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Westminster project transforming lives for homeless women

·5-min read
A beneficiary of the Westminster VAWG Housing First Project (Solace)
A beneficiary of the Westminster VAWG Housing First Project (Solace)

A Housing First project run in partnership by charities Standing Together and Solace has been shortlisted for the London Homelessness Awards for its transformative role in providing services for homelesswomen in Central London.

The Westminster VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls) Housing First Project was set up in 2019 after Standing Together began work with Westminster Council to secure housing accommodation across the borough.

As Louisa Steele, Project Manager at Standing Together, explains, “we coordinated the housing elements first by finding secure units and getting housing associations (which include Southern, Peabody, L&Q, Octavia and Women’s Pioneer Housing) on board. The council then put out a tender to deliver services to the homeless women who would live in the apartments. Solace won due to their fantastic track record of delivering intensive, specialist support to women living with multiple disadvantages.”

In partnership, Solace and Standing Together are using the Housing First model to support women in Westminster who suffer long term or repeated homelessness. As Ms Steele describes, “between their time spent in hostels, prisons or rough sleeping, all the women who use our service have experienced considerable amounts of trauma.”

Rhiannon Barrow, Housing First Manager from Solace, points out that the causes of a particular individual’s situation “might be that they are in an abusive relationship, or that they have to do sex for rent. Our intervention intends to stop the revolving door of homelessness that these lead to.”

To do this, the Westminster VAWG Project has adopted the Housing First model, which turns traditional service provision on its head by providing long-term accommodation to a homeless person before they engage with services or find employment.

Originally successful in Scandinavia, the model has since been adapted to the UK after research by Homeless Link and the University of York created key principles practitioners must follow when rolling it out.

 (Solace)
(Solace)

Ms Steele believes the model’s most important principle is that of “choice and control. We are working with people who have been routinely disempowered and disadvantaged by the system. The Housing First model gives them back control.

That is particularly important for women, whom we know are routinely disempowered and lack control in abusive relationships. The project is really about helping them have more autonomy.”

The project has expanded by over 200 percent since starting in 2019 with 11 beneficiaries, largely due to its highly impressive tenancy sustainment rate of 93 percent. Ms Barrow highlights how the project’s early success is based on both the quality of services and the trust established between providers and the users.

“Because Housing First has relatively small caseloads compared to other services, we have the capacity to build trusting relationships with individuals for whom previous trauma has made them very skeptical of outreach teams.”

“Once we’ve identified women who are entrenched in homeless living and have built a relationship with them, we move on to securing them a flat. There are no conditions attached to moving into the flat - they don’t need to be clean from substance abuse, or even to have left the abusive relationship they might be in. They also don’t need to accept the property - we will try and find the one which suits them and their needs.”

 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

“From there, we provide holistic support that targets their multiple disadvantages. This could be giving them support over substance abuse, mental health support or simply advice with paying council tax and managing the tenancy. We always say the women have for so long in their life been in an abusive relationship, they often can’t make decisions themselves, so we slowly build up their self-esteem to get their identity and their agency back.”

Those women that benefit from the project, who in order to be eligible must meet criteria of having experienced multiple disadvantages such as experience of leaving care, domestic violence, mental or physical health issues, are the best placed to assess the transformative nature of the service.

One user, who preferred not to be named, stressed the difference in their self-esteem, saying that “I feel like a human, not like an animal. I can sleep in a bed, I can use the shower when I want. I feel like a human should feel. Most importantly, it is because I am a woman and I feel safe. Nobody is going to come to me in the nighttime and wake me up and ask me about things which are not nice.”

“I have a son and I have my mum, and I can just invite them here, which is so much better. They can come to me for visits, I can show them London, they can stay here in comfort, so it’s very good for me.”

A Westminster VAWG Housing First Project Living Room (Solace)
A Westminster VAWG Housing First Project Living Room (Solace)

Another beneficiary says “this flat just feels like a dream. I never imagined I would get housed in this area. I feel so lucky, I could have been god knows where. I feel like things have just gotten better and better.”

Despite these positive reflections, Ms Steele is keen to stress that Housing First is not necessarily a “magic bullet”, but that it works “for the top 20 percent of those who are entrenched in homelessness and have multiple disadvantages.”

Given the testimonies of those who benefit from the Westminster VAWG Project however, and the continued impetus Standing Together and Solace have to continue the project, it looks as though Housing First will continue to be a crucial part of the solution to London’s homelessness crisis.

The London Homelessness Awards, taking place on 14th October at Union Chapel, is being run in partnership with the Evening Standard’s Homeless Fund. To find out more visit: https://lhawards.org.uk/

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