Freedom to Work, delivered by Elmbridge RentStart (ERS) in partnership with Commonweal Housing has been developing in its first year; Professor Jo Richardson from the evaluation team at De Montfort University (DMU) tells us more about the emerging lessons so far.

Freedom 2 Work (F2W) is a simple, person-led response to anyone facing homelessness. The scheme is trying to break the vicious circle of homelessness by combining housing, training and support for re-entering the job market. At the heart of the project is the aim to emphasise the importance of building and encouraging a savings culture. Through a match funded savings reward scheme clients can build up a pot of money which can be used to cover gaps in welfare payments, pay off debt, or even the deposit on a new flat in the private rental sector.  This is an important aim of the project, albeit within a challenging climate of austerity and the impact of Universal Credit changes.

F2W enables the person to be part of the solution, to contribute and build resilience. By drawing on clients’ talents and encouraging self-reliance, F2W offers a protected way back into the world of work.  The project is for three years, and this blog summarises some of the key points learnt in the first year.  Whilst the full evaluation will not be due until 2019, it is an important component of action learning, piloting and testing interesting ideas and initiatives, that we have an exchange of ideas and learn as we go.  This blog does not offer all the evaluation answers, but instead highlights some of the learning so far and raises some of the questions and challenges, both for the F2W project itself, and for those interested in adapting the ideas in their own contexts.

During F2W’s first year of operation, 37 people have been on the scheme. Previously 12 of the users had been street homeless and 25 had been ‘imminently homelessness’. It thus is both reactive and proactive. Self-reporting by users indicated that 11 had alcohol and / or drug issues and over half had mental health concerns. Loneliness and isolation has also been identified during year one as a reoccurring theme. By the end of year one, 16 users had found jobs once they had accommodation (and 10 of these remain in work). In addition five users are volunteering and five are in training. In terms of savings and rent credit, the total amount saved was nearly £3,500 with 14 users having saved over £100.

To be clear, F2W works as it does, in the context it is situated – this is key in understanding the portability of ‘good practice’ and the need to adapt not adopt.  Project leads on the F2W team have heightened skills in networking locally, persuading employers, landlords and key players to engage with the vision and get ‘on board’ with an idea that is flexible and personal.  There are however some key ingredients that may, or may not, work elsewhere.  In a time of austerity, and with the consequences of universal credit roll out about to take effect, the ‘Freedom’ approach has never seemed more apposite.

The key ingredients of F2W are that:

  • Participants live in shared private rented sector properties, which is managed by ERS (direct management of the rent account is important)  normally for a period of nine months
  • F2W team provide back to work advice and facilitate workshops with local and national employers as well as with education providers
  • F2W participants are encouraged to develop a culture of saving by building up rent credit on their account. This is matched by the F2W scheme with the ambition of having a deposit ready at the point they move on in the private rented sector
  • Intensive support is provided for wellbeing and life skills in order to build participants’ resilience.
  • There is a flexibility in approach, to allow the F2W team to respond to, often multiple and complex, client needs.  A parallel small grant fund, which can be used by the charity to support individuals responding to small crises, is an important element (but we are yet to establish whether it is a vital element – looking into years two and three of the evaluation).

Whilst the main tests that the evaluation team have been asked to look at are around employment, access to housing and a culture of saving, there is a wider test – on the development of resilience – how individuals can build up their ability to cope and to move on with their lives.  There is also an element of reflection on the impact of delivering the F2W project on the team.  The ‘freedom’ to respond to individual crises with the offer of help (often relatively inexpensive, but beyond the financial reach of clients) appears from observation of, and reflection with, the F2W team to be liberating and motivating.  Ultimately, we will know in 2019 whether the approach has worked if there are reports and observations that clients have:

  1. Accessed housing which enhances stability
  2. Benefitted from flexible tailored support recognising individual skills and attributes (for example one individual, unexpectedly has found a niche in creative writing)
  3. Engaged with a culture of saving, building up a rent deposit in order to access accommodation to be a stable base
  4. Developed wider resilience in order to withstand the complex and changing issues impacting on individual’s lives.

Could F2W work in developing resilience, helping people back into the housing and employment market, in other areas of the country? Could it be scaleable beyond 22 units of accommodation?  We will report on this at the end of the evaluation in 2019, but the initial indicators are looking promising.  There will need to be adaption rather than adoption of such an approach to reflect the context and leadership skills.  Freedom is the future.

Professor Jo Richardson, De Montfort University