Issue date: 07 March 2003

ISSUE DATE: 07/03/03

Older people vulnerable to homelessness have become the ‘forgotten homeless’ in policy debates and service provision according to a report by researchers at the University of the West of England from the Faculty of Health and Social Care.

The report, ‘Surviving at the margins: older homeless people and the organisations that support them’, has identified that older people are less vocal and demanding so their needs have been marginalized. Over recent decades, policy driven initiatives have concentrated on more visible groups like families and single young people.

Commissioned and funded through the Older Homelessness Partnership Programme, the report looks at the work of 17 projects in the UK. The Programme was established in 1998 by three charities - the Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust (hact), Help the Aged and Crisis. The aim was to provide long term solutions for older homeless people and those vulnerable to homelessness, by identifying, funding and promoting models of good practice.

Researcher Hazel Morbey co-authored the report with Jenny Pannell (Researcher) and Professor Robin Means (all from the Faculty of Health and Social Care, UWE), and she recites some of the findings of the research:

“Older people who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness, have become the ‘forgotten homeless’. The needs of these socially excluded people are absent or poorly represented in most general policies aimed at older people, housing and health strategies.
“A patchwork of very complex circumstances and experiences can leave older people entrenched in very difficult situations and especially vulnerable. Our research challenges popular myths of ‘tramp’-like figures who choose a homeless life. In addition, while some end up living on the streets, many more live in poor or insecure housing situations where they risk becoming homeless.
“Many of the older people we spoke with for this study have worked regularly in their adult lives, and they have had spouses and children, although they tend to have become estranged from family and friends. Some spoke sadly about this. One older man said, “I haven’t see my sister in years, I can’t remember her house number”. Other older people had experienced trauma or abuse.
“Of particular concern is the way the benefits system impacts on older people whether by helping them out of homelessness or, more often, pushing them into it. The study heard many accounts from older people who had become entangled in confusing or complex issues which for example led to the loss of benefits or to rent arrears of many thousands of pounds. ‘Joined up’ thinking is absent, for while on the one hand central government is attempting to ameliorate the plight of homeless people, on the other hand it can actually exacerbate it through benefits policies.
“One older owner-occupier, for example, developed health problems and as a result had to give up work. Having been given poor and inaccurate advice, when her small savings ran out she lost her home and ended up homeless.
“Another older man lost his job and housing after caring for his sick mother. Changes in the job market left him unable to get back into employment when she died and he ended up on the streets. He struggled to cope with the statutory services, “I’d been out of work a long time but they seemed to think, ‘You should be able to cope, you’re intelligent’, so I got no help’”.

“Older people who have lived on the streets for years may be led to seek help through the inevitable effects on health of this lifestyle. It can prove very difficult to settle after having led a transient life.

“Despite these very difficult circumstances older people can be supported in different ways by specialist services and workers who are familiar with the issues, and know what can be done and what is available. We visited many older people who had been homeless but were successfully re-housed and took great pride in their new surroundings.
“However, the voluntary organisations that work with older homeless people in this way chase increasingly smaller pots of time-limited money. They too are vulnerable and their work with these older people has to stop if they are unable to find ongoing finance to support their work.”

Joe Oldman, Homelessness and Housing Needs Manager for Help the Aged says, “The needs of older homeless people are mostly ignored by mainstream service providers and not taken seriously by the Homelessness Directorate. Given the overwhelming success of the older homelessness programme, funded by the voluntary sector, it is now vital that statutory agencies and housing providers take on board the vital importance of specialist services in tackling homelessness amongst vulnerable older people.”

The report makes recommendations for funders and national voluntary organisations, service delivery organisations and government agencies. These recommendations state that funding is crucial for the voluntary services to maintain a good service and that training and links between voluntary, statutory and government organisations need to be improved.
It also sets out specific recommendations for reforms to the benefits systems in order to address the problem areas identified by the research, some of which are already being introduced.

Editor’s note

Organisations which had projects funded through the Older Homelessness Partnership Programme include:

Salvation Army, Bristol - contact: Annie Babb 0117 955 2821

The Ark, Edinburgh – contact: Alan Barr 0131 557 1197

St Giles Trust, Camberwell, London – contact: Daniel Currie 020 7703 7000 or 0788 7674147

Thames Reach Bondway, London – contact: Mike Nicholas 020 7702 5646

Threshold Housing Advice, Wandsworth, London – contact: Graham Slater 020 8333 6947/8

Emmanuel House, Nottingham – contact: Emma Main 0115 950 7140

Framework Housing Association, Nottingham – contact: Jamie Baldwin 0115 841 7711

Two Saints Ltd, Southampton - contact: John Boyle 02380 223443

Elmore Community Support Team, Oxford - contact: Lesley Dewhurst 01865 200130 joint funded project with Connection, Oxford - contact: Mark Thompson 01865 711267

For a copy of the executive report summary please contact Jenny Havis, Publications, Help the Aged. Tel: 0207 278 1114

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