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Exeter Churches Housing Action Team

Exeter Churches Housing Action Team (CHAT) aims to deal with housing and homelessness issues in the Mid Devon area. The driving force for the Christians founding CHAT was concern about the large number of people experiencing housing difficulty in Mid Devon. It was started by Sally Chapman who saw that young people in particular could not get housing as they could not afford the deposit. She believed that everybody is entitled to decent, secure and permanent housing – somewhere to call home – and she wanted to help young people get a roof over their heads.

CHAT activities

CHAT began 15 years ago with a Deposit and Rent Guarantee Scheme. At least 80% of our work is on homeless prevention. Much of what we do is a response to the people that come to see us. The Housing Advice department has open surgeries in Tiverton 5-days a week and for half a day in Cullompton and Crediton, the other two major towns in our catchment area.

CHAT works in several key areas:

Housing advice We provide free, impartial and confidential advice on housing problems for tenants and for owner occupiers and we work with those who:

- may be threatened with homelessness.
- are living in substandard or overcrowded accommodation.
- are sleeping rough or on someone’s floor.
- are living in temporary accommodation.
- are being released from prison, youth offenders’ institution, or discharged from hospital without an address.

Advice is available over the phone, in person, and by email, and our advisers can act on a client’s behalf and liaise with other agencies where necessary. Drop-in surgeries are available during the week at the CHAT offices in Tiverton, Crediton and Cullompton and by phone during office hours.

Deposit Guarantee Scheme for people not able to raise a deposit for accommodation. Those using the scheme set up a savings plan with CHAT and once their savings reach the level of deposit guaranteed, the money is passed to the landlord and the guarantee cancelled.

Tenancy Floating Support CHAT offers a free outreach service to help people move on with their lives through the provision of specialist and general advice and support dealing with issues such as:

- Retaining their homes.
- Making sure all benefits entitlements are applied for.
- Sorting out financial problems.
- Completing forms.
- Applying for grants and loans.
- Establishing a new home.
- Finding appropriate services, such as getting back to work or college.
- Managing anxieties or addictions.
- Dealing with landlords.
- Support and advice at meetings.
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Tenancy Support staff can offer short and long term, intensive and intermittent support people who apply themselves or are referred by another organisation. There is usually a waiting list for support which is prioritised according to level of need and service capacity.

The Youth Housing Project is a partnership between CHAT and Westcountry Housing Association (WHA). This project works with homeless vulnerable young people aged between 16 and 17 years by providing supported accommodation and teaching independent living skills to lead productive lives. CHAT manages five 3-bedroom houses in Tiverton. Two young people live in each house. One house is dedicated for use by young mothers and their babies. The accommodation is affordable for young people who are living on benefits while they attend college, undertake voluntary work activities or work full time. A vegetable patch has been created where they can grow their own food.

Youth mediation Most young people become homeless as a result of family problems and most do so before the age of 19 years. Often these problems are due to everyday family circumstances. Mediation gives people the opportunity to deal with disputes and helps those involved to reach an agreement that suits everyone. It is a voluntary process that is confidential and supported by impartial, specially trained mediators who understand that you may be angry, upset, worried or frightened. CHAT’s aim is to work with the homeless or those at risk of becoming homeless who feel unable to return home and promote better living relations.

In addition, CHAT does general charitable work which includes a furniture scheme, emergency bed and breakfast, bedding, sleeping bags and tents, a food store, meal vouchers and a general hardship fund.

The CHAT organisation

CHAT is a registered charity and company limited by guarantee. Sally Chapman is now our Honorary President. She led CHAT until April 2007. The Trust Board supported her and as CHAT grew, provided more directional leadership. Some of the trustees have been in post from the very beginning, but we have also had seven new trustees, from different communities in Mid Devon, joining us over the past 5 years. CHAT has 13 full or part-time staff.

We operate CHAT on behalf of the churches. We are very aware, however, that the churches of Mid Devon did not come to us 15 years ago and ask us to start this – it was one lady’s vision. For the past 18 months we have been trying to bring all the churches into awareness and involvement. We say we want to partner them in their work of sharing Jesus with their community/town/village. “How can we help you?” We also, with the permission of clients, will try to get the local church involved in practical ways with some of our clients and their needs. The CHAT Development Team covers partnership with the churches in Mid Devon, fund raising, grant applications, networking and developing professional contacts. They encourage fund raising events, such as sponsored concerts, sport activities, social events and gifts of dried and canned food for the homeless and those who are experiencing hardship.

Resources

CHAT got started with one volunteer, a small grant and a room in a community building in the town. Until about 2000, the work was largely paid for by charitable donations and some small grants. Then there was an opportunity to bid for statutory contracts. Two statutory (Supporting People) contracts were awarded to support tenants in their own homes, thus preventing homelessness and the Youth Housing Project. Our five houses in Tiverton are rented from a West Country Housing Association. We rent town centre office premises. Some income is generated by rents. There continue to be voluntary donations and there are sometimes one-off donations for specific items such as office furniture, computer equipment or beds. In 2009/10, there was a grant from Devon Community Foundation for the extension of the Youth Mediation Service to the 13-15 age group. Funding was also received that year from the Hardship Fund managed by the Community Development Foundation on behalf of the Office of the Third Sector within the Cabinet Office.

CHAT turnover is currently around £300,000. At present, we have reserves to keep us running for about 6 months, plus a further smallish surplus. However, the Youth Housing Project and Tenancy Support sections are run on statutory money, which is not guaranteed past March 2012. Part of the current forward planning is to try and raise the giving from Mid Devon so that these sections would not be so dependent upon local government money.

Volunteers

In addition to the trustees, there are about 13 volunteers who help with the charitable side of the work and also work in reception and carry out clerical and other activities. A wider prayer network supports CHAT’s work.

Links with other organisations

The work of CHAT relies considerably on receiving referrals from, and making referrals to, other organisations. CHAT has close links with local colleges, Connexions, Social Services, police, local GPs, housing associations, private landlords and Mid Devon District Council.

Outcomes

CHAT has had an impact over the fifteen years of helping people with their housing needs - bringing them hope where there was no hope. In the year April 2010 - March 2011, there were just over 1,000 face to face meetings or telephone enquiries from people needing help and advice. The age range of clients was from teenagers to 70+, but nearly half were under 25 years old. Examples from different facets of the work are:

· There were 189 new Housing Advice clients and 103 returning ones with advice sessions totalling 935.
· Clients with no fixed abode were helped by 68 items from the store of sleeping bags and tents.
· After the Deposit Guarantee Scheme had reached capacity three quarters of the way through the year, the Trustees increased the limits to £15,000 or 30 guarantees, whichever was the higher.
· There were 33 new referrals to Tenancy Support and work with a total of 55 clients through the year.
· 26 referrals to the Youth Housing Project, of whom 20 were housed. In addition, clients undertook many constructive activities, such as The Prince’s Trust course, full-time study and moving into employment.
· The Youth Mediation Scheme helped approximately 24 adults and 38 young people. This in turn had an impact on their families and on the wider community, such as the school environment.

Success factors

The main one is having the desire and the will to help when there seems to be no hope. This is expressed in the dedication and hard work of both staff and volunteers, including trustees.

Barriers

Everybody wants to be helped! Finance has been a barrier at times, but the Trustees take the view that Father God will provide for the work He wants us to do. That does not mean we sit and wait….we have taken the relevant steps to facilitate the whole project.

Challenges and opportunities

The tough economic climate has brought challenges both in terms of an increasing number of people seeking help and reduced resources to meet that need. The Supporting People contracts have been severely curtailed. We have just employed a fund raiser to supplement the income.

My vision is for a “1000 Club”. If we could get 1000 people across Mid Devon giving £10 per month, that would take some of the pressure of the potential loss of statutory funding.


Mac Bridger
Chair
http://www.chatmid.org/