INTERVIEW: In conversation with Threshold Housing Link's Michael Keenan

By Claire Dukes - 1 October 2019

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  • Threshold Housing Link's Chief Development Officer, Michael Keenan

    Threshold Housing Link's Chief Development Officer, Michael Keenan

With winter on its way, Swindon's charities supporting the town's rough sleepers are battening down the hatches to further support vulnerable individuals. However, for charities such as Threshold Housing Link the need for their services is all year round.

In this exclusive interview Swindon Link talks to Michael Keenan of Threshold Housing Link.
We talk to Threshold's Chief Development Officer about the charity's work and what initiatives are in place to help alleviate homelessness in Swindon.

Last year Threshold Housing Link launched a new social enterprise 'Health & Wellness Juices' in Swindon's town centre

When was Threshold Housing Link founded?

The charity commenced work in Swindon in 1972, initially established as The Swindon Cyrenians (AGAPE) by a group of local people, who rallied together, to provide soup to those found sleeping rough on the streets. In the 47 years since that time there have been name changes and a raft of projects, large and small, but the central aims, in essence, remained the same: to alleviate the suffering of the homeless and to end homelessness in Swindon. To date we are still only realising part of the vision those aims evoke, but we are, I feel, moving ever closer to utopia.

The ideal outcomes would, however, be realised sooner if there was a sound, solid, cohesive and collaborative approach among the professional agencies and organisations seeking to alleviate homelessness in Swindon; in that respect there is room for improvement. It does need to be said though, that local charities are generally stretched and collaboration is complicated by many factors, but we can perhaps look beyond Swindon to towns and cities that have tackled these same challenges more effectively and implement approaches they pursued.

Can you tell me when and why you joined Threshold?

I joined Threshold in June 2017. My interest in the homeless sector stemmed, in part, from a research trip years earlier to rehabilitation and intentional communities in continental Europe. I was interested in implementing organisational approaches that actually worked to tackle and resolve problems associated with entrenched homelessness and addictions, instead of maintaining the status quo approaches prevailing in the majority of outdated and ineffective models of care within the sector, which typically failed to meet the needs of homeless persons.

For me it was my personal passion to make a meaningful difference which led me to the role I have today.

As I understand you are currently Chief Development Officer. Has this always been your role?

My initial role at Threshold was that of the Business Manager which involved a strong focus on developing projects that delivered real social impact. Previously my career was diverse, initially in the third sector but then in senior management within FE and HE education, including at one point being the Head of Education within a notorious Young Offenders Institution. It was while working within the prison system that my passion for the third sector was profoundly reignited.

I am also a qualified primary health professional, so the perspective and professional experience that I have on a range of issues affecting our service users is broad and I feel that has helped me in undertaking the change process required to transform Threshold into a truly psychologically informed organisation, and one which is totally guided by best practice, underpinned by the most contemporary evidence in the sector.

What types of services does Threshold provide?

Our organisational objectives are clear, we seek to prevent homelessness, to alleviate the associated social exclusion of homelessness, actively assist recovery from its effects with those clients working with us and to influence Local Authority policy that affects the homeless.

Threshold is underpinned by inclusive humanistic values and adopts, as I just mentioned, an evidence based approach to providing services and care to our clients. To meet the organisational objectives we provide a number of critical services.

For roughly 20 years Threshold has provided Swindon’s rough sleeper outreach service in an intensive fashion, but right from the organisations founding, some 47 years ago, our staff have reached out to support the homeless, on the streets of Swindon and even further afield. We have been conducting this vital outreach service with some funding from the Local Authority, but it has almost always been majority funded by the donations we received from our many supporters, including local businesses. We currently have three resettlement project houses, in the recent past we have run many more, as well as the direct access emergency hostel in Swindon.

At present we are again increasing the bed spaces we provide so that we can get people off the streets, providing them with safe accommodation and a range of support services. We are also currently transforming the services we offer our residents. At present we are raising funds to build specialist Therapy Rooms at our properties where, for example, we will provide a range of psychological and physical therapies, as well as nutritional and other allied health services delivered onsite. This is but one development we are making to deliver services congruent with the Psychologically Informed Environments model applied to the homeless care sector.

So, in brief, Threshold is entering a phase of onsite service provision at our projects that has not previously been provided in Swindon and I am particularly excited about the potential this will have to help people move forward in rebuilding their lives.

What have been Threshold’s biggest, or most successful, initiatives in the last year?

I mentioned briefly before that Threshold has a role in influencing local policy. Working together with a number of organisations in Swindon, Threshold initiated undertaking the most comprehensive and robust survey of homelessness in our town that has been conducted in many years.

Using the ‘Homeless Link’ best practice audit instrument we contributed to the national statistics and quantified Swindon’s homeless health needs. This information was shared with the Swindon and Shrivenham Clinical Commissioning Group and with Swindon Borough Council in order, hopefully, to inform policy changes and so that partner organisations might better deploy their finite resources to serve the needs of the homeless, and to prevent homelessness when possible. Key findings from this survey indicated how crucial it was to address the complexity of issues faced by the homeless, which in part can overwhelmingly be linked to unmet needs in respect of the provision of mental health care. As an organisation we decided not just to draw attention to those findings, but to respond to them in a meaningful way, which was the impetus to build Therapy Rooms at our projects, and to provide a very different type of outreach service also, which continues to evolve at this very moment, even though the funding we receive to provide an evidence based and professionally skilled outreach service is very much at risk right now.

There have been a number of keystone projects over the past year, but the biggest project we have undertaken is one that it still at a very early stage, and that is the acquisition and redevelopment of a major move-on housing project. I hope that within eighteen months Threshold will have the capacity, overall, to increase the accommodation spaces we provide to meet the needs of at least a further twenty five residents. This will ease pressure on services Swindon wide and crucially, we will be seeking to provide accommodation to clients who have high support needs, and suitable and plentiful accommodation is scarce in Swindon for high needs individuals which results in very poor outcomes for some, with very vulnerable people spending unacceptably long periods rough sleeping.

What is a common misconception about homelessness that the charity tries to counter?

That is a difficult question to respond to because I do not want to give oxygen to perceptions that are stigmatising and perhaps also very misinformed. What I will suggest to people who are interested to know more is that they take a moment to imagine how easy it might be for them to find themselves homeless should only a few factors in their lives change.

I do often find myself saying to others that nobody writes being homeless on their bucket-list. I will return to the Homeless Needs survey I mentioned previously, which showed that factors connected to unmet mental health needs can be a significant cause leading to circumstances where individuals become or remain homeless. There are of course a large range of other factors, such as relationship breakdowns, job losses and lack of funds to sustain accommodation, individuals fleeing domestic violence, issues arising in connections to substance misuse and so forth.

If people hold a perception that homelessness has a narrow range of underlying causes then I would suggest that this is not so. I would invite them to undertake a little research online, or through engaging with organisations like Threshold.

Can you tell me why it can be common that a homeless individual does not want to engage with a service like Threshold? Many people are often surprised this is the case.

It is entirely common that rough sleepers who have been homeless for some time have most likely felt let down by a range of organisations and services and therefore understandably feel cynical about our organisation’s capacity to help them. Of course Threshold cannot provide all the solutions, we work in collaboration with a range of services, not least Swindon Borough Council. So, our work is to identify and provide options to service users, to support their decisions and to provide a challenge function, advocating on behalf of our clients when required to do so.

Another reason people may not wish to engage, and I come back to a point I have already made, is that there may be undiagnosed or otherwise unmet mental health needs. I have strongly been presenting the case to the Local Authority that what is most needed in Swindon is the provision of highly qualified mental health professionals working in an outreach service capacity. You can have one hundred volunteers or semi-skilled staff from agencies approach a rough sleeper offering help and assistance but if that rough sleeper has significant mental health concerns or may be substance dependent then the chances of effective and sustained engagement are somewhat limited, in my opinion. Bristol, for example, responds to this universal problem in the sector by providing an Assertive Contact and Engagement Service delivered by mental health professionals. In various towns and cities throughout the UK, and abroad, psychologically informed models of care are positively transforming policies and procedures in swathes of organisations working in the social care sector, and importantly those changes transform the outcomes for homeless populations.

I hope that Swindon, like the City of Bristol, will become a ‘psychologically informed town’. Should that cultural shift broadly take place then I would predict that Swindon would see a rapid decline in rough sleepers as individuals would successfully move on to long-term independent and sustainable accommodation, rather than remain on the perpetual treadmill which is powered by short-term and often inadequate interventions that see people return to the streets in a cyclical and tragically predictable manner.

As a town what has been Swindon’s biggest hurdle to help alleviate homelessness?

It appears to have been a long time since the Local Authority updated or indeed seriously revised key strategies related to homelessness and yet a coherent and relevant strategy that brings all stakeholders together can provide a good foundation on which successful outcomes can be built.

In the past year, at least, colleagues at Swindon Borough Council have been attending to rewriting the local Joint Strategic Needs Assessment and also the Rough Sleeper Reduction Strategy, which is in an advanced stage of development. I have not seen the draft strategy yet, but I expect to do so shortly. My hope would be that it is informed by robust evidence, by best practice models, by the considerable feedback local organisations have provided in advance of preparing the draft or will provide to the draft when they see it which could influence further change.

Also, importantly, I hope it is in part radically different to former strategies because to continue with an old strategy by tweaking it only a little would be a disappointing outcome of the present review process, which I am sure won’t be the case. Knowing the key author of the new strategy, who is a ‘good egg’, I sense his passion to get this new strategy document in good order will shine through and I hope the strategy will effectively support a rapid reduction in homeless levels in Swindon, and do so in quick time.

Another local issue is the lack of suitable single person accommodation in Swindon. Threshold, like some other local charitable organisations, are looking to remedy this through our own efforts and thus far we have had good support from Swindon Borough Council in advancing our plans. Good quality accommodation is a real priority as we consistently hear from former rough sleepers that they are now living in woeful conditions in accommodation provided by private landlords, for example. Therefore Threshold have undertaken discussions with property developers to find solutions that will lift the standard of housing and provide affordable rents. Then, again, another issue I must consistently draw attention to is the extent of unmet mental health needs prevalent among the homeless population in Swindon as this impacts profoundly on tenancy sustainment. Even if we find accommodation individuals with unmet mental health needs may find it difficult to sustain their tenancy when supported by the limited amount of keywork that they might be provided by the Local Authority, who operate, like our organisation, with finite resources and increased demands for service provision. Therefore meeting those mental health needs effectively must become a top priority in Swindon as it will help alleviate the rate of return to rough sleeping that might otherwise typify the ‘perpetual treadmill’ I have mentioned, on which many individuals find themselves caught.

Another dimension to the growth in homelessness in Swindon is that a substantial portion of rough sleepers have no recourse to public funds and therefore they experience significant barriers to finding accommodation locally. Their plight is made worse should they not wish to return to their country of origin. There will in such circumstances continue to be a consistent rough sleeper community in Swindon unless hitherto unavailable options to assist these individuals manifest. The Haven, a drop in centre run by a Swindon Christian organisation, hosts English language classes for speakers of other languages, providing a chance for homeless individuals to learn or improve their English, and enjoy the benefits that language proficiency will bring. The Haven and Swindon Night Shelter will also likely continue to provide emergency accommodation over winter for people with no other, or limited, options to secure housing in the UK.

There are other organisations in Swindon, such as the Harbour Project, that also provide assistance to refugees and other persons with no recourse to public funds in the UK. Without the work that those local charitable organisations undertake in Swindon then it is not wild to speculate that the rough sleeper population would increase even further, and at a faster rate, than it has been in recent times.

What impact has Threshold had on decreasing the population of homeless individuals in Swindon?

The organisation has been running for 47 years and in that time I would put it to you that we have had an enormous impact. After nearly half a century since our inception, it is still the case that if you are a rough sleeper in Swindon you are most likely to encounter Threshold staff in your first engagement with professional, caring, services. With the expansion of accommodation through our development projects that are underway, then we envision we will be able to accommodate, and then move on to independent accommodation, a substantial number of persons each year, more than double the number we assist at present.

In terms of the average number of individuals who contact and engage with our service year on year, requiring assistance to prevent or alleviate homelessness, then this number over recent years has been in excess of 700 persons annually.

From your professional point of view what would you advise someone who wanted to engage with a homeless individual?

I would advise people to report the location of the homeless individual to Threshold by calling 01793 524661, or through making a report online at www.streetlink.org.uk or to call the Swindon Borough Council Housing Team on 01793 445503.

What people should keep in mind is that within the Swindon town centre precinct there are an increasing number of individuals who are housed yet beg and purport to be homeless. So in line with advice of other organisations in the sector, such as The Big Issue, I would encourage people to report the concerns they have in relations to sighting or encountering a homeless person. I would say that it is better, if you wished to give practical help, to offer food and drink if the individual wants this. If the homeless individual looks particularly unwell then please call our specialist outreach team without delay, or call the appropriate emergency service if the individual is in a dire way or in danger.

I would also advise people to take a look at the myriad charities working locally to alleviate homelessness and consider if making a donation to one or more of them would align with the impulse to help that arose when they encountered a homeless individual in the town.

It is natural to want to help others, and I would encourage people to consider how the provision of professional services can move people off the streets and into housing. Therefore I would urge people to consider the work that local charities do to help the homeless and to consider supporting those efforts through donations of money, services or goods, according to their capacity and the chosen charity’s ability to make use of the donation.

Since starting at Threshold how have you seen the attitudes towards homelessness change?

I have often spoken to community groups, business groups, political gatherings, youth groups and to individuals who have expressed an interest in the work Threshold do. I suspect that as the longest running, by a country mile, homeless charity in Swindon we are the organisation that people first think of when issues related to homelessness arise. The wide community based support for Threshold has afforded me many opportunities to let people know about the very important work being undertaken on a daily basis by Threshold.

I have also had the honour of sharing the personal accounts of our clients that testify as to how their lives have been transformed through Threshold interventions. I have never encountered a situation at such an event where I have had to change attitudes per se, what I have consistently found is that people want to help, they are very interested in eliminating homelessness, they were often just unsure of how they could make a difference. My role is to let people know that there are so many ways, individually and collectively, that people can make a meaningful difference.

I also find that local business leaders are extremely keen to contribute to local causes and we are fortunate at Threshold that many great local companies are supporting our ‘Business Against Homelessness’ initiative.

I imagine your job presents many challenges. What keeps you working at Threshold?

I do have clear goals I wish to achieve at Threshold and it is those goals that sustain my enthusiasm for the very hard graft my role requires.

Firstly I wish to ensure that Threshold radically expands the amount of accommodation we can provide. Secondly, and importantly, I wish to fully implement a culture change not just within Threshold but broadly within the sector locally. To that end you will find me consistently promoting the need for services to become psychologically informed, in a meaningful, committed way.

Thirdly, a red-thread throughout my career has been my commitment to social justice and the third sector and my present role allows me to continue to contribute to making a difference to the lives of, often, very vulnerable individuals. Primarily it is these elements of my work that keeps me motivated throughout the long hours that I work each week.

What initiatives are Threshold currently working on or towards? Are there any winter-specific events organised?

Numerous initiatives, mostly connected to the implementation of a structural and cultural transition to a PIE (Psychologically Informed Environment), the expansion of our property portfolio, and the transformation of our outreach service to meet the needs of individuals with mental health challenges and substance misuse issues (dual diagnosis) that alternative forms of outreach will not effectively address.

We are also working hard to form alliances with some major UK homeless organisations, beyond those we already work with, to benefit from further best practice sharing initiatives and the extensive resources of larger organisations, to help Threshold better serve the local needs in Swindon.

In terms of a winter specific event, then every year we host ‘Threshold’s BIG Swindon’s SLEEPOUT’, which is the towns original and largest ‘solidarity with the homeless’ sleep out event. Each year this event raises crucial funds that support our outreach work and special projects. There will be information and registration details on our website shortly, or people can express their interest in attending by emailing Threshold at events@thl.org.uk.

We are also exploring how we might provide additional emergency accommodation in Swindon over the coldest winter months. We observed last year that roughly only a dozen individuals accessed winter accommodation at one venue established at the time for that sole purpose, which meant that many more individuals continued to sleep rough throughout the winter. Indeed, our outreach team at that time reported that many rough sleepers were turned away from emergency accommodation. We consider that it is just a horrendous outcome for those rough sleepers who are left without accommodation, or who are excluded from accommodation at emergency shelters, who then might find themselves left sleeping rough throughout the entire winter season. Their very survival is at risk. If it is possible, then Threshold would like to provide a dignified and accessible option for rough sleepers this winter, one that does not set too many barriers to access, is inclusive and holistic and that will provide increased options for local rough sleepers. However, if we are unable to do so this year due to limited funds and / or a suitable location not being secured in time, then it is our aim to provide an emergency winter accommodation provision in the following year.

What we do have planned over the Christmas break is that rough sleepers and those in emergency accommodation will be able to spend some time in quality hotel lodgings where they can access support and professional advice from Threshold staff and volunteers if they wish, or simply stay warm, eat well, and gain some short respite from their typical day-to-day hardships. This accommodation and full hospitality has only been possible to plan due to the support of a great local business, in fact for 47 years Threshold has only been able to help the homeless because of the generous support of locals.

For further information about Threshold Housing Link, and how you can get involved, visit www.thl.org.uk

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