About Jamie Wallace

Jamie Wallace is the NextDoor Project's Tenancy Support Officer. Jamie helps people find accommodation all over London and helps put them back on the path to a sustainable tenancy.

NextDoor Project – Five Years On

 

Z2K’s NextDoor Project was launched in July 2012, anticipating a surge in demand for decent, affordable housing in the private rented sector, a direct consequence of the Coalition Government’s “austerity measures”.

One of the first of the cuts to be announced was a reduction in Local Housing Allowance Rates of Housing Benefit in the private rented sector.  This had the effect of greatly constricting the supply of properties that low-income renters could afford; with the result that many quickly fell into arrears and ended up being evicted.

Some families, and a few individuals in priority need, have the right to housing from their local authority.  Many more apply but are refused; savage cuts to local authority budgets have resulted in homelessness regulations and guidelines being interpreted more rigorously than ever before.

Increasingly, families who are “owed a duty” are offered accommodation outside London, cruelly severing ties with family, friends and support networks; a process dubbed “social cleansing” by more than one commentator.  Refusing an offer of accommodation from the local authority is frequently classed as “intentional homelessness” further support is seldom, if ever, offered.

Year on year, since 2010, outreach workers have reported a sharp rise in the numbers of people spotted sleeping rough.  In Westminster, between April 2016 and June this year, 909 people were logged as street homeless in official statistics.

These figures do not include the “hidden homeless” – those who have nowhere to live but do not qualify for, or are refused, formal housing assistance and end up “sofa surfing” in friend’s homes, or paying exorbitant rates for dormitory accommodation in cheap hotels.  The exact numbers in this category will never be known for certain, but in 2017 the charity Crisis estimated that there were over three million homeless adults “concealed” within households in England.

The aim of the NextDoor project was that we would help families who had been denied statutory assistance to transition as painlessly as possible into decent affordable accommodation.  To achieve this, we developed relationships with a few select private landlords, and were able to help a significant number of families in this way.  As the scheme grew, we began to receive a steady trickle of referrals from day-centres, night shelters and supported hostels in Westminster, all of whom specialised in service provision for rough sleepers.  Z2K was able to secure a month’s rent in advance from Westminster and offer a guaranteed deposit.

From November 2012, new powers under the Localism Act meant that for the first time local authorities were allowed to discharge their housing duty into the private rented sector.  Many London boroughs enthusiastically seized the opportunity to cut housing waiting lists, offering “incentives” to Private Landlords of up to £6,000 for housing a three or four person family.  We could not, and would not compete with these “incentives” which although legal are, in our opinion, a misuse of public funds.

As the project evolved so the emphasis changed; we do still assist families in finding accommodation, but the main thrust of our work is now directed towards helping single people, both rough sleepers and the hidden homeless (many of whom also sleep rough, intermittently).  In total, we have now helped nearly 300 people into a private tenancy.

Early in 2013, on the cusp of these changes, I attended a conference for homelessness practitioners organised by Shelter; during the lunch break I fell into conversation with a reconnection worker who had many years of experience working with rough sleepers.  His job title was Personal Navigator, a nomenclature which at the time I thought somewhat opaque, although he certainly knew what he was about.

Five years on, and the steady trickle of NFA’s (persons of no fixed abode) referred to our service threatens to become a deluge and I have learnt much from that most brutal but effective of teachers, experience; and now see that personal navigators is indeed what we are.

Over the coming weeks and month’s we’ll be posting reports on the work that we have done and continue to do. We shall look back at notable moments from the last five years, talk honestly about frustrations and failures; revisit old friends to see how they are getting along, post bulletins about ongoing cases as we continue to help vulnerable individuals navigate the maze of bureaucracy, gatekeeping and the paucity of adequate service provision.

All of the above will attempt to convey the incredible tenacity and resilience we see every day from our clientele, and will endeavour to shine a spotlight onto the iniquities created by a flawed and mean-spirited government policy that is driving so many thousands into destitution; clinging onto hope by their fingernails.

Humanity Homes hostel now open

A-rough-sleeper-on-the-st-007Since the age threshold for the Shared Accommodation rate was raised to thirty five our Private Rented Sector Access Scheme has struggled to house anyone under that age without an exemption. This has meant we regularly have to turn away homeless young men and women seeking our help.

We have in the past tried to place people in shared accommodation but the vulnerable nature of our clients has made this challenging. To address this challenge we have collaborated with a new charity called Humanity Homes to create a hostel where we can provide ongoing support to those we house there.  Continue reading

Substandard accommodation and minimum space standards

To-Leti460x276An important part of my role as Tenancy Support Officer at the NextDoor project is to manage the expectations of our clients regarding the type of accommodation we are able to find them.  We do not expect our clients to live in properties which we consider to be substandard but with LHA rates now based on the 30th percentile of rents in a given are finding appropriate accommodation this is no easy task. This is particularly true in an unregulated sector, where it is all too easy for landlords to exploit the intense demand for accommodation which exists in London. Continue reading

The road from rough sleeping to employment is not an easy one

imagesThe role of our Private Rented Sector Access Scheme is twofold, to assist our clients into secure, accommodation, and to provide them with on going support. A significant proportion of our clients are former rough sleepers, a group who tend to be in particular need of intensive support in adjusting to life in settled accommodation, and for whom a sense of security is paramount. Once a client has settled in, and seems to be coping well, we will still keep in touch with the occasional phone call or visit to check that everything is OK.

One such client is Dave, who we found a one bedroom flat for in November last year. He had been through a very unfortunate combination of circumstances, forced into rough sleeping for almost a year. So he was overjoyed when we found him a very nice one bedroom flat in South London. He was full of hope and plans for the future and set about almost immediately applying for jobs, volunteering and a couple of months ago he got a place on a 16 week course getting practical experience and an NVQ in Social Work. He was very optimistic that this and the experience, skills and contacts he was gaining through his voluntary work gave him a good chance of getting a good job, and capitalising on successful career he had enjoyed for many years, before a series of unfortunate events left him with no other option than to sleep rough and try to survive as best he could. Continue reading

Confusion and anxiety as the Social Fund is localised

dwpAs part of the government’s overhaul of the benefit system, which came into effect at the beginning of this month, the Social Fund has been scrapped. This is a worrying development for us here at the NextDoor Project. Most of the clients for whom we find accommodation have no savings of their own and landlords invariably require one month’s rent in advance, which we have usually be able to obtain on their behalf from the Social Fund in the form of a Crisis Loan payment.

Elements of the old social fund, such as budgeting loans, will continue to be administered by the DWP, but crisis loans are now part of a bundle of responsibilities which have been devolved to local authorities. Obtaining crisis loan money from the old Social Fund was never easy, with call centers staffed by humans delivering remarkably convincing impersonations of robots. These generally pusillanimous creatures were clearly instructed to find any reason, however spurious, to reject an application. One particularly egregious example being when a rough sleeper who I had found a studio flat  for was refused a loan on the grounds that “He has been sleeping rough for eight months, which means that he is coping very well with his situation, and is therefore not in a crisis ”. A piece of twisted logic worthy of the original Catch 22.

Accessing a Crisis Loan under the old system may have been difficult, but at least one was dealing with one centralised system and one set of rules, however obtuse. Over time I had become something of an expert at navigating my way through all obstacles and of late successful applications were becoming the norm, not the exception. Now we are dealing with up to thirty-two London Local Authority’s, each with its own set of criteria and some seemingly without any coherent policy at all.

Even where councils, such as Kennsington and Chelsea (in consort with Westminster and Hammersmith & Fulham under the new  tri-borough administrative arrangements), have got a system in place it is embryonic and there are teething problems and delays. We have been successful in accessing a payment from Westminster, which is apparently the first under the new system, but because the payment mechanism is not in place yet Z2K has had to bridge the payment, in order for our client to be placed.

I have even been told by one London borough that they will not be giving cash payments at all but food vouchers, which at the very least shows a total misunderstanding of the needs of the people for whom this money is intended. Many other boroughs are insisting on a local connection before they will consider an application.

The only good thing that can be said about the new system is that when money is given it is in the form of a grant, unlike the old social fund, which was a loan, and over time it is to be hoped that councils will evolve better systems, and a greater understanding of the needs of their clients. At the moment however, like so much of the governments wholesale changes to the benefit system, these changes are creating confusion and anxiety, with many unintended consequences and an overall impression that they have not been properly thought through.