Inevitably, the vast majority of them are from what David Cameron might term “problem” families. The UK Government put work with such families at the heart of its strategy on tackling gangs this week.
That follows up on the announcement in August --- in the wake of riots in English cities -- that new laws and projects would tackle the problems caused by 120,000 troubled families.
Homelessness is very often linked to wider social problems, according to Shelter Scotland. A higher proportion of adults who are homeless have personality disorders than the general population.
Unsurprisingly, their children are often not in education and may have a reputation for anti-social behaviour. Some (not all) struggle to be good parents, often because they have been badly parented themselves.
The families are often in debt and are universally poor.
“There is nobody we support who isn’t really below the poverty line,” explains Jane O’Neill, manager of the Shelter Glasgow support service.
Shelter’s Glasgow Families Project has been working in the city for nine years now, and the charity believes the UK Government could learn some lessons from the work it does. Its focus may be homelessness, but it touches on a wide range of social issues, not least child protection. In some cases, the circumstances of a family may put children at significant risk, but they have often not come to the attention of any authority, according Ms O’Neill.
“Those who are not yet linked with other services have often proved to be the most concerning. They tend to slip through the net. We follow families about. We try to draw the line at stalking, but we are very persistent.”
They will not baulk at suggesting to social workers that a child be put on the child protection register, if necessary.
That might suggest the families project is policing homelessness, but that is far from the case. The team of six, who between them work with 50 families at any one time, bend over backwards to support families and help them find new, sustainable homes as soon as possible.
That can mean addressing problems such as past domestic violence or addiction, putting in applications for housing or funds to equip a new tenancy. Staff members accompany parents to meetings and work with agencies such as Glasgow’s Starter Packs charity or social enterprise Spruce Carpets. Support to be better parents is also offered.
Building up trust is a big issue. It can also mean balancing priorities, according to child support worker Kabitha Ratnam. “Children’s needs are different and while parents can sometimes wait for things to be sorted out, children are always pushing for it to be dealt with now. Some parents just don’t have the headspace to put the child’s needs first.”
Sorting out a disrupted education can be important, she adds. For some children homelessness has prevented them attending school. Others attend but don’t take anything in. “Education can be a real road to recovery,” she adds. “It can be the thing that really lifts them.”
That has been the case for Faye Johnson and her 14-year-old son Paul, who became homeless after fleeing violence last year. Referred to Shelter Scotland’s Families Project last November, they had been living in temporary accommodation for nine months and Paul had not been to mainstream school for 18 months.
Desperately short of self-confidence, Faye, workers say, relied on Paul, using him “as a crutch”. However, he rarely left the house, spending most of the day playing computer games.
Shelter workers gave the family practical and emotional support, campaigning for them to be given a permanent tenancy in an area they were happy with. Faye was given help sorting out her finances and acquiring essential items for the tenancy, and her confidence built up so that she believed she could make the new flat a home for herself and her son. Paul was assigned a child support worker, who helped him express how he was feeling and coping.
Weekly outings and creative sessions helped him overcome a very negative view of himself, and he got involved in a local youth project. He made huge improvements and is now back in full-time education with a good attendance record.
“It was a really hard time for me and my mum,” Paul says. “I feel like we’re back on track. I’ve made friends at school and feel more confident about talking to other people. My mum lets me get the train there by myself. I really like school because it’s given me something to look forward to every day.”
The relationship between Paul and his mum is more healthy too now. “I can talk to her about school and what I got up to,” he adds. “We focus on what I’m good at and don’t focus on the negative things I feel about myself. My mum tells me how proud she is of me.”
Paul continues to see the Families Project once every fortnight, and still needs a lot of encouragement to continue to grow in confidence and to be able to look after himself.
Faye says the support workers have now become friends: “Their support, and the support of Shelter Scotland, has been incredible,” she said. “They gave us hope and allowed us both see the light at the end of the very dark tunnel.”
However, unlike Faye, some families have lost care of their children, and workers will not shy away from hard decisions, Ms O’Neill adds. “We have some difficult discussions. It doesn’t get much more difficult than speaking to a mum and saying we aren’t going to be recommending that they continue to have care of their children. But we do, and in many cases we continue to work with them.”
The Glasgow Families Project is funded by Glasgow City Council and, like many voluntary organisations, Shelter has been forced to absorb cuts. A volunteer coordinator post has been cut, limiting the capacity the project had to help with things like decorating.
But the success rate is high, and only 4% of families they work with come back through the system presenting as homeless again.
Fundamentally, its success is in taking a holistic view of homelessness, Ms O’Neill believes. It is always about far more that four walls and a key to the door, she says. But Shelter has the expertise to address the lack of a home, which can be a barrier to everything else. “Homelessness is a really difficult and unsettling experience for people,” she says. “Until you get past that stage, it is hard to deal with any of the other big underlying issues.”