When Brian* arrives for an appointment with the local housing team he’s asked to leave because he hasn’t brought with him the required documentation to process his case. It will be over a week before another appointment can be arranged. Brian doesn’t leave quietly though, he gives the operative a piece of his mind and ends up being forcibly removed from the premises for aggressive behaviour. Brian is homeless, struggling with alcohol dependence and meeting the requirements of statutory bodies such as the DWP and Local Authority to find a job and home. On being ejected from the building he is told that he will be unable to return for a specified period of time due to his outburst.

Homelessness In England

This is just one example of the difficult situation many homeless people are finding themselves in as they grapple with a system that is not designed to meet their complex needs. Homelessness is on the rise in the UK – since 2010 rough sleeper numbers have increased by a whopping 132% across England and even higher in the South (166%), according to research conducted by Crisis.

Understandably, being homeless can exacerbate, or even cause, physical and mental health problems. The continued stress of being without a place to call your own can often lead to drug and alcohol dependence, mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or anger management, and poor physical health. Life expectancy, if you’re homeless, is just 47 years of age – 30 years less than the rest of the population who have a roof over their heads.

Smaller charities and community organisations are often more agile than statutory bodies, allowing them to provide a range of services that meet the varied and complex needs of the homeless population. The free meals, food and other provisions, internet access, and postal services such as providing an address to collect mail from that we give to beneficiaries are some of the ways in which local non-governmental services can directly meet specific needs of homeless people.

A Backdrop of Austerity

All of this work is done against the background of austerity – government grants are being cut, statutory services are being scaled back and targets for reaching those in need are ever rising.

On top of this, the public’s appetite for supporting organisations that help the most vulnerable in our communities is lacking. Often times, poverty and homelessness are seen as failures of the people experiencing them. Personal circumstances like the breakdown of key relationships, the loss of a job or the termination of a rental agreement are considered by many to be the fault of the person who finds themselves on the streets. Past experiences of childhood trauma, abuse, poor mental health or an environment of neglect are often discounted altogether. Structural impacts such as the stripping of social resources like housing, internet access in libraries, stagnating incomes or reductions to benefits and sanctions are disregarded.

The History Behind Complex Needs

Take Brian’s situation for example; his adolescence was spent with an abusive father who regularly drank and then took his frustrations out on his mother, or him. At the age of 16, he left school and home to join the armed forces. The structured way of life suited Brian and he did well, moving up the ranks to the position of Corporal. His role taught him valuable skills, gave him a community of ‘brothers’ and took him across the world where he participated in numerous conflicts for his country. At the age of 48, he decided to leave the forces to spend more time with his wife and children.

After a year of civilian life, Brian’s relationship began to fall apart. He’d lost the camaraderie of forces’ life and drank to compensate. This made it difficult for him to hold down a job and his aggressive outbursts became more frequent. His diagnosis of PTSD wasn’t followed up with appropriate support and Brian’s behaviour continued to spiral out of control. Eventually, Brian’s wife kicked him out and he arranged to meet with the local housing team to address his lack of accommodation, which is where we met him.

Issues like Brian’s collide to create an almost impossible situation for vulnerable people trying to address the situation they are facing – poverty, homelessness, poor mental health, and past trauma. A combination of all, or some of these issues, is being presented more and more often by clients frequenting social services and some statutory bodies who simply aren’t equipped to manage them.

Providing Hope To Vulnerable People

The non-governmental organisations, like Freedom, working to support and guide people towards brighter futures are left squeezed between the complex issues presented by clients on a daily basis and a decreasing pool of resources which they can draw from. Yet if it wasn’t for small, agile, local organisations, people like Brian would have nowhere left to turn to.

In Brian’s case, once he’d been ejected from the statutory agency for his aggressive behaviour, he turned up at our Day Centre for the free hot three-course lunch. His attitude towards the caseworkers was confrontational and his breath smelt of alcohol. Sitting down with him over a cup of coffee before his lunch, our caseworker gave Brian time to vocalise his frustration about the predicament he found himself in.

The Day Centre worker didn’t ask him to calm down, in fact, she didn’t say much at all. Instead she gave him the space and time to voice his frustrations, quietly noting the agencies he had been in touch with (and suspended from) and using her expertise to identify other services that Brian could turn to or be assisted with in order to address his problems with alcohol, PTSD, homelessness and a complete lack of income.

Having someone take the time to listen gave Brian the opportunity to regain his composure and view his situation rationally - once he’d got everything off his chest he was able to consider the options identified for him. Thanks to the compassion we were able to show him, Brian is now regularly engaging with our Day Centre to address his issues with alcohol and mental health problems, build his social network and repair his relationships, as well as follow through with the process of finding a place in supported housing.


* Name has been changed to protect the privacy of our clients.