Housing the Homeless (Manchester Pilot Scheme)

Housing the homeless, the Manchester pilot scheme. Amy Varle from Social Property investment

In the last article – The Local Housing Allowance ‘Strategy’ – I talked about property networking events and the fun I had in the early days immersing myself in my new role. It was at one such event that I met a young, entrepreneurial landlord in 2013 with whom I struck-up an immediate rapport..

For the next couple of years, this person would become a key figure in my life as we worked together on various property projects.

After weeks of meeting and discussing every aspect of the LHA (Local Housing Allowance) strategy you could possibly think of, we combined our assets, knowledge, and skills to make a plan to house the homeless in Manchester.

Amy Varle and Social Property Investment

Accommodation In Fallowfield

The accommodation available was in the heart of Fallowfield, South Manchester – ‘Student Land’ to anyone out of the area. Over the previous few years, the surge in HMO landlords had seen this part of the city become saturated with shared housing for university attendees, much of it sitting empty as supply now far exceeded demand.

I was stunned as I drove around the area for the first time back in 2013, every property seemed to be advertised as ‘To Let’. I learned that student lettings are all about timing – if a property isn’t occupied by the time the academic courses commence in September, the chances are, it will sit vacant for the remainder of the year.

The Pilot Scheme in Manchester, 2013

An Overview of the LHA Marketplace

I began to have this utopian vision of housing every homeless person in Manchester in all of these empty homes (maybe a little naïve, I know). I thought the best route to achieving the goal was via the local authority – and so I made contact with the council’s homeless and housing department.

Keen to assist in supporting available services, I felt there was an alternative solution to over-subscribed, costly, bed and breakfast or hostel-type temporary accommodation. I was eager to test out and improve the model I was creating, in a practical way which could be monitored and evaluated.

A pilot scheme would help to obtain a broader overview of the ‘LHA’ marketplace and sharing results would allow housing providers to gain a deeper understanding of the processes encountered by an ‘LHA’ claimant or tenant.

The challenges and obstacles that would inevitably arise during this period would enable us to design and improve systems for efficiently and effectively dealing with homelessness – and allow us to confidently guide potential investors to mitigate risks from the offset.

The Manchester Pilot Scheme (In A Nutshell)

  • Identified and accessed a diverse range of void rental accommodation.
    Tenant participants included a mix of low, medium and high-risk individuals with a broad range of social issues and circumstance; from individual rough sleepers to families living in temporary accommodation.
  • Where possible, participants were housed strategically according to gender, age, character, needs and personal circumstance.
  • Applicants assessed on support requirements and motivation to engage.
  • Assistance was given with move-in transition; ie benefit applications and administrative tasks, credit union introduction, obtaining evidence and references.
  • Where possible we tried to engage provision of aftercare services and provided signposting to relevant supporting agencies.
  • Strategies and procedures were designed for good working practice.
  • Continuing tenancy support provided to participants as required.

Phase 1

Shortly after pitching my ideas to the council, I began to take tenant enquiries directly from their homelessness drop-in service, as well as from associated organisations such as domestic violence shelters and day centres.

Both a blessing and curse, my phone rang off the hook as it seemed anyone in housing need within a 20-mile radius of Manchester now had my mobile phone number.

I worked night and day to screen applicants, help them find evidence for their benefits claims, obtain identification, liaise with external agencies and I also helped them to complete welfare assistance questionnaires, housing forms, and credit union applications.

Looking back, it does seem a little crazy and being honest, I really don’t know how I survived that period of intensity.

I was trying to juggle the problems of everyone involved: I became a personal guarantor for the applicants I housed and was reliant on their engagement and cooperation in order to make things work.

And yet ultimately, I was working on behalf of the landlords.

I had a number of houses on the go at any one time and a lot of the people who contacted me were obviously troubled; it was impossible to adequately help everybody and provide them with everything they required.

I connected with charitable organisations and worked hard to form positive relationships in order to explore the wrap-around support service which was so desperately needed.

The Next 2 Years

Over the next couple of years, I continued to network, contribute online and integrate across the private sector, giving balance to the research project as I worked in differing situations; encountering variations in the geographical area, buildings, tenant type and circumstance.

I tried to work with a solution-focused attitude and address problems as a way to improve future output. Though there was a very long way to go, I knew I was onto something and picked myself up after each setback or hurdle.

The pilot scheme period was two years of extreme highs and devastating lows; there were tears of happiness when lives were changed – and tears of frustration when solutions broke down.

I felt the torment of the landlords, as they waited for housing benefit sanctions to be lifted so that they could make their mortgage payment on time – and I felt the pain of the tenants, as they struggled to afford to buy food and basic essentials for their new homes.

I supported women fleeing domestic violence, a young care-leaver who had turned to prostitution in order to support himself, and a rough sleeper who had been continually beaten and urinated on whilst sleeping in Manchester’s streets.

As news traveled of the project I was undertaking, my network naturally widened and I began receiving offers of void property on a regular basis.

I had difficult decisions to make; I just couldn’t facilitate all of the support which was needed for so many complex applicants on my own. I wasn’t qualified to deal with much of what I was encountering – many of the people who were contacting me needed specialised, professional, intervention and long-term support services.

I would see solutions break down when individuals transitioning from chaotic lifestyles were left to fend for themselves, or their aftercare failed to materialise; at times, it was a torturous situation to be in.

I didn’t want to set people up to fail.

In 2015, I made the decision to pause the project and began to re-examine the model in its entirety; drawing on all of our positive and negative experiences in order to create a skeleton of procedural guidance templates for good practice.

The perfect close to this chapter would be a ‘model’ property, where all of these strategies and systems could be showcased: a housing project which would be for the homeless, by the homeless.

Next: Part 4 – Social Property Investment
Previously: Part 2 – The Local Housing Allowance ‘Strategy’

Get In Touch

I’ll be on hand to answer your questions if you leave them in the comments section below. And, if there are any topics you’d like exploring with the experts I’ll be meeting then don’t hesitate to get in touch either here or on the Property Investments UK Facebook page.

And, of course don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter – Amy Felicity Vale / @MissAmyVarle

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