Building relationships with residents and communities to support people through the toughest of times

Angela Gascoigne, 11 August 2020

At SHAL, we build relationships with our residents to provide essential support to help them stay in their homes.

This type of unique support has never been more important than it is now in helping people with financial hardships made more acute by the ongoing crisis.

The average social rented home may be more affordable than its private rented sector equivalent, but the economic crisis, and uncertainly around jobs and the future, has created financial problems for many residents and exacerbated them for those who were already experiencing hardship.  

We work with people to ensure they have the support and advice they need to tackle their finances in a way which responds to their unique circumstance. Our two housing officers do everything from supporting people to pay rent, to supporting disabled people, tackling ASB, safeguarding, letting homes and sustaining communities.

Our team works in a trauma-informed way and takes a holistic approach to support. This means they are aware of the experience many of us have of feeling overwhelmed or unable to come to terms with our situation, and to sensitively explore the impact of this with the people they are with. Whilst they are talking about rent, food or bills they might hear disclosures of abuse or mental ill health and will give people space to talk.

We haven’t evicted anyone for rent arrears since 2016. We know there are drivers of debt – relationship breakdown, domestic abuse, changes in employment or family circumstances. These can be traumatic and we aim to take these into account in the way we respond.

We start from the premise that people want to pay their rent but that something is preventing this and to find out what that is. To do this we need to build a relationship. We do all we can to help people find ways out of debt including accessing funds to reduce the rent such as discretionary housing payments. We also challenge refusals or payment amounts and Housing Benefit errors, and refer to the local authorities any concerns about potential homelessness so that families can access the support they need to prevent this.

We have been working with Universal Credit claimants for four years and collaborate with the DWP and other services in this area. Before lockdown, a third of our tenants claimed Universal Credit. By June, an additional 9% of tenants needed to claim. We contacted every tenant to monitor their circumstances and see if they needed financial support or help in claiming Universal Credit.

Our housing officers help people navigate the new system. Many of those who had to claim post-lockdown were first-time claimants and some found it very difficult, especially if they did not have laptops or access to WiFi. Laptops are being given to vulnerable families and we are working with the DWP to innovate and respond to problems as they arise.

Our housing officers have claimed almost £24,000 in Direct Housing Payments or Housing Benefit for our residents since 1 April 2020. This is money that people will not have to pay back, substantially reducing their anxiety as well as their debt. In addition, we set up the Rainbow Fund to make sure that the housing officers had quick access to money to help in situations such as replacing a broken down washing machine, or accessing additional data to enable an essential phone call. We have continued to work with people who are struggling and issued foodbank vouchers (a 350% increase since the start of lockdown), as well other things like activity packs for children. We also initiated The Sydenham Pantry, a Fairshare project offering fresh fruit, vegetables and meat for a £3.50 weekly subscription. One family with a £50 fortnightly budget for food were able to get 5 family meals out of their Fairshare bag. This is not a handout – and that’s important.

The services, support, and social rented homes that we – and many other housing associations – offer to our residents has never been more vital. We need more investment in social housing to protect and enhance these services to ensure that people facing tough times ahead are helped and protected as much as possible.