Janet Lawton – Strategic Lead for Homelessness at ForHousing

Janet Lawton, is Strategic Lead for Homelessness at ForHousing

I’ve always wanted to help others.

A career in housing is perfect for that.

We are often rushed into making life-defining decisions about the jobs we apply for and industries we work in – either because there is a financial necessity for ourselves or our family, or because we’ve never been made aware of all the options available to us.

We spend so much of our lives in work – an average of 3,507 days in our lifetimes according to one survey – and yet rarely are we afforded the time to consider the kind of roles that we’d be happy dedicating our lives too.

I hear so many people talking about ‘falling’ into a career in housing. I’m certainly one of them.

I originally wanted to be a social worker.

After finishing my education I got a job in a local council’s housing department on the lettings team, thinking it would be a good stepping stone to the job I wanted.

One thing led to another and I fell in love with housing, especially the idea of being able to provide homes and new life chances for the most vulnerable people in society.

I worked for a national supported housing provider which helped me understand the complexities involved in the lives of some people and the challenges they face in accessing and maintaining good quality homes.

Over the years I saw the amount of money available for support services dwindle, while the problems people had to deal with got more complicated. I’m sure there is a correlation there.

In 2017 I transferred into ForHousing when it won the contract to manage council owned homes for Cheshire West and Chester Council.

Shortly afterwards I heard about the opportunity for ForHousing to deliver Cheshire West and Chester’s homelessness support services..This was the start of forfutures and I jumped at the chance to lead the team.

I was as enthusiastic as I had ever been about the impact I could have with the weight of ForHousing behind me!

We mobilised the service in 2018 under the new forfutures banner. It was the proudest moment of my career.

I vividly remember the clock striking midnight over the Easter weekend when ForHousing officially became the council’s contractor.

There was so much to do, and we’ve made some massive changes over the years becoming more focused on preventing homelessness before it happens.

To date we’ve worked with more than 3,700 people overall, helping 513 of these people to move away from life on the streets.

I think I speak for myself and my colleagues in forfutures when I say that, as much as working in homelessness prevention and support is challenging, the rewards are great when you know that you have directly supported someone to improve their life.

Doing what you love sometimes means professional and personal lives get blurred. Away from work I sing soprano with The Choir with No Name Liverpool, a charity that supports inclusion for people who have experienced homelessness or are otherwise marginalised.

That may come as a surprise to those used to my low speaking voice.

The challenges in combatting homelessness remain significant. The pandemic has seen levels of homelessness rising. Tensions in households have created crisis situations and people who were on the edge of homelessness have been tipped over and left insecure and vulnerable.

Yes, safeguards like the ‘Everyone In’ campaign, which ensured nobody had to sleep rough during lockdown, a pause on evictions, and the various financial packages to protect people’s income have made a difference.

But these safety nets will soon end – and when they do we must make sure people can navigate the various systems so they can improve their situations and create new opportunities.

We also need to consider the impact of digital exclusion. Getting digital skills, equipment and internet access mainstreamed so that anyone, regardless of their situation, can access support without the need to travel or wait to see somebody face to face is a situation many would welcome, but one that society is a long way from achieving.

Over the longer term we need to reframe the conversation around homelessness.

It can be seen as a simple housing issue, when in fact it covers social care, health services, criminal justice, education, poverty, inequality – almost every part of society.

For landlords that means a big focus on collaboration and ensuring we stay in touch with the ‘social’ part of our mission.

It is time to link back to the same values that led to the emergence of housing associations after the ‘Cathy Come Home’ film shone a light on poverty and inequality in the 1960’s.

So many of us find our calling by chance. But it seems to me that the new generation of workers are more in tune with finding their purpose.

They don’t just want a job. They want to make a difference. They take time to figure out what their values are and pick careers that align with them.

We should welcome this.

Working in housing, and especially homelessness, gives you an opportunity to improve lives. We do it every single day.

If we can tell our story well I’m sure we’re going to find more people deciding that a career in housing is one that they can look back on and be proud of.