IT may be a cliché but it is good to talk, writes Jennifer Russell.
STORIES of families living in hardship are too familiar for professionals in the social housing sector across the country today.
The challenge for many of us is when to intervene and help. Is it when a tenant first experiences difficulties or when they turn to you as a last resort?
We believe there is a third option. By identifying problems before they happen we are preventing our tenants hitting rock bottom and being plunged into the poverty cycle.
At Glasgow Housing Association (GHA), Scotland’s biggest social landlord, housing officers have been trained to spot the early signs of poverty and tackle issues affecting tenants, many living in some of the country’s poorest communities.
At the very heart of this approach is our “customer conversations”. Over the past year, we’ve carried out thousands of conversations directly with tenants, dealing face-to-face with the issues impacting their lives.
While core services such as collecting rent and letting homes remain as basic essentials for the sector, frontline housing staff also take on a number of additional roles, including becoming problem-solvers and solution-finders.
Housing officers need to be expert communicators, delivering advice on an ever-expanding range of issues. They are often the one constant in a tenant’s life and are on hand to deal with complex, sometimes chaotic lifestyles.
By reducing our patch sizes to among the smallest in the UK, GHA housing officers get closer to their customers than ever before, developing trust, building relationships, identifying problems before they spiral out of control and, ultimately, preventing a customer losing their tenancy.
Housing officers can spot the signs when a family is struggling to put food on the table, when a young mother can’t afford to buy clothes for her baby or when an elderly couple need additional welfare support but are too afraid, or embarrassed, to ask.
When problems are identified, housing officers draw on a range of support services to tackle the underlying issues.
GHA and the other registered social landlords within Wheatley Group (Cube, Loretto and West Lothian Housing Partnership) strive to do more to help the people in our communities break away from the threat of poverty.
The roll out of Universal Credit, and the likelihood of further welfare reforms, will impact once more on the poorest in society.
When tenants have a diverse range of issues, wide-ranging support services are required.
Our welfare benefit and money advisers are key to getting tenants out of poverty. Often tenants are not claiming benefits they are rightfully entitled to because they don’t know about them or struggle to fill in the paperwork.
Over the past two years alone, advisers have helped tenants access £12 million in unclaimed benefits as well as offering budgeting advice.
A fuel advice service helps tenants access the cheapest energy tariffs, arrange low-cost payment arrangements and, depending on their circumstances, write off long-term debt. Last year, GHA tenants were helped to save £455,000 on their energy bills.
Our Eat Well programme supports those who face real hardship and who may be forced to turn to food banks. The service does more than provide emergency food parcels. It provides “wraparound” money, debt and budgeting support to help the tenants in the long term.
Additionally, tenants struggling to furnish their home can turn to our Home Comforts project which upcycles unwanted furniture.
Of course, prevention will always remain the best option rather than any cure.
The most effective response to help people address poverty in the long term is by supporting people into work and training. Last year alone we supported 312 GHA tenants into work or training through our various schemes like community janitors, modern apprentices and clauses in our investment contracts.
For those tenants who struggle to get online to find work, our free Click & Connect facilities provide internet access and expert advice to create a CV, search for employment or gain qualifications.
A tenant identified as being in need may benefit from just one of our support services. However, a tenant may require welfare benefit support, financial help to feed their family, furniture for their home and guidance to find work.
This support change lives – and it’s available before many tenants even realise they need help. And it all starts with a conversation.
• Jennifer Russell is an area director for Glasgow Housing Association, which is part of Wheatley Group www.wheatley-group.com