Tag: housing

POWS help Birmingham families out of B&Bs

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

Stopping the spiral

When you’re living precariously, from day to day, the smallest changes and delays have a much bigger effect than they would on someone with a solid support network and a safe, structured lifestyle.

scales-smWe find it particularly frustrating to hear when clients tell us about issues they’re facing that could have been avoided. Often, it’s down to a client leaving things late or not having the confidence or knowledge to assert themselves. But, equally as often, organisations put unnecessarily bureaucratic processes in place that can make matters considerably worse. Many times, a little consideration – some human understanding of a personal situation, or a small tweak to a process, could quickly make things better and stop things spiralling before they start.

Everyone’s situation is unique and there is usually good reason when things don’t run smoothly. But at Gateway we often find ourselves asking: why should a Pregnancy Outreach Worker’s intervention be necessary? Why does it always seem to take an advocate to step in before things can get moving?

Claire* is a vulnerable teenager who lives in temporary accommodation and has no immediate family. She’s pregnant by her ex-partner, who was violent towards her.

When Claire wanted to apply for Housing Benefit, she needed to show three months bank statements. She didn’t have a phone, so she couldn’t just call the bank and ask… but she also didn’t have the money to travel there in person. And the longer she left it, the further into debt she fell.

Seeing that Claire was at risk of eviction, her POW took her to the bank herself. There, Claire requested the relevant information, only to be told that her account had been closed, and that the statements would have to be posted out. It was only after the POW explained the urgency of the situation that the bank supplied printed statements for Claire to use. But why should we have had to step in?

Most people take a phone for granted. Claire has had to buy a phone – spending money that she really needed for food – in order to manage the basic things in her life. But having a phone doesn’t mean you have it easy – dealing with multiple organisations and agencies can mean long periods of time on hold, and that can quickly use up all the phone credit you have.

Claire’s claim for Housing Benefit eventually went in, but more than four weeks went by before she heard anything more about it. We chased up Claire’s Housing Benefit claim three times before finding out that it had been suspended as they awaited information from her landlord. It took another call from the POW – this time to the landlord, asking him to provide the evidence that the Housing Benefit department needed – before things got moving again.

All these issues create unmanageable stress for someone like Claire. She is already at a high risk and delays like this just make things impossibly difficult. During the time she was waiting for housing benefit, Claire phoned her POW, in desperation, to ask for food parcels – she had no means of buying food or even travelling to other food banks.

Last week, Claire said she is beginning to feel more in control. “I have been to St Basils and they are going to place me in a flat within a week. I feel so much calmer and happier away from my ex. Today you called Healthy Start vouchers and gave them my new address and sorted out my claim for Income Support. We spoke about what I need to get for the baby and you will help with trying to find donations for me. I’m glad I was able to tell you how I felt today.”

But the little things that most people take for granted will continue to be an issue for Claire. Her new flat is safe, but it’s unfurnished, so the POW is helping her to find basic household items from charities and donations. She’s still unable to get a bank account so, even if her life does begin to settle down and she finds she has money left after paying for food, gas and electric, she has no way of saving her cash. And – somewhat ridiculously – because Claire can’t have her benefits paid into an account, she has to spend vital pounds on travel each week just to pick it up.

Sometimes people just need help. It would be great if services could take that into account sometimes and just be a bit more human.

*Names have been changed.

Colette Talks About Supporting Clients with Behaviour Change

Colette was supporting a client who was using drugs and alcohol.  Her dad had been an alcoholic and her mum left the family when she was very young.  She also had a brother who was using drugs.

After her dad died she took over the tenancy of what had been the family home for 30 years.  It had never been decorated or had a repair in that time so was in a bit of a state.

Colette visited the client on a weekly basis.  She has a lot of issues to deal with so Colette broke them down in to small chunks and dealt with them based on the clients need.

Colette supported her to attend appointments both medical and social, she would meet her at the hospital or at case conferences.  When they were at core group meetings the client and her partner would get upset when everyone was talking about their case.  They were at risk of Social Services removing the baby at birth.

Colette worked hard to get the housing to fix the repairs such as, fitting a new kitchen, installing a new boiler and getting the steps at the front of the house repaired.

Once the repairs had been done the couple started to redecorate and this is when Colette started to see a change taking place.  The client’s partner went into rehab and she stopped using drugs and alcohol.  They have kept their baby and would not have achieved this without Colette’s help.

You can’t damp-en our spirits!

It has been reported across the media this week, there is a shortage of houses across the country and an even bigger shortage of affordable houses which impacts on a large part of society, mainly those with little other choice.  With homeless figures in Birmingham increasing by almost 20% in recent months, and winter upon us, it is imperative that people can access good quality, safe and affordable housing when they need it most.

Many of our clients are referred with housing issues, in fact over the last year over 40% of our pregnant women have came to us needing help with their housing situation and this number looks set to grow further.

Natsenet, a client originally from East Africa came to Gateway as she needed support with her English skills and was referred to ESOL classes in the local area. What soon became apparent however was how desperate Natsenet’s living situation was. Although she was lucky enough to have a one bedroom place of her own, the flat was full of mildew and damp and completely unsuitable for a mum to be as can be seen in the below pictures.




Natsanet’s problem with damp was so bad, paint and plaster (and the dust) were  peeling from the wall





After contacting her housing officer, Natsanet was told that they were unable to help, with them blaming her for somehow causing the damp (!). Despite continually trying to get the help she needed, Natsanet was still no closer to getting the repairs she needed. After more continuous effort and rejection,  trying to get some support through her housing officer, Natsanet turned to her Pregnancy Outreach Worker, Maria Hesson who called and called on her behalf, making the most of her experience in dealing with these organisations and trying to take some of the pressure off Natsetnet at such an important time in her pregnancy.

After many, many phone calls and lots of excuses,  Maria managed to get hold of someone at the housing association and was able to tell them all about the situation, even showing them the pictures of the squalid conditions that this vulnerable lady was living in. Thankfully, they were happy to help, following the intervention from Maria, and they agreed to repair Natsanet’s house and remove the damp and mildew, even paying for Natsenet to stop in a hotel whilst the work was being carried out.

Natsanet, who has now given birth to a beautiful baby is delighted with her home now and feels that she can begin a new life with her child, something that she puts down to the help given to her from Maria, who received a text message from Natsanet a few weeks later, thanking her for all of her help.