The aim of SDCAS is to relieve hardship, poverty and distress for asylum seekers, providing holistic services to over 1000 people a year from three drop-in locations. When the Early Action programme started 3 years ago we were seeing increasing numbers of street homeless asylum seekers presenting, including families with young children. At least 50% of people arriving at our doors were without secure accommodation and financial support, mostly linked to a complex unresolved immigration status. The focus of our Early Action work has been to strengthen how we respond to this need and to better equip our team to deal with these crisis situations. We hoped to develop ways to intervene earlier, de-escalate issues more quickly, and find more options for longer-term solutions so that those affected would experience less harm and distress, and the pressure and emotional impact on staff and volunteers would reduce.
We began by analysing how we were currently dealing with urgent destitution cases through a full-scale review involving clients, volunteers, staff and partner organisations. We trialled and then introduced a new role (2 x part time Early Action Development Workers) with a remit to implement a planned, consistent, whole-organisation approach to prioritise preventing and de-escalating destitution cases.
Our busy, open access drop-ins cater to many different people’s needs. To identify people experiencing or at risk of homelessness / insecurely housed as early as possible within this context, we introduced new triage processes which divert cases straight to the Early Action practitioners.
Important relationships and knowledge were held by individual workers instead of by the organisation collectively. To make this knowledge ‘universal’ we created shared documents and resources, like the directory of local services and accommodation providers and a destitution decision tree. This tree guides staff and volunteers to take consistent approaches when assessing need and prompts relevant referrals. We created all of the shared resources on google drive, where they can be updated by anyone using them, should new information be received; without creating multiple different versions that are difficult to maintain.
An important development was the creation of a database which enables us to record clients who are homeless or at risk of / insecurely housed. Using this we can keep track of our casework, make information accessible across our delivery teams and take a proactive approach to follow up/ checking in to ensure they don’t fall through the gaps. This also enables us to carry out regular audits on our progress to de-escalate, stabilise and finally find secure accommodation for these individuals.
We reviewed our volunteer training to ensure that volunteers are equipped with the level of expertise needed for helping with homelessness cases and that the advice given by our volunteers is consistent and up to date. Additional training focuses on assessing needs, identifying risk of future destitution and homelessness, and support strategies to prevent crises from occurring and to de-escalate issues from intensifying.
The development of new relationships has been key, consisting of strengthening of existing partnerships, joint working, information exchange and shared learning with: large homeless organisations; specialist and immigration specific organisations; hosting and emergency accommodation projects; organisations local to our delivery locations; and organisations working on these issues across London. One example has been working closely with our local law centre because we know legal routes are the only sustainable route out of homelessness.
Our staff and volunteers were ill equipped to deal with the emergencies and crisis situations we were seeing. They were unable to provide the expert advice needed, and accommodation provision was impossible to access at such short notice. This created an enormous emotional impact on everyone involved – the individuals and families who had come to us for help, and our staff and volunteers who were left trying to support people with limited options.
We see these issues affecting people at all stages of the asylum process; individuals and families evicted from the local Initial Accommodation centre; those with No Recourse to Public Funds following asylum claim refusals; and people arriving to London from other areas with nowhere to stay. The options available for people in these crises are very limited and unsatisfactory. The complex needs of the community and demand for services outweigh the capacity of our small, part-time team.
Individuals and families coming to us who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness are identified quicker and work to de-escalate the crisis situations they face begins at the earliest possible opportunity. We have recorded an increase in the number of homeless clients that we have supported into safe temporary and permanent accommodation.
Outcomes for people affected by homelessness heavily depend upon underlying factors like immigration status coupled with the unique circumstances of individual cases. Many complex cases are protracted and it takes a long time and considerable work to maintain engagement and collaboration across multiple partners until a long-term solution is found. However, through regular auditing of the cases we are working with, we can demonstrate that the average length of time people spend in crisis has been reduced.
Client case study
A volunteer greeted a new client at one of our drop-in centres and identified that they were street homeless. They immediately notified the Early Action Development Worker who was able to take the time needed to get to grips with all of the background information, learn more about their circumstances, and identify that they had Leave to Remain but with a NRPF (No Recourse to Public Funds) condition.
The individual was then successfully referred to a hosting agency, thus ending their immediate homelessness. To begin working on a longer-term solution, the worker connected the individual with a solicitor to look at lifting the NRPF condition on their visa. This would enable them to apply for financial help with housing costs and other benefits.
The client was hosted for over a month and during this time their physical appearance and general outlook improved. They came to visit us smiling and were very thankful - ''Why didn't I come to you guys earlier?''.
As soon as their NRPF condition was lifted the worker arranged appointments to support the client with applying for welfare benefits and finding suitable housing before the deadline of their hosting came to an end. Throughout this process the worker was able to answer all their questions and provided information that helped to manage their expectations. With everything in place, the client was eventually empowered to secure accommodation in the private rented sector.
Having dedicated workers focus on how we respond to homelessness and destitution has resulted in greater capability to manage crisis for staff and volunteers who were previously overwhelmed. There is increased confidence in the organisation regarding homelessness cases as there is a solid connectable plan for each homeless person we work with. This has enabled staff and volunteers to be less bogged down in the difficulty of peoples’ cases and focused our efforts towards tangible changes in the situation for homeless people. The new model has also increased capacity across the organisation and reduced pressure on the drop-in staff.
We have developed deeper insight and understanding into homelessness risk factors, and the most effective and timely ways to intervene to de-escalate risk as well as reduce the time that people, who do become homeless, spend on the street or in insecure accommodation. We are in a better position to keep an overview of everyone we are working with, and to demonstrate the impact of working with them, even over long periods of time.
The two staff members who took on this role have strengthened their skills in this area; they have led on embedding the Early Action Principles across the organisation and have proactively sought opportunities to collaborate with other agencies. Networking with mainstream and specialist services and engaging with accommodation providers and statutory agencies at a strategic level has improved our knowledge on statutory policy and procedure on homelessness. The networking has also strengthened the options and referral routes available to our clients and created space for a more open dialogue and accountability for poor service provision for homeless asylum seekers and immigration issues generally. Being able to extract compelling statistics from our work has created a strong evidence base that we can draw upon to influence local stakeholders.
This service development work we had undertaken prior to March 2020, also put us in a strong position to respond quickly and effectively during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A team of specialist housing advisors from Shelter were working in partnership with Southwark Council. They had been based in Southwark Housing Options for over a year, but we felt they were isolated from the local voluntary sector also dealing with homelessness and housing issues. The Early Action Development workers reached out to the team and invited them to a meeting to better understand each other's remit and working practices. The teams got to know each other and established feedback processes for referrals that had not existed before. Having a deeper knowledge of each other's organisations has helped both parties - SDCAS now feels more confident referring clients to Shelter, and the Shelter workers were extremely happy to be invited to a local organisation to build capacity. Clients who are referred to the Shelter team have increased confidence and trust as they now view them as connected to SDCAS via the referral process.
Our current model has been shaped through an ongoing process of consultation involving listening and learning exercises with frontline staff and volunteers across our delivery locations, our local partners and crucially people with lived experience of destitution and homelessness. We did case file reviews to analyse our practice. We used these to identify patterns, to understand what has worked and why; and what hasn’t and what the barriers have been that we need to focus on overcoming. Learning has been fed back across the organisation at meetings and away days. This approach has engaged the whole team and aided continual improvement.
The approaches we take to resolve homelessness are responsive and tailored to the different groups we work with. For example, for people seeking asylum, the strongest and most sustainable pathways out of destitution are through legal routes. We support people to access advice to understand their options and representation to have legal needs met. Refugees or people with Leave to Remain are supported to liaise with local authority housing options and navigate the private rented sector, alongside benefits systems. Individuals and people with NRPF (No Recourse to Public Funds) often also need legal representation to access support from local authorities. In preparation we support people to collate information on their circumstances/ medical history/needs to find adequate avenues for the regularisation of either their status or housing situation. Whatever position someone is in or stage they are at, we try to help them understand their circumstances and likely outcomes, as well as prepare for future eventualities. For example, what they should do when their accommodation comes to an end, based on decisions on their asylum claim.
Previously all issues concerning homelessness, destitution and insecure housing were dealt with at our generalist support drop-ins, alongside the many other varied issues people attend for help with. We didn’t have processes in place to triage and prioritise people and this often resulted in ‘late in the day’ realisations of someone being in crisis.
While the experienced staff team had vast knowledge of the needs of homeless people, there wasn’t a coordinated or methodical plan to solve homeless cases that was pursued across all of our teams and drop-ins.
There were no staff with a specific role to focus on working with people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. As everyone is part-time, inevitably this meant we couldn’t be as proactive as we wanted with maintaining client’s engagement, relevant information might not get passed on, and people could end up falling through the gaps.
Capacity is always an issue when need and demand is so high. Some cases in particular take up an enormous amount of time and energy. Clients with combinations of homelessness, trauma, mental health and substance misuse, often present with challenging behaviour. We try to keep an open door policy and do everything we can to continue working with people to stabilize them so they can get the help they need. However, this can become especially difficult if the organisations we’re doing joint work with decide they can no longer work with someone. We can end up being the last people ‘holding’ someone, without the ability to resolve their problems alone. Maintaining engagement of these clients, who are in really chaotic, difficult circumstances, is hard and the people becoming uncontactable is hard to mitigate against.
Covid-19 caused unprecedented risk to our homeless clients and massive upheaval. However, the Early Action approach we had taken and measures put in place prior to the pandemic were absolutely central to the success of our Covid response, our ability to adapt how we delivered our service and continue meeting clients’ changing needs. Through this proactive work, when lockdown began we were able to contact all the clients on our homelessness database to establish their safety and welfare. We worked with partners to locate clients we were struggling to contact. We then supported all clients with accessing accommodation through the local authority or through Section 4 asylum support. We helped them to access services, provided food parcels and destitution payments, and set up deliveries for those shielding. We also facilitated engagement from the local health team and continued to work with the law centre to ensure people were using this temporary period of ‘stability’ to access legal advice and find sustainable legal routes out of their homelessness and destitution.
The end of the ‘Everyone In’ policy left a lot of questions about what would happen next. Southwark Council made a commitment that they will do “everything they can” to stop people going back to the streets - but it is unclear what formal commitments will look like. We anticipate that the return to ‘normality’ this summer will coincide with some scaling down of GLA homelessness hotels and NASS hotels in London. We are closely following announcements so that we can adjust our delivery.
We are committed to establishing more ways for Experts by Experience to meaningfully participate in improving our internal service delivery. Alongside this, as a lead agency in discussions with local representatives, we are in a position to facilitate space for conversations and deeper collaboration between people with lived experience, key agencies, local authority teams and Home Office on the issue of homelessness and destitution. We will continue working closely with local refugee groups and centre them as leaders in these discussions. As part of this work we hope to bring these stakeholders together to develop an action plan to reduce crisis for asylum seekers and refugees, and increase opportunities for integration.