Learning from experience is the best way to make a difference

Henry Terefenko from ForHousing discusses how working alongside people in Cheshire West and Chester with lived experiences of poverty has changed how services on the contract are delivered.

Tackling poverty and enabling people to maintain successful tenancies have always been key priorities for us.

As the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect people and communities, we are in a good place to rethink and adapt our housing management services as we deal with, and aim to prevent, increasing levels of poverty.

Recently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has said that the ongoing pandemic means we face prolonged disruption and risks worsening child poverty and inequality in the UK.

Changing services starts with giving tenants a greater voice. We’re incredibly proud of the work we do to engage Cheshire West and Chester Council tenants in our decision-making processes and ensuring they shape where they live.

When the first West Cheshire Poverty Truth Commission was formed in 2017 to bring together some of Cheshire West and Chester’s key decision makers with those living at the sharp end of poverty, we knew ForHousing had to be a part of it.

If we’re not listening to people, how do we know what services we should be providing? What’s working and what needs to change?

Spending time getting to know those with lived experience of poverty who were part of the commission was inspiring. It gave us the opportunity to really listen to the stories of people who have struggled to put food on the table and been made homeless.

We had the chance to really think about and analyse the work we were doing delivering housing services for Cheshire West and Chester Council and how it was impacting on people and families.

Being able to get to know people on the commission who had this experience and build trusting relationships meant that barriers and behaviours previously seen as defensive, on both sides, were more clearly understood and began to come down.

People who had been or who were currently living in poverty could really be heard.

What were the most important factors for them? How could we change what we were doing so it was better aligned with their needs?

One person, Tracy, told us that what she wanted was protection for people, more support to prevent homelessness and for no families to be put into bed and breakfast accommodation, which she describes as the worst time in her life.

We are really focussing on enabling people to maintain successful tenancies. Our teams are listening more and building relationships with tenants.

We have changed our approach in Cheshire West and Chester, so we are now offering early intervention and support and we’ve seen a 75% reduction in evictions as a result. We’re working with partners and the Council to encourage more housing providers to do the same.

ForHousing is now part of a sub-group of the West Cheshire Poverty Truth Commission, looking specifically at Housing and Homelessness.

We have a homeless support arm of our organisation, forfutures, which provides homelessness services for Cheshire West and Chester Council.

Working with other housing providers, we’re aiming to adapt services so that there is a focus on preventing homelessness, while also ensuring there is support there for people when they have become homeless.

It has recently been agreed that the housing providers will sign up to a pledge stating that we will work together to prevent homelessness, and that the Council will review its pre-eviction protocol.

We are also looking at a peer review system, which would mean that if a housing provider was considering taking legal action that would lead to eviction, they would have the case reviewed by another provider.

I am now an ambassador for the Poverty Truth Commission, and I believe that all housing providers should be involved.

If we want to deliver real change and make a lasting impact on communities, it is crucial that we listen to the voices of tenants and work collaboratively to effectively deal with problems and difficulties.

As we wait to see how the pandemic develops and the financial impact it will have, it has never been more important for us to stand together and focus on improving lives.