Breaking the cycle of homelessness

Monday, 16 November 2020 - 9:43am

In this blog, Ben Phillips-Farmer from Rentstart, tells us about the Freedom 2 Work project which they run with support from Commonweal. 

For a while, a strapline that sat underneath our logo at Rentstart was: ‘breaking the cycle of homelessness’. The way that we have worked, in the remit of the private rented sector (PRS), for the last 20 years has been to house people and keep them housed. We operate in the PRS because there is vastly untapped opportunity within it, meaning in addition to the work others are doing to lobby for more affordable housing, we can help to maximise the amount of homeless people accessing long term solutions. Our model works best for single adults who are stuck behind financial or social barriers to renting.

Once we support people into housing, we do our best to ensure the trajectory is an upwards one. Freedom2Work is a project that exemplifies this work. As highlighted in an independent evaluation launched this summer in partnership with Commonweal Housing, Freedom2Work places emphasis on aspiration, rather than intervention – providing service users with the confidence, independence, and empowerment they need to rebuild their own lives. 

The phrase ‘benefits trap’ will be familiar to you: a reality recognised by economic commentators, and those caught within it, alike.  The idea that moving away from welfare is not worth the risk. Recent reforms to the system have attempted, not yet successfully, to alleviate this phenomenon with the sliding scale of universal credit. But in reality, most people who come to us for help have no intention of risking leaving this cycle.

While half of our role is to assist in securing housing, the other side is the support clients received once housed. For the first six months of the tenancy this support will be relatively high, including advice and training on household management, job-hunting, CV writing, budgeting, and other individual needs. Throughout its successful pilot period, we have supported 74 clients, seeing 35 of them gain work, 30 living independently beyond our support in the PRS, and interestingly £1,301,144 in savings to society in housing costs.

Another important statistic from the pilot period is the amount saved by clients. Recognising a reprioritisation of finances as one of the most crucial aspects of a sustainable positive life trajectory, a key factor of the Freedom2Work project is our savings scheme. We encourage all clients who join the project to save each month, even if it’s as little as £5, and then we match fund their total. Clients in the pilot saved a total of £7,543 which has been spent on debts, PRS deposits, or kept saved.

Covid-19 has required flexibility in our approach to the project, with a priority of mental health safeguarding emerging as one of the most important. For those who could only afford to share properties with strangers, lockdown presented certain challenges, such as being confined mainly to the space of one room. Taking into account around 45% of Rentstart’s clients disclose mental health issues when we meet them, this issue hit even harder among our tenants. We set up telephone befrienders, sent round boredom buster packs, and worked with local organisations such as Mary Francis Trust.

The repercussions of Covid-19 on people’s finances also hit many of our clients. An interesting consequence of this is that a number of people who had successfully come through the Freedom2Work project made contact with us again, making us realise we have created a culture in which people feel they can come back for help when they need it. Again, we have worked with local organisations such as foodbanks to help our clients keep rent as their financial priority. These months may have taken their toll on savings figures, but our clients are primed for successfully maintaining tenancies in the PRS.

Access to the PRS is central to Freedom2Work and the most important goal in replicating the project. It has worked well within Rentstart’s flexible, personal model; but it could sit productively on other approaches. The PRS is an untapped area in homelessness interventions, but one which accounts for a vast expanse of opportunity. As a charity, Rentstart saw this gap 20 years ago, and the gap remains in 2020. The sad fact is that the way welfare is structured in the UK is not enough to support everyone that needs housing. Looking to replicate Freedom2Work looks like attempting to bring people out of poverty via an alternative route while changing the nature of relationships with landlords: an accessible PRS.

We would be delighted to talk to anyone who is interested in replicating, adapting, or learning from the Freedom 2 Work project to help people facing homelessness to access the private rented sector and stable employment in their area. Please get in touch: hello@rentstart.org.

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Ben Phillips-Farmer

Support & Communications Worker

Ben Phillips-Farmer is a Support & Communications Worker at Rentstart (UK).