without robust referral pathways in place. Attendees talked about the difficulty of knowing which services are available locally and their experiences of local services not always being able to provide the right level of support in a timely way.

There were fears that if they identified someone as being at risk of homelessness and the person agreed they needed help, a lack of local services or clear referral routes would lead to more work for staff in already busy roles.

“We would recommend standardised and direct links into relevant local services with Link Workers or in-reach teams available in all settings and driven pathways so that staff know what to do and at what stage” (feedback from Health & Social Care webinar)

Some of these findings are not altogether surprising. People working on or near the frontline in the public sector recognise the huge impact homelessness has on someone’s life and they are generally willing and often keen to help prevent it happening in the first place. However, participants were also clear this will only happen if they receive the right training and tools, and there are clear referral processes to responsive, expert, and well-resourced local support services.

Sharing good practice

While we learned more about what needs done to prepare for the coming changes, the sessions also offered a great opportunity to hear from some of the innovative services and projects serving communities across Scotland. So many organisations are already working to identify people at risk of homelessness early and provide coordinated help to support them to avoid entering the homelessness system. This can be through dedicated homelessness prevention projects targeting specific groups or simply by adapting their practice or service to better identify housing risk early.

“We can utilise and update existing forms to ensure that there is opportunity for staff to ask relevant questions in a non-confrontational way – with particular focus on language used.” (feedback from Children, Families and Young People webinar)

To that end, Crisis has created a digital map of projects and services that have in some measurable way helped prevent homelessness across Scotland and beyond. We created this resource so that people can share and learn from each other and we would be delighted if you want to share any further examples that are supporting people to sustain their homes.

See the projects already in our homelessness prevention guide or share a new example here.

Influencing recommendations to Scottish Government

The feedback we heard from frontline workers heavily informed the Task & Finish group’s final report with recommendations for Scottish Government which was presented to the Minister for Housing, Paul McLennan MSP, in the end of August.

Through our conversations with so many frontline workers in such diverse roles, we were able to highlight what is needed on the ground to make the new duties work in practice. Some of the key recommendations in the report that came directly from the webinars include rolling out cross-sector training for the public bodies which will be impacted by the duties, offering staff an opportunity to learn together and encourage cross-sector working, as well as setting up monitoring frameworks to capture outcomes of prevention work as this will support continuous learning and reflection on what works.

“Remove barriers to data-sharing so that all partners involved in a person’s housing journey can in real-time understand what has been done, who has done it and what is happening next.” (feedback from Children, Families and Young People webinar)

Moreover, the report recommends the Scottish Government should look at data sharing across public bodies and how this can be improved to support homelessness prevention. During the webinars, data sharing came up as both a barrier and enabler of good prevention practice and frontline workers and managers asked for more clarification. And finally, the report stresses that for the duties to really make a difference they will need long-term, sustainable funding to allow time for implementation.

We want to thank everyone who shared their thoughts and experiences with us.

Read the Task & Finish Group’s report to the Scottish Government here.

What now?

While legal duties on public bodies to ask and act on homelessness are important, there is still plenty of work we can all do to make sure people get support early and avoid losing their homes. We believe homelessness is everyone’s business, and we are hosting another webinar on 9 November focusing on homelessness prevention in communities.

This event is specifically aimed at people who work or volunteer in their local communities and will explore how local organisations, groups, hubs and services can play a role in preventing homelessness.

Sign up here if you would like to join!

  • James Mullaney is senior best practice officer at Crisis and Ursula Hofeldt is policy & participation manager at Cyrenians.
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