19 Dec 2022

What can we learn from staff working on the frontline of homelessness

Listening to lived and frontline experience is crucial to addressing homelessness. As we face challenges such as the rising cost of living, it is important that these voices are heard and can help shape future policy and practice to ensure that has a safe place to call home.

We know that frontline staff have valuable insights into how to prevent and relieve homelessness. And yet, with cumulative and time-sensitive workloads, it is often difficult to feedback frontline expertise. That is why at the Frontline Network we run an annual survey, to amplify the knowledge and experiences of staff.

In our latest survey, we received responses from 826 frontline workers across the United Kingdom. We define a frontline worker as someone directly supporting people facing homelessness. This could be people working in roles such as outreach, housing, social work, health, or probation, across the public, statutory, or voluntary sector. When asked, 1 in 5 of frontline workers we heard from shared that they had also previously used or currently used homelessness services themselves.

What did frontline workers tell us?

In this latest survey, frontline workers shared some of the creative and resourceful ways they have been working together to support people facing homelessness. However, they also highlighted several areas where change was needed in order to better prevent and relieve homelessness. Key findings included:

1. Access to safe and suitable accommodation remains a fundamental and significant issue when trying to address homelessness.
  • 92 per cent of frontline workers found it difficult to ‘very difficult’ or ‘difficult’ to obtain specialist accommodation for people they supported.
  • 87 per cent of frontline workers found it difficult to ‘very difficult’ or ‘difficult’ to obtain private rented accommodation for people they supported.
  • 85 per cent of frontline workers found it difficult to ‘very difficult’ or ‘difficult’ to obtain social housing for people they supported.

When trying to access accommodation, frontline workers reported several barriers for people they supported. Difficulties were raised around Local Housing Allowance (LHA). The majority of frontline workers felt that the freezing of LHA rates in April 2021 had affected their ability to find suitable affordable housing for the people they support and 83 per cent of frontline staff found it ‘very difficult’ or ‘difficult’ to obtain accommodation within the LHA rate.

Looking forward, 59 per cent of frontline workers were ‘extremely concerned’ about the risk of people needing to choose between housing costs and other basic necessities (e.g. food), and we know that costs have risen further since the survey was conducted.

2. Frontline workers highlighted that accessing wider support for people, beyond accommodation, is also challenging.

Long waiting lists were identified as the biggest issue, followed by digital exclusion and difficulty providing documentation. Mental health support was reportedly particularly difficult to access.

“Long waiting lists – everywhere you go/look... one hour and 26minutes on hold to DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], 50 minutes on hold to electricity providers, six hours wait in A&E, four hour wait in court, nine months wait for accommodation.”

“Digital exclusion is one of the biggest barriers we see as an organisation, and it takes up a lot of our capacity.”

79 per cent of frontline workers found it ‘difficult’ or ‘very difficult’ to access mental health support for people they worked alongside.

3. Lastly, frontline workers shared that their services were increasingly stretched.

High caseloads and a lack of time to do their job effectively impacted staff’s own wellbeing and had a knock on impact on their ability to support others too.

“We should be many more officers, but funding is lacking so we are struggling.”

“The role has already had an impact on [my] physical/mental health and family relationships due to the intensity of the work.”

What happens next?

When we asked frontline workers what changes they would like to see, responses included policy changes to increase household income and prevent homelessness, as well as improved access to affordable and suitable accommodation and greater funding so that tailored, quality support can be provided to individuals where needed.

Taking forward these recommendations will require a united effort from Governments, Local Authorities, The Department for Work & Pensions, Landlords and Frontline Organisations. You can find out more about our survey findings and recommendations by reading the full Frontline Worker Survey report.

At the Frontline Network we have already used survey results to inform our work in various ways, including the design of our Annual Frontline Network Conference and responses to various government and sector consultations this year.

In November and December, we invited frontline staff to share their insights once again. If you would like to receive a copy of our latest findings, please subscribe to our Frontline Network mailing list.

Written by Rachel Marshall

Rachel is a policy and best practice manager at St Martin-In-The-Fields Charity.