William Eichler 28 April 2017

Caritas Anchor House: a success story from the frontlines of austerity

In these uncertain times of austerity and Brexit, there are few things to be positive about, it seems. The housing crisis and the concomitant issue of homelessness are certainly not areas where you would expect to find some good news.

But you would be wrong. In a small corner of Newham there is something to draw hope from: Caritas Anchor House. The homelessness charity takes a holistic approach to helping those on the street back onto their feet and has been clocking up successes.

Last year, it provided a home to 244 people, supported 36 into employment, and 90 into independent living. It also completed phase two of its well-received £15.3m Home and Hope Appeal, which has so far seen 21 previously homeless people placed in the charity's transitional flats.

And this is against the challenging backdrop of austerity. According to a recent state-of-the-nation report from homelessness charity Crisis, nearly 58,000 people were accepted as homeless by their council in 2015/16 – that’s 18,000 more than in 2009/10.

However, it took time and dedication to transform Caritas Anchor House into the high achieving organisation it is today. In 2004, the building had been neglected, staff numbers were not sufficient enough to run the organisation effectively and it lacked direction. The organisation was facing closure, however, that all changed when new management was appointed.

Caritas Anchor House needed a complete overhaul and it needed money to achieve it. It was clear, however, that the latter would not come before the former, so the management set about trying to turn Caritas Anchor House into something worth investing in.

The first phase saw Caritas Anchor House start a revolution around performance management, attitudes, communications and how they worked with their residents.

The new team ensured each current resident was willing to invest in themselves and introduced rules to provide some structure. They instigated what they describe as a resident involvement model. Essentially, this involved talking with residents and listening to their input, as part of an effort to build a rapport between management and those living in Caritas Anchor House.

Soon, the residents started to realise that Caritas Anchor House was trying to positively help them. The management team aimed to get rid of a dependency culture and develop a new one where, with support, residents were able to take control of their lives and make positive changes.

The residents I spoke to certainly seemed to feel they were benefiting from the charity's new approach, which has been recognised with national awards for innovation.

'It was quite daunting for me. But after a week I settled in and they gave me loads of help and support,' says Kelly. 'I’ve done a lot of volunteering since I've been in here. It's one great place. They're always there for you. They give you a lot of input and if you need anything, they're there to help you. It’s a great place to live and feel supported – there’s not another place like it.'

Tsigie, another resident who is also employed as a receptionist at Caritas Anchor House, feels safe and supported there too. Originally from Ethiopia, she finds it difficult being a long way from home. However, she feels like everyone at Caritas Anchor House is part of her family. 'For me I don’t have anything here like relatives, so for me, it’s like family. Even when I’m working here I consider it like working with my mum’.

There is a calm atmosphere at Caritas Anchor House, which is both important and impressive, given that 140 people with multiple complex needs live under one roof there.

In an effort to shake the charity's negative reputation from before 2004, the team organised the residents to carry out a volunteer litter picking campaign. It paid off. Not only did the charity win a national innovation award, it was the community who nominated them.

There was an ulterior motive for the community outreach though -- and it's one that highlights the importance of experienced leadership. The team - who have a background in local government, the housing sector and the corporate world - knew they were going to have to get the rest of Newham onside if they were going to rebuild the charity's facilities. Winning hearts and minds became part of their long-term strategic thinking.

Sorting out the accommodation was the next step, and it was here that the earlier preparations - improving relations between management and residents, and between the latter and the community - really paid off.

Caritas Anchor House had been advised that simply doing repairs would not be attractive enough to secure future investment. Nobody wanted to invest in doing up buildings that had been neglected. They had to show there was a genuine culture change and they had to come up with plans for the brand new buildings. The management approached some developers and got them to do a master planning concept for the entire operation. But they needed money to see this through.

They had plenty of evidence that their internal reforms had produced a culture change, and that they were worth investing in. They had won two national innovation awards and the Government now recognised them as being in the 'vanguard of change' in the homeless sector. This put them in a good position to attract investors and they were able to raise £6m, including £2m from the Government and £1m in European monies.

The charity was now well placed to apply for planning permission. But to really strengthen their case it was important to be able to demonstrate the concrete social benefit they brought. Caritas Anchor House therefore worked with Oxford Economics to carry out a social return on investment review (SROI). It showed they had a SROI of 398% per annum; every £1 invested in the charity saved society £3.89.

All of this preplanning - the cultural changes, the improved community relations, and planning permission – prepared Caritas Anchor House for its Home and Hope Appeal. Launched in 2011, this was - and continues to be - a three phased, £15.3m appeal.

The first phase, which has been completed, was to refurbish the existing accommodation. This saw the renovation of the residential rooms into individual learning zones, suitable as both a bedroom and a workspace. These rooms, according to the charity, provide good quality accommodation and help facilitate study and personal development.

Phase two, which was completed in December 2016, focused on the construction of additional transitional accommodation: 25 move-on studio flats located immediately next to the main building. Designed to help residents achieve a sustainable transition back into independent living, these flats represent a lot of what Caritas Anchor House is about.

The charity puts a lot of emphasis on helping people back onto their feet - not just comforting them when they're down. They seek to reintegrate people into society and give them their independence back. The studio flats give the residents the opportunity to live on their own, and be responsible for their own cooking, cleaning etc, but with the continued support from the charity. It helps them acclimatise to the outside world, and ensure their progress is sustained.

And this is the thinking behind phase three. Still ongoing, the final part of the appeal is to expand the training facilities to include space for vocational courses, learning zones and a training kitchen to provide amenities for people to gain catering qualifications.

There are 'Lifestyle Architects' who can help unravel all of the problems facing residents - addiction, mental health issues etc. - and teach them how to tackle them one by one. This all serves to give people their independence back. The charity teaches them new skills, especially how to look after their finances. In short, it prepares them for the future.

A £15.3m appeal is no short order. But it seems to be effective; they're only a couple of million short of their target.

With the money they hope to provide a home to at least 240 homeless people, as well as provide residents and locals with opportunities to gain skills and experience from activities such as volunteering, education, training or paid employment every year. The charity also aims to support 15% more people with complex needs to move on to independent living.

So it seems there is some positive news from the frontline of austerity. Caritas Anchor House, the charity Jeremy Paxman described as 'the antidote to compassion fatigue,' is setting a good example for others to follow.

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