PATH is a partnership working to help those who are experiencing homelessness, or are at risk of it, across North and West Kent. Seven charities, led by Citizens Advice North & West Kent, are working together to provide a range of services including emergency hostel accommodation, housing advice, debt advice, mediation and mental health support.
I’ve been working with partners during 2020 to evaluate the impact of the project, which is funded by Help Through Crisis, a National Lottery Community Fund programme. It was a challenging time for both of us; PATH was adapting to deliver its services during the COVID-19 pandemic and I was adapting my own methods as the UK went into lockdown shortly after I was commissioned, which meant we had to quickly adapt our plans for workshops, face to face interviews, etc.
Thankfully, with good communication and careful planning, it all worked out in the end and PATH was able to continue it’s much-needed services and I was able to complete the evaluation remotely, meeting partners through Zoom, interviewing clients by phone and delivering the final presentation online.
It’s a fantastic project providing much-needed support, but one interesting aspect was that we began to see the early signs of how the pandemic might impact on vulnerable and disadvantaged people, particulalry where housing and advice is concerned. For example, emergency legislation passed by the government prevented landlords from chasing tenants for rent arrears during the pandemic. This was good news, but would it lead to a “bottleneck” of evictions and legal action further down the line?
We also heard how the extended lockdown was beginning to create more pressure at home, particularly for those experiencing domestic abuse or mental health difficulties. Unemployment seemed likely to rise as companies reduce staff to save costs and, whilst some partners reported a rise in issues concerning loans and credit cards, Citizens Advice North & West Kent had seen a 50% downturn in people requesting help with debt problems, presumably because of consumer protection measures.
However, when these temporary measures are lifted, it seems highly likely that the partnership will see a sudden increase in people facing debt, which will also impact on housing security, potentially increasing hardship for people at risk of homelessness.
The Homelessness Reduction Act supports the need for continuing support for people facing homelessness or threatened homelessness, in addition to encouraging organisations to work together to improve advice and support for those most at risk. However, some partners reported that it has not been entirely effective and, in some cases, has presented clients with alternative problems, such as downgrading their level of risk and therefore reducing the support from local authorities.
These are just some of the issues we explored as part of our evaluation, which also made recommendations as to how the project could adapt to meet these changing needs and attract further investment to continue its support to those in need.
One thing is for certain, it’s clear from this small snapshot that the pandemic has created a number of challenges for people who were already under considerable pressure and, whilst the full social and economic impact is yet to be known, the support and advice provided by PATH, and other similar projects, will be essential in getting people back on their feet and on the right path.