In 2018, research conducted by Shelter and a Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ programme found that 55% of families living in temporary accommodation are working. This means that approximately 33,000 UK families are leading ‘double lives’ whereby they are experiencing homelessness but are also sustaining employment in sectors such as security, education, retail and hospitality. What effect will this have on your workforce and what can you do to alleviate matters? rradar solicitor Toni Haynes takes a look at the issue.
Many people live at varying degrees of homelessness, from ‘sofa surfing’ to temporary hostels to sleeping on the pavement. People can become homeless for a variety of different reasons, that may – at times – be a result of factors beyond their control. Causes of homelessness include:
financial difficulties or debt;
deteriorating mental health issues;
escaping domestic abuse;
a divorce; or
floods, fires or some other form of natural disaster or accident.
Whatever the reason for becoming homeless, it is often difficult for individuals to find a way out of their unfortunate circumstances. When becoming homeless, it can be difficult to maintain a job as a result of stress and other related issues. It is important for employers to support their employees through becoming homeless and remaining in employment, as having a job can help many people find some stability and give them the financial means to escape homelessness.
One of the main issues with homelessness is that employees may not be forthcoming with information. Employees may find it difficult to open up about losing their homes and becoming homeless. There can often be a stigma attached to homelessness and the individual may be ashamed of their circumstances. It is therefore important that an employer creates an open workplace environment in which employees feel able to approach the employer and discuss their problems freely. The employer should be supportive and non-judgemental, instead focussing on finding the employee help and support. These conversations should be strictly confidential and employers should be sensitive to the issues discussed and the feelings of the employee.
Many factors causing homelessness are out of employers’ control. However, employers can still provide vital support. The employer can signpost the employee to various resources to help them. The individual can apply to the local council to obtain somewhere to live if they are homeless or will become homeless within 8 weeks. The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 places a new duty on councils to prevent and relieve homelessness for all eligible applicants threatened with homelessness, regardless of priority need.
In addition, there are various homeless charities that can help to support the individual, such as Shelter or Crisis. If the individual cannot stay in their home because of violence, threats or any other abuse, they can also apply for homeless help. Furthermore, they can also receive support from charities such as Refuge, Women’s Aid or the Men’s Advice Line. In addition, further guidance for employees with financial problems may be available from Citizens Advice or Stepchange.
The employer may have their own resources which could help the employee. An Employee Assistance Programme can be a significant benefit to those struggling with financial difficulties or housing problems. Many Employee Assistance Programmes offer debt counselling or advice services. It is important for employers to regularly remind employees about the specific services available from the Employee Assistance Programme and how the services can help them. Employees can be subtly reminded about these services by putting contact details on the bottom of payslips, on notice boards and intranet sites.
There may be other issues to address with the employee. They may need support in relation to debt, substance abuse or domestic violence. It is best practice for an employer to follow any policies and procedures they have in place for these issues.
In order to help the employee remain in employment, the employer could discuss implementing some temporary adjustments with the employee in order to help them get back on their feet. The employee may need time off or flexible working arrangements in order to attend appointments with the council, housing office or other charities that are helping them find a home, and to attend accommodation viewings. Depending on the circumstances that led to the homelessness, the employee may also need time off or flexible working arrangements to attend therapy, see their GP or go to court.
The employer could also provide support by providing access to various facilities. The employee may benefit from having access to showers, where applicable, as they may be struggling to find washing facilities. Whilst hygiene is an important workplace issue, the employer may be able to temporarily overlook some unkemptness whilst the employee works through their more pressing issues.
Similarly, where the workplace has a specific uniform, the employer may provide temporary allowances for the employee. The employee may not be able to wash and dry their uniforms and the employer could allow them to temporarily wear similar clothes or provide extra sets of uniforms to the employee.
Employers can also help ensure that the individuals have the means to be able to get to work. The ‘Cycle to Work’ scheme is a UK Government tax exemption initiative introduced in the Finance Act 1999. It allows employers to lend cycles and cyclists’ safety equipment to employees as a tax-free benefit. Similarly, there is a ‘Wheels to Work’ scheme that is available across various areas of the UK. It is a scooter hire provision scheme to help people overcome the problem of getting to work, college or training because of genuine transport difficulties.
By implementing transport schemes such as these, the individual has guaranteed means of getting to work, no matter where they are located. This is particularly beneficial for ‘sofa surfers’ or those who have limited options for the locations in which they are re-housed.
The employer may also wish to implement a payroll advance programme. This enables employees to receive a maximum number of payroll advances, in order to help ease the burden of unforeseen emergencies. Alternatively, the employer can establish a fund whereby employees in need can qualify for a maximum limit of financial help, provided they meet established criteria. This loan does not come without risk. The employer should therefore seek legal advice before doing so.
The employer should further encourage the employee to seek professional help from GPs, mental health services and homeless charities, in order to ensure the individual’s continuing success and wellbeing. Employers should also consider the emotional support that homeless employees may need. The individual should receive ongoing monitoring and feedback, with regular one-to-ones and the opportunity to discuss any problems they are having.
Poor mental health can be both a cause and consequence of homelessness. Therefore, it is essential that employers promote a mentally healthy workplace. The employer could help the individual by directing them to Mental Health First Aiders when they need someone to talk to.
Further, they could work with the employee to create a Wellness Action Plan, to know exactly how to help the employee in a way that is specific to their needs and preferences.
In practice, recruitment procedures and policies can often exclude homeless people from employment opportunities. For example, many organisations will require employees to provide a home address, which a homeless person may not be able to give. Alternatively, employers could ask for an email address for which they can send important correspondence. Employers should make sure that their employment policies and hiring practices do not inadvertently or unjustifiably disadvantage the homeless.