As the cost of living crisis continues to bite, what options does the social housing sector have at its disposal to hold back the tide in the form of practical and effective help? What support can they offer tenants facing the apparent inevitability of debt, and how can they bolster their own defences against an ever-increasing risk of rent arrears?
For fear of stating the obvious, there really are just two options available – supporting households to increase their income and reduce their costs. Easily said …
Society Matters cic is a national social welfare training operation set up by northern charity Citizens Advice Gateshead as a trading subsidiary in pursuit of its vision of ‘a fair society for all, with lives well lived’. The charity recognised a few years ago that just continuing to respond to the crises presented to them daily because people had – for whatever reason – got out of control of their finances, could only ever be a response, not a resolution, and the further into crisis these people are the more difficult it becomes to turn the tide. The distress experienced by someone in a state of crisis is so great, but often we think it’s also unavoidable. So the charity set out on a mission to ‘mobilise knowledge so the system works, and it works for everyone’ and by achieving this so, in turn, would we start to enable equality.
In practice that means making sure that the people and organisations ‘in the system’ (and we’ve intentionally not defined what that is – because it can involve so many aspects of people’s lives, from the utility company to the employer to the landlord), are empowered to help people to avoid getting into financial difficulties, and when there are signs that things are going wrong they can catch them before they fall.
It is well recognised, for example, that health and poverty are intrinsically linked, so if we’re recognising a health problem, by looking at the whole person we can anticipate that this is highly likely to also manifest itself as problems with money fairly immediately, and vice versa. Problems with mental health are both a cause and an effect of debt. Not being able to heat a home will often lead to or exacerbate a health problem, which in turn can impact on household income. Equally, if a tenant is struggling to pay their rent, in most cases that’s an indicator of a significantly deeper problem. As a charity we often find that a single crisis issue presented to us by a client, say the threat of eviction, is the tip of an iceberg that can unravel into up to a dozen or more issues, many of which have been left to fester below the surface to ultimately lead to up to that day the notice arrived. And when we say crisis, that has often come about as a direct result of someone trying to find their own solution to a money issue with only limited options available to them. Gambling, high interest door-step lending and prostitution are rarely life choices, but what might appear to be a way out for someone desperate in the absence of other alternatives.
So, if we return to that simplistic formula of enabling tenants to spend less money and gain more, what practical support can Society Matters cic offer to the social housing sector in an attempt to start melting the iceberg? Mobilising knowledge really is the key. For a start, you don’t know what you don’t know. If you’ve never dug into options for income maximisation through in-work benefits, charitable grants, accessible support for carers or disabled tenants, then how can you be expected to be able to point people in the right direction? If you don’t know what support is available for someone facing debt, to avoid the situation spiralling further out of control, you would be understandably fearful of providing reassurance or guidance for fear of making the situation worse.
As housing is such a fundamental foundation stone of people’s lives, we need to put this right. If the housing provider has the knowledge and confidence to paint a picture of what might be possible to a tenant, to help them to slow the downward spiral and put them on the right track to balance their household books, and an accessible and impartial buffer can be put in place to take over as early as possible, then the system starts to work.
Society Matters cic has dug deep into the knowledge and acute, front-end expertise of its advisory team to find a way to mobilise knowledge to make the system work, and the result is a programme of quality, affordable learning and development for professionals working across the housing, employability, justice, utilities and community and voluntary sectors, and for employers who are committed to supporting the welfare of their staff. Workshops and courses are delivered exclusively online in a highly interactive virtual classroom environment for between 2 and 6 hours, and many bring with them CPD accreditation providing both a reassurance of quality and the opportunity for your staff teams to gain evidence of their own commitment to their professional development.
You can find out more about the training on offer at https://societymatterscic.com/social-welfare-training/ and to explore options for direct access to social welfare advice and information services for tenants and housing teams who need accessible, impartial and quality assured solutions, please get in touch.
Jayne Graham MBE FIEP
Director of Society Matters cic/Commercial Director of Citizens Advice Gateshead