Meet one of the 12 "trailblazer" housing departments who provide job, health and education advice to their homeless clients

Once upon a time the council’s housing office was the place you went if you became homeless or wanted to get on the social housing register. In those says housing officers dealt with housing, down the road the Job Centre found people work and on the other side of town the local clinic dealt with health problems.

But for 12 councils all that is changing. They were picked to become government “trailblazers” and given £350,000 each to turn their housing advice services into “one stop shops” which could tackle anything from benefits, unemployment, skills and healthy eating alongside solving housing problems. The 12 councils will kick off their enhanced service in 2009/10 and pass on their advice to 20 other authorities.

Many of the trailblazer housing departments were already on the road to providing services beyond housing to their clients before they became trailblazers. They are taking different approaches to the idea: Croydon, for example, plans a learning and training service while others will offer IT lessons or a weekly job club. For Kettering, the trailblazer pilot was an opportunity to expand changes to its service that began in 2006.

Housing options adviser

"Move on, move in"

“The idea was to try to prevent homelessness rather than have reactive approach we traditionally had,” says head of housing John Conway. The council hired six housing options advisers to try to prevent homelessness. For example they would negotiate with lenders if a client was in mortgage arrears in order to prevent an eviction.They then decided to expand the service to younger people with a pre-tenancy training programme for 16 to 25 year-olds. “If you have 16 or 17 year olds chucked out after row with mum and dad giving tenancy is probably the worst thing you could do,” says Conway. “There was a high rate of tenancy breakdown for that age group. They move in and have party and then have parties every night, the rent’s not paid and they get evicted. It’s better to talk to mum and dad and see if will take them back or get them supported accommodation.” The council also started a course for young people, “Move on, move in”, to provide young people with the skills to succeed in tehir tenantcies and avoid eviction. also included tuition in home maintenance, tenancy management, fire safety, budgeting, cooking and personal health for those who needed to learn to look after themselves. “Now when they get the tenancy, they are in control so we have much better rate of tenancy sustainment,” he adds. The scheme has not needed much cash but it has taken officers time to set up. As well as building trust between the young people and the housing officers and workers from other groups who are part of the scheme, it has built links between the agencies involved which include the council, YMCA Northamptonshire, local housing charity Accommodation Concern, The Red Cross and Northmatonshire Fire and Rescue Service.

It is about thinking outside our role as housing officers

Wiring a plug

Jobs, health and housing

Now the council plans to use the trailblazer funding to extend “move on , move in” so that it can work with its young clients after the seven-week course is over. New life plan advisers will look at other aspects of client’s lives when they come into the office with housing problems. “For example if their reading was getting in the way, the adviser would ask ‘how can we help?’. It is about thinking outside our role as housing officers,” says Conway. The local Job Centre has come on board and the scheme will signpost people towards training if they need it and a team of health visitors are involved in an attempt to improve the diet and health of people in the scheme. “We found young people were very receptive to advice when they were homeless,” says Conway.

The life plan advisers can also be a bit of a friend to people dealing with the trauma of being homeless. Previously young people had talked to housing options advisers, many of whom are young too, about their aspirations and future plans after they were rehoused but the officers did not have the time or knowledge to help with this. However the life plan advisers will be able to provide this support.

Help for older people

The scheme will also start helping people who are often at the opposite end of the age spectrum. The council would like to free up some of its larger properties which are bigger than their tenants need. For example older tenants might have family-sized homes but their children have moved away leaving them with more space than they need. Conway says some have not moved because they cannot face the idea of dealing with removal firms and utility companies, so the council will provide a new moving home adviser to help them through the process. Nearly half of Kettering’s council homes are underoccupied and would be ideal for families stuck on the housing waiting list.

The benefits

So far the council’s work with young people has seen far more of them keep their tenancy and avoid eviction thanks to more considerate behaviour. None of the 41 young people who have completed the course have been evicted, as far as Conway is aware. In comparison the council evicted 3 under 25 year old sin 2006/7 and 2 the following year, all of them for rent arrears. Graduates from move on, move in said it helped them learn to deal with the council, locate their fuse box and gas metres or just socialise with other people. They are also developing their lives and ambitions, he adds. The average eviction would cost the council about £3000 to £4000 as well as making another person homeless. Freeing up under occupied family homes will also save money as it costs around £800 to keep a homeless family in bed and breakfast for a week. “In the much longer term, if we improve people’s self esteem they will be able to do more on their own and this will be called on in years to come,” he says.