Proactive outreach

Tell us about the Early Action approach you have taken?

We developed a proactive outreach service to increase our contact with people new to the area. Throughout the year, staff and volunteers systematically visit all the asylum accommodation properties in Sandwell. 

Outreach enables us to reach groups affected by health issues, lack of childcare, and geographical distance, people who have missed out or not understood signposting information by housing providers. It allows our staff and volunteer team to engage with people much earlier on in their asylum journey, identifying issues and preventing them from getting worse.

The service is a key part of our wider early action support model. This also includes an initial needs assessment, Asylum Guides support to navigate the asylum process, advice drop-in sessions with a triage system to identify those most vulnerable, and a refugee homelessness prevention pathway.    

Why was this needed?

Sandwell is one of the highest dispersal areas for asylum seekers in the West Midlands with approximately 980 individuals in asylum accommodation. 

Using data on the numbers of asylum-seeking clients registered with Brushstrokes, compared to the number of people dispersed to Sandwell, we knew that we were not reaching everybody. While some people might not require our support, we would often see people for the first time, late on in their asylum journey, when things had already gone wrong. For example, when they’d received a negative decision, missed an appeal deadline or been given an eviction notice.

Word of mouth is a key way that newly arrived asylum seekers learn about Brushstrokes. However, people who are most vulnerable and already isolated are unlikely to receive this information by talking to their housemates or people in the street. 

There is a good working relationship and an agreement in place that the accommodation provider will signpost people to Brushstrokes. However, some people either do not receive this information, misunderstand or forget, or struggle to access for various reasons. 

Going out into the community, visiting properties where we know new people have moved into, and responding to concerns from existing clients about isolated housemates or neighbours, means we minimise the risk that people are left without vital support. 

What difference has this made?

The Outreach Team have made 635 visits to asylum accommodation properties as part of their early action work. The case studies below show how outreach increases engagement with the community and opportunities to provide information and advice and connect people into services. They are a direct way of making sure that everyone who needs our service knows about it as well as reaching out and identifying those who may be struggling to access it.

Brushstrokes identifies issues that need addressing such as; not being registered with doctors and dentists, needing help with health care costs or referrals to specialist services, having no legal representation or understanding about the asylum process, or not accessing ESOL or activities to reduce social isolation. Picking up these issues early on prevents crisis situations occurring down the line.

The most significant impact is the identification and support of extremely vulnerable people who might have not sought advice without this contact. The project has made contact with, and supported, a small but significant number of victims of domestic violence and modern day slavery. We have found that taking the time to visit people at home and with privacy, we are able to build trust which supports disclosures. 

The Outreach team visited one asylum property and met met a man in his early 50’s who is severely disabled, receives regular kidney dialysis and suffers from multiple other health issues.As a wheelchair user with significant language barriers, he had become socially isolated - unable to access legal help, register with a GP or other services within the Sandwell area. Through an interpreter, he told the Brushstrokes staff and volunteer:

I don’t know where and how to seek help, as I don’t know the language and have no knowledge of where to seek or get help from

The team gave him leaflets and advised, in his language, to visit Brushstrokes’ advice drop in. There,  he received support with GP registration, accessing legal representation, reporting maintenance issues with the accommodation and applying for community ESOL provision. 

After a few weeks of attending the advice service he said, 

Brushstrokes helped by finding and filling a GP registration form for me, and found me a legal representative, but most importantly I am now receiving my money regularly. I don’t know what I would have done without Brushstrokes considering my situation as a person with no language and new to the place. Thank you Brushstrokes for helping me

Kochar and Aawaz (aliases) are a couple from Iraq. They were dispersed to Sandwell and the housing officer signposted them to Brushstrokes. However, because their accommodation is many miles from the organisation’s office and Aawaz is pregnant, they hadn’t managed to visit Brushstrokes. We only met them when  the Outreach Team visited the property.

The team explained about the services Brushstrokes’ offer and did an initial needs assessment. The couple were supported to register with a GP and access maternity services. They signed up to the Asylum Guides programme and were matched with a volunteer with experience of claiming asylum. Over a series of meetings their knowledge, understanding and confidence navigating the local area, accessing services, rights and entitlements and UK systems including the asylum process increased. The couple gained understanding of the importance of accessing legal advice and were supported to find legal representation. They also received information on ESOL provision and training opportunities.

If the team had not visited the property, the couple may not have received the support they needed in a timely way. This could have led to worse outcomes in their asylum case, integration, health and well-being.

Kochar highlighted the reassurance he has from knowing where he can go for help when problems arise and that his Asylum Guide is available to talk about issues that concern him. 

"I am a private person and do not like to talk too much about my problems, but I am glad that I can talk to my Guide when there is a problem.”

What impact has this had for the organisation? 

The biggest impact of our proactive outreach is that people are in the area for less time before they connect into support. There is increased uptake for our advice service following home visits, confirming that we are reaching people who need support but who were not previously accessing it. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the routine visiting of accommodation had to cease.

However, the impact of having done this work consistently prior to March 2020, has been so important. We had accurate contact and location details of all vulnerable service users in Sandwell and existing relationships with them. This greatly strengthened our ability to respond to the needs of the community. In collaboration with SERCO the accommodation provider, we identified households at increased risk of Covid-19, self-isolating or shielding, reached out to them, provided vital information and made sure they had access to food, medicine and someone to talk to.  

The outreach to properties has increased our understanding of the challenges community members face. We are building a strong evidence base of case studies and key outcomes linked to health, vulnerability and legal representation. This information has strengthened our advocacy, awareness raising, strategic development and fundraising. Our local authority recognises the value of early action approaches and has funded a health project pilot with single asylum seekers in HMO (houses of multiple occupancy) accommodation. 

How did you know doing proactive community outreach was the right approach?

(Organisation journey, application of the principles) 

We listen to what people with lived experience of being new to the area said. In our quarterly focus groups, our service users and volunteers from refugee and asylum seeking backgrounds told us that doing outreach and making support as easy to access as possible is important. 

Brushstrokes has always made visits to asylum accommodation properties, but this wasn’t as comprehensive, consistent or part of an integrated approach to support and advice. Under the early action programme we took a step back to review our work, developing and formalising what we knew helped to prevent crisis and making changes to our processes. 

How is this different to what you were doing before?

We would see people in some difficult situations and would signpost them to come to the organisation. But we didn’t register them or do an initial assessment there and then, so we couldn’t follow up if they still didn’t present to us. Improving our initial assessment and following up whether individuals have legal representation has been a key development and we now routinely ask all asylum seeker clients. 

We have also improved how the issues we identify on outreach visits feed into our service development and also strategic conversations and collaboration with local partners and stakeholders. 

What challenges have you encountered? 

Under ‘normal’ circumstances, the project is quite resource intensive and relies upon staff capacity and volunteers. At points in the year (summer for example) there might be dips in capacity and we get round to less properties. Visiting can be hit and miss in terms of people being in, but this is outweighed by finding some individuals who would never be able to access our service without this initial contact.

Due to Covid-19 we suspended visits from March 2020. However, in adapting our food and toiletries provision we have been able to maintain contact with the 40-50 most vulnerable and isolated clients through weekly deliveries. Even this limited contact gives clients who are not accessing help remotely, the opportunity to raise pressing advice and support needs. We’ve also received new referrals for more recent dispersals into HMO properties. However, while we feel confident that we are in touch with everyone we knew needed support prior to the first lockdown, we know that there are new people who have come into the area who may not be accessing the vital support they need or may not seek help until they are in crisis.

What else do you want to achieve? 

COVID-19 has highlighted the impact of the lack of digital skills and access to WIFI/data for new arrivals. We want to develop further 1-2-1 and group digital skills sessions to increase individuals’ ability to take action themselves.  

We trialled a health needs assessment with single adults in HMO’s, which we found increased understanding and access to health provision. We want to embed this provision through group work to increase awareness of health services, entitlements and take up of services. We also want new arrivals to be more involved in local conversations with commissioners and providers of health services to ensure they reflect their needs.

What practical advice would you give to other organisations looking to try this approach/ try something similar? 

  • We have learned that it is crucial to think of the most vulnerable individuals when designing our services. Proactively going out to find people in their accommodation is one way of making sure that no one can fall through the gaps.
  • Ensure you build in time to get feedback from new arrivals on the difference that outreach / home visits have made.
  • Start on one area of dispersal in your town/city first and look to develop a systematic approach. 
  • Data protection - ensure you have a plan for keeping all the information on asylum accommodation safe.
  • Build a relationship with the accommodation provider, let them know what you are doing, the support you are able to provide to clients, and how this might help them
  • It’s crucial to remember safeguarding for staff and volunteers. When going out to properties, for example, make sure you always go out in pairs and tell colleagues your expected movements and timings.
  • Volunteers are a key part of so many programmes, always remember to think about what kind of training they might need. It’s worth putting the time into solid training, it will free up your staff time later on.