Social networks - why are they important to homeless people?
Re-building social networks
Following on from the Homelessness Task Force Final Report , local authorities are now required to ensure that the appropriate support packages are available for those at risk of homelessness and for homeless people during their resettlement. They are specifically charged with covering support for the development of positive social networks in their homelessness strategies. This is an issue of increasing priority for the Scottish Executive, Communities Scotland and local authorities. The Task Force recommended that 'All projects serving homeless people should pursue strategies to promote and support opportunities for positive social interaction.'
There are many ways in which new and existing services for homeless people can be designed to help them develop positive social networks. Here are some examples:
- The Glasgow Homelessness Network report highlighted the isolation of the large hostels, the necessity for support and the importance of the provision of accommodation for different groups of homeless people with shared interests to help with creating communities.
- In its shared properties the Rock Trust has weekly house meals followed by house meetings. This is a practical method of managing the tensions of shared living but also a 'social' opportunity.
The suggestion is that, in addition to better design of services, new provision targeted at social networks should be developed. Dreams Deferred highlighted that 'Above all support workers will need to be able to recognise... when it would be appropriate to refer the service user to a specialist service.' As potential methods of doing this, the Task Force identified mediation, befriending and mentoring as key in building and rebuilding social networks.
None of these are new ideas. For example:
- family mediation is well developed and should be available across Scotland.
- befriending of old people isolated in the community or of children at risk is well established.
- all the HR gurus have been promoting mentoring for employee development for years.
Some of the clients of all these services will be homeless or at risk of becoming homeless but it is only recently that they have been focused on helping homeless people develop strong positive social networks.
The range of mediationservices available in Scotland is growing. Families, communities and pupils are now provided for. There are services in youth justice and now a few pilots in homelessness.
The majority of homeless people or potentially homeless people want to retain or re-establish contact with friends and particularly with family but often feel that things have been said and done which are a barrier to this. Sometimes raising the individual's confidence may enable them to address the issues themselves, sometimes another family member can act as a go between but often if common ground is to be re-established outside independent mediation is required, as we saw with Mary earlier.
The success of befriending services in reducing social isolation and encouraging social integration and involvement has been demonstrated and reported in a range of reviews. Again, targeting it at homeless people and using it to develop their social networks is relatively new. Evaluation is not easy but we have seen:
- demand from the target group who say that it makes a significant difference.
- that the volunteers are valued by the clients and both volunteers and clients report satisfaction.
- that projects can demonstrate progress in developing social networks and in sustaining tenancies.
Mentoring is seen as a goal focused activity and has been used quite frequently in business. Perhaps not surprisingly then the model has been most successful in relation to supporting socially excluded groups, including homeless people, into education, training and employment. This has been achieved by offering extra support in both securing the opportunity and in continuing, successful participation. Because work places, colleges and so on are the clubs we all use to build our social contacts, success in these areas, especially when supported by a mentor, builds social networks.