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POWS help Birmingham families out of B&Bs

25th April 2014

Three of our most experienced Pregnancy Outreach Workers (POWs) have been working with Birmingham City Council for the last six months as Support Workers to the Temporary Accommodation team.

We wrote about the background to the service when it launched in November, in our blog post Supporting Birmingham’s B&B Families. While the Housing Officer is finding accommodation for a client, Support Workers Colette, Sarah and Miriam are on hand to give some much-needed practical support.

Here’s the story of just one of the many people that the team has been able to help so far.

Natalia’s story

Natalia*, who is in her fifties and originally from the Czech Republic, has lived and worked in the UK since November 2011. In 2013 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy and was receiving treatment, but had to give up work. She began living on her savings.

At the beginning of 2014, Natalia’s son Marc*, who’s in his thirties, was in an accident. It left him hospitalised for three months with serious injuries and also unable to work.

Despite her own lack of income, Natalia supported her son and together they lived with friends in rented accommodation.

However, when her friend had to move, Natalia and Marc – unable to pay the rent on their own – were asked to leave.

Natalia and Marc approached Birmingham City Council to make a homelessness application. A Housing Officer from the Temporary Accommodation Team placed them in B&B accommodation and made an application for Employment and Support Allowance for Natalia. Natalia was referred to Support Worker Colette – a seconded Gateway POW – for some extra support.

Colette supported Natalia by:

  • making phonecalls to the hospital to arrange appointments
  • calling Macmillan Cancer Support to apply for £150 expenses payment to cover travel to and from appointments (the Council had provided bus tickets but this would allow her to get taxis after treatment)
  • helping her to make applications for food bank vouchers and taking her to the food bank
  • calling to chase up her Employment and Support Allowance application every week

Having worked in the UK for two years, Natalia is entitled to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), but there were some questions about her application, so Colette wrote letters and provided documentation to support her case. Nevertheless, her application was delayed by several months.

The Council made the decision not to support Natalia’s homelessness application. She was told this was because they knew she’d applied for benefits which, once she received them, would resolve her financial hardship. Also, because she’d had a mastectomy, she was thought to have finished her cancer treatment. She was told that she would receive support to rent privately and was given seven days notice to leave B&B accommodation, leaving her with no income at all and no means with which to rent privately. Her request for a review was refused.

At the same time, Natalia’s consultant had told her she could not have chemotherapy, as he felt her accommodation arrangements at the B&B, for example the shared bathroom, would have been unsuitable. She was given a date to start radiotherapy.

Colette supported Natalia by:

  • using the evidence of the hospital appointment to request another homelessness application review, showing that Natalia was still being treated for cancer (the review was agreed the next day)
  • making phone calls and speaking to different advisors about her benefits (eventually her ESA application was approved and her benefits were backdated from the end of 2013)

She also supported Marc by helping with his application for ESA (he is still waiting for his benefits).

After review, Natalia’s homelessness application was accepted and Birmingham City Council found a Social Letting Agent (SLA) property for Natalia and Marc. Natalia viewed the property and accepted it. Colette took her to the Letting Agent to sign her Tenancy Agreement and then to the Neighbourhood office to get a receipt for her Housing Benefit claim, which was needed in order to get the keys.

The properties that people are given under these circumstances are very basic. There are no carpets or curtains and generally no furniture at all. Natalia’s new house had a cooker and a fridge, and the council supplied beds, bedding and kitchen items, but there was nothing else in the house. Natalia’s ongoing illness and treatments meant that she was unable to do much on her own, so Colette supported Natalia by:

  • making a Local Welfare Provision Application (LWP) for a washing machine which was delivered and fitted that week
  • taking Natalia to the British Heart Foundation shop for a table and chairs, and curtains

As soon as accommodation is found for a client, the case is closed, so Natalia’s case was closed shortly after she moved in. Colette referred Natalia to Bromford Support for help with maintaining the property and getting benefits for Marc. She also referred Marc to My Time who support with Mental Health Issues.

Natalia and her son are now settled into their accommodation, however there are some ongoing issues with Housing benefit and Council Tax benefit.

Not extreme

Natalia’s story is perhaps shocking, but the Support Workers tell us it’s not extreme. It’s clear there’s a need for support work around homelessness and temporary accommodation and the POW social model seems ideally suited to the role.

Support Worker Sarah says “In most cases, we are helping clients to understand the systems and processes involved, and to make sure they are able to take the right decisions and have their voices heard during one of the most stressful periods of their lives.

“We check that clients are actually bidding on housing, and that they’re applying for all the benefits they’re entitled to. Our POWS work means that we understand the systems very well and we’re used to helping people make applications and ensuring that they make the most of what’s available for them”.

A different way of working

The biggest change in working that the seconded support staff have found is the speed of delivery. POWS are used to up to a year with a client, and a designated handover period. Here they may have as little as two weeks with the client, because each case closes as soon as accommodation is found.

It means that the Support Workers have to move fast to understand the clients’ priorities and get as much done in the time as possible.

“We make phonecalls and help with applications but the relationship is quite different to the POW/client relationship,” says Sarah. “We know from experience that some issues take time to uncover, because a client will only disclose them once a lot of trust has built up.

“We can’t expect to make the same bonds, although we still try, because that’s how we are used to working and we know it has the most impact in the long term. Instead we just do as much as we can, as quickly as we can.”

Ideally, the team would like more time with clients but, as Natalia’s story shows, they’re already making a difference.

*Names have been changed

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