14 February 2023

Solving the homelessness sector’s workforce crisis

Solving the homelessness sector’s workforce crisis  image
Image: Rick Henderson is chief executive of Homeless Link, the membership body for homelessness organisations.

The homelessness sector provides an incredible level and quality of support for people experiencing homelessness under immense pressure. However, many of the issues that have historically challenged the efforts of organisations – insecure and short term funding, a workforce with retention issues and complex working conditions – have been exacerbated by the pandemic lockdown and the cost of living crisis.

But among these not insignificant challenges, the issues impacting the homelessness workforce are reaching a critical point, with services struggling to recruit as demand increases.

It has always been clear to me that many of those who work in the homelessness sector have a real vocation for the work – an empathy for others and a strong belief that everyone should have a place to call home.

This is reflected in Homeless Link’s 2022 workforce survey, which received 1,300 responses from people across the country. It revealed that 89% of homelessness workers agree it is rewarding to work in the sector, and 85% state that the ability to make a positive difference to someone’s life is one of the main benefits.

Understandably, however, this implied job satisfaction can only go so far to motivate and retain staff who work hard, often for long and irregular hours, under challenging conditions for relatively low pay. It was an unsustainable situation.

During the pandemic, when staff were put under increased pressure, homelessness services found themselves facing a very real recruitment crisis. Our survey respondents stated they faced chronic staff shortages due to a combination of high turnover rates and funding shortages. Sixty-one percent agreed that it is hard to find high quality staff to work within the homelessness sector. What’s more, 73% believe that the increased cost of living will make it more difficult to recruit and retain staff.

The upshot of all of this is of course a direct impact on homelessness organisations’ ability to effectively support people experiencing homelessness.

Clearly, we have relied on homelessness workers’ sense of vocation for too long. While low pay is certainly an issue, we can equally see that the work of frontline homelessness staff – who often support vulnerable people who are deemed too complex for mainstream health services – is not properly recognised, nor are there the opportunities for career progression that staff have told us they seek.

Unlike in comparable sectors, such as social care, the homelessness sector has not benefited from a professional qualification to acknowledge the importance of and skills needed for their role. This discrepancy is not to be underestimated and we felt it needed to change.

In addition to the clear message we had received from our members, in 2021, the influential cross party Kerslake Commission into rough sleeping had recommended that we should ‘convene a consultation on professional accreditation’ for frontline homelessness workers.

As a result, and following a successful pilot, Homeless Link has partnered with the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) to roll out the first ever accredited qualification for the homelessness workforce.

By introducing high professional standards that are recognised and respected across homelessness and neighbouring sectors, the Level 3 qualification in Providing Homelessness Services will begin to address our workforce issues. It will offer significant benefits for individual workers, homelessness organisations and people experiencing homelessness. It will finally and deservedly put our workforce on a more equal footing with comparable occupations.

The course aims to provide frontline staff with a challenging and highly relevant grounding in all aspects of supporting people with lived experience of homelessness. Importantly, it formally recognises the complexity of the work involved and values the knowledge, skills and experiences of staff, boosting their confidence and enabling them to perform at the highest level.

Homelessness organisations are set to benefit from staff development and retention, as well as a higher quality and consistency of the standards of support offered to people experiencing homelessness. It is also hoped that the qualification may attract more professionals into the sector, who until now may have chosen other paths.

With homelessness services struggling due to the cost of living crisis, we are fortunate to have received funding from St Martin-in-the-Fields Charity, which covers part of the delegate cost for the training, therefore making the opportunity accessible to as many as possible.

While we are proud to have taken this pioneering and positive step, we are clear that more change is needed to solve the homelessness sector’s workforce challenges. As part of our Keep Our Doors Open campaign, which calls, among other things, for an inflationary uplift in funding for organisations due to the cost of living crisis, we will continue to advocate for the funding and resources services need to be able to retain and develop their employees.

To find out more about the new qualification visit: https://homeless.org.uk/team-training-courses/accredited-qualification-level-3-certificate-in-providing-homelessness-services/

Rick Henderson is chief executive of Homeless Link, the membership body for homelessness organisations.

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