In this article
Homeless support workers, often referred to as homelessness officers or homeless support officers, provide help for people who are homeless, sleeping rough or who have housing problems. Support workers in homelessness services often work with adults and/or children and young people who are vulnerable to abuse. It is the responsibility of each support worker and manager to recognise the signs of potential abuse and to take action if they suspect that someone is being abused.
What is safeguarding?
Homelessness is a complex area of safeguarding children and adults practice.
The definition of homelessness means not having a home; however, someone counts as homeless if they are, for example:
- Living on the streets.
- Staying with friends or family, for example “sofa surfing”.
- Squatting because they have no legal right to stay.
- At risk of violence or abuse in their home.
- Living in poor conditions that affect their health.
- Living apart from their family because they don’t have a place to live together.
Safeguarding is an area of homeless support work activity concerned with the care and protection of children and adults who have care and support needs and who may be at risk of abuse or neglect. This is a major concern for homeless support workers who have prime responsibility for ensuring as far as possible that the vulnerable clients they work with are protected.
Safeguarding means protecting people from harm including physical, emotional, sexual and financial harm and neglect. Homeless support workers have a duty to recognise the signs and symptoms of abuse and to act on any concerns. Duties to safeguard are required by professional regulators and service regulators and are supported by law.
Safeguarding adults at risk means protecting their right to live in safety and free from abuse and neglect.
Adults at risk means anyone aged 18 or over who:
- Has needs for care and support.
- Is experiencing, or is at risk of, abuse or neglect.
- As a result of those care and support needs, is unable to protect themselves from either the risk of or the experience of abuse or neglect.
Children means anyone aged under 18 years, or under 25 years if they have special educational needs or disability (SEND).
Safeguarding children and young people’s welfare are defined in ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’ as:
- Protecting children from maltreatment.
- Preventing impairment of children’s health or development.
- Ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care.
- Taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.
Safeguarding also means that individuals are adequately supported to access care and support where this is needed, so that they are able to stay well and maintain a high quality of life. This is achieved by different organisations working effectively together to prevent and stop both the risks and experience of abuse or neglect. Safeguarding aims to balance the right to be safe with the right of the individual to make informed choices and to have their wellbeing promoted at all times.
The Care Act 2014 lists six key principles of safeguarding. These are intended to form a core set of standards for anyone who has a responsibility for safeguarding. Although these principles have been designed with a focus on vulnerable adults, they should be applied to any type of vulnerable individual, children included.
The principles are as follows:
- Accountability – in the event of a disclosure, if an adult or young person entrusts you with information that you know could be indicative of abuse, you must be clear with the individual that you need to report what you have heard.
- Empowerment – it’s important for any person who has been a victim of abuse to feel that they have control over their situation. Support and encouragement are key to effective working with a victim of abuse or neglect.
- Partnership – it is important to work in partnership with your local authority and all services or organisations in your community that might be able to assist in detecting and reporting abuse.
- Prevention – it is sometimes possible to take action before harm has come to an individual. If you know the signs and indicators of abuse, you will understand when something is not quite right and will be better placed to report any concerns for an individual’s wellbeing.
- Proportionality – when a safeguarding incident occurs, you should report your concerns in a manner that is appropriate for the risk presented. For example, if you suspect that a child is in immediate danger, dialling 999 is the recommended response.
- Protection – it is crucial to be an ally for individuals who have experienced or who are at risk of abuse. Supporting and representing these individuals in the appropriate manner can help to protect them from further harm.
What risk factors make someone more likely to experience abuse?
Abuse and neglect can occur anywhere to anyone; however, there are risk factors particularly in homelessness that can make a person more vulnerable to abuse.
An adult at risk of abuse may:
- Have an illness affecting their mental or physical health.
- Be physically dependent on others.
- Have a sensory impairment.
- Have a learning disability.
- Suffer from drug or alcohol problems.
- Have low self-esteem.
- Be unable to make their own decisions.
- Have a previous history of abuse.
- Have negative experiences of disclosing abuse.
- Be frail.
- Have experienced a lack of access to health and social services or high-quality information.
Any child can be at risk of abuse; however, there are a number of factors that can increase a child’s vulnerability to abuse and neglect including, but not limited to:
- Socioeconomic factors such as poverty, poor housing, homelessness and deprivation.
- Child factors, for example disabled children are more vulnerable to abuse or neglect.
- Family factors such as parental/carer substance misuse problems, parental/carer mental health problems and domestic abuse. These factors may be compounded if the parent/carer lacks support from family or friends and experiences social isolation.
- The parent or carer does not engage with services.
- There have been one or more previous episodes of child abuse or neglect.
- The parent or carer has a mental health or substance misuse problem which has a significant impact on the tasks of parenting.
- There is chronic parental stress.
- The parent or carer experienced abuse or neglect as a child.
- A family history of maltreatment.
- Being in care, a looked-after child.
- A history of offending, either parent or child.
These lists are not exhaustive, and other people might also be considered to be adults or children at risk.
The types of abuse adults can encounter
There are ten types of abuse listed in the Care Act (2014).
- Physical abuse – this may involve physical violence, misuse of medication, inappropriate restraint or sanctions.
- Sexual abuse – this can include verbal sexual abuse, non-consensual touching, fondling, physical restraint, cornering, tickling, kissing, excessive cleaning of genitals, enemas, intercourse, sodomy, oral sex, invasion of privacy and stalking.
- Psychological abuse – this includes emotional abuse, threats of harm or abandonment, deprivation of contact, humiliation, blaming, controlling, intimidation, harassment and verbal abuse.
- Financial or material abuse – including theft, fraud, exploitation, pressure in connection with wills, property, inheritance or financial transactions, and misuse or misappropriation of property, possessions or benefits.
- Neglect and acts of omission – including ignoring medical or physical care needs, failure to provide access to appropriate health, social care or educational services, or withholding medication, adequate nutrition and heating.
- Discriminatory abuse – including racist, sexist or abuse based on a person’s disability.
- Domestic abuse – including psychological, physical, sexual, financial and emotional abuse, and so-called honour-based violence.
- Modern slavery – includes slavery, human trafficking, forced labour and domestic servitude.
- Organisational abuse – including neglect and poor care practice within an institution or specific care setting such as a hospital or care home.
- Self-neglect – includes a wide range of behaviour neglecting to care for personal hygiene, health or surroundings and includes behaviour such as hoarding.
The types of abuse children can encounter
Statutory guidance across the four countries of the UK describes four main categories of child abuse, and these definitions will normally be reflected in local organisations’ policies and procedures.
The four categories are:
- Physical harm/abuse – this may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating, or otherwise causing physical harm to a child/young person. Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates the symptoms of, or deliberately induces, illness in a child/young person. Harm can also occur due to practices linked to faith and culture, for example, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
- Emotional harm/abuse – this is the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child/young person such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child/young person’s emotional development. It may involve conveying to children that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person. It may include not giving the child the opportunities to express their views, deliberately silencing them or “making fun” of what they say or how they communicate. It may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children. These may include interactions that are beyond a child’s developmental capacity, as well as overprotection and limitation of exploration and learning, or preventing the child from participating in normal social interaction. It may involve seeing or hearing the ill treatment of another. It may involve serious bullying, including cyberbullying, causing children/young people frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children/young people. Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of maltreatment of a child/young person, though it may occur alone.
- Sexual abuse – this involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetrative acts, for example rape or oral sex, or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. They may include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, pornographic sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse, including via the internet. Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males; women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children.
- Neglect – this is the persistent failure to meet a child/young person’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child/young person’s development. Neglect may occur during pregnancy, for example as a result of maternal substance abuse, maternal mental ill health or learning difficulties or a cluster of such issues. Where there is domestic abuse and violence towards a carer, the needs of the child may be neglected. Once a child is born, neglect may involve a parent or carer failing to:
– Provide adequate food, clothing and shelter, including exclusion from home or abandonment.
– Protect a child/young person from physical and emotional harm or danger.
– Ensure adequate supervision, including the use of inadequate caregivers.
– Ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment, also including neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child/young person’s basic emotional needs.
What safeguarding issues do homeless support workers need to be aware of?
Abuse and neglect can take many forms, ranging from exploitation and disrespectful treatment to physical harm. It can be at a low level, and take place over a long time, or it can take place over a short time and be more extreme. It is all abuse.
Organisations and individuals should not be constrained in their view of what constitutes abuse, neglect or harm and should always consider the circumstances on a person-centred basis. Safeguarding concerns vary according to the nature of harm, the circumstances it arose in and the people concerned.
Homelessness can lead to issues which are safeguarding matters such as, but not limited to:
- Basic needs not being met such as shelter, food, warmth, clothing.
- Social isolation.
- Impact of stress within a household including emotional abuse, domestic abuse or neglect.
- Impact on home learning for children.
- Impact of long working hours on relationships, supervision of children.
- Caring responsibilities and lack of support.
- Self-esteem and emotional health issues in a child and/or parent.
- Risk of substance misuse in areas of deprivation in a child and/or parent.
- Deliberate self-harm including attempts of suicide and/or drugs and alcohol misuse.
- Deliberate targeting / grooming / sexual exploitation.
- Impact of trauma and adverse experiences.
- Lack of purposeful activity.
- Odd, anti-social or embarrassing behaviour.
- Difficulty in communicating.
- Being homeless may exacerbate physical and/or mental ill health and impact negatively upon individuals’ ability to care for and protect themselves.
The roles and responsibilities of a homeless support worker in regard to safeguarding
Safeguarding is a huge part of the homeless support worker’s role, because they are working with some of the most vulnerable people in the country. They balance support and protection/safeguarding roles carefully and in keeping with the specific needs and circumstances of the person or family.
Safeguarding adults and children covers a spectrum of activity from prevention through to multi-agency responses where harm and abuse occurs. Multi-agency procedures apply where there is concern of neglect, harm or abuse to a person defined under the Care Act (2014) guidance as vulnerable.
A homeless support worker’s role in safeguarding is to:
- Recognise – you should have a clear understanding of what the different signs and symptoms of potential abuse, harm and neglect can be. Robust safeguarding training can help you to spot these signs and symptoms.
- Report – concerns need to be reported without delay. Confidentiality is important, so only share information with those who are a part of the safeguarding process.
- Record – you should make precise, comprehensive notes that detail everything about your safeguarding concern.
- Refer – if the safeguarding risk is urgent and you suspect somebody is under immediate or severe threat, you should contact the relevant local authority or police services.
Homeless support workers have a duty to make sure that:
- Safeguarding concerns are dealt with promptly, appropriately and reported in a secure and responsible way to all relevant agencies.
- Steps are taken to escalate or alert those able to protect adults and/or children at risk from harm and minimise the risk of abuse.
- Appropriate and proportionate measures are in place to protect from harm all those who work for them, or with them, or come into contact with them.
The safeguarding issues homeless support workers may come across
Understanding what abuse and neglect might look like and how to recognise warning signs is an important aspect of safeguarding. Some examples homeless support workers might encounter may include, but are not limited to:
Over-crowded accommodation, inappropriate sleeping areas, shared rooms, long commutes, instability, and lack of access to facilities in the home may be identified as key problems.
Where families are homeless, parents can feel anger or sometimes guilt at the unfairness they see impacting on their children. Many do a tremendous job of minimising the impact wherever they can, and ensure their children are well cared for and feel valued. Homelessness can, however, be a factor in children being at risk due to the stresses it creates in families and the limitations it places on the family.
The number of people sleeping rough in England has risen substantially over the past decade. Many people who sleep rough experience a combination of physical and mental ill health and drug or alcohol dependency. People who sleep rough also face barriers to accessing health and care services, including the attitudes of some staff, complex administration processes and previous negative experiences.
A homeless person may have been trafficked or be a victim of modern slavery or exploitation or subjected to the criminal exploitation of young people on the “county lines” model where young people are forced to carry drugs and weapons to other parts of the UK, making them wary of anyone representing the authorities.
Where should homeless support workers go with a safeguarding concern?
Every organisation working with people who are homeless should have a local Safeguarding policy so that teams know how to respond to concerns about abuse. If you encounter a safeguarding incident at any point, whether that is while providing support or when interacting with a vulnerable individual, you will need to take responsibility for the situation and provide immediate action to ensure the person in question is properly protected.
Some concerns may be minor in nature but provide an opportunity for early intervention, for example advice to prevent a problem from escalating. Other safeguarding concerns may be more serious and need a response through multi-agency procedures and possible statutory intervention through regulators, the criminal justice system or civil courts.
Immediate concerns about abuse or neglect should be dealt with under local safeguarding procedures first. The person who raises a safeguarding concern within their own organisation should follow their organisation’s policy and procedures. This concern may result from something that you have seen, been told or heard.
If you witness or suspect that there is a risk of immediate harm to an adult or child, you must act straight away to protect their safety. You should report your concerns to the appropriate person, usually the designated safeguarding lead or authority, immediately; this may be the police in some situations. Involvement of the police is indicated in incidents of suspected theft and common assault, including sexual assault, and assault causing actual bodily harm. However, the police may also be involved in other safety incidents such as wilful neglect of a child.
You should also keep an accurate record of your concerns and action that you have taken, and you should always inform the designated safeguarding lead of your actions.
In following local procedures for reporting incidents/risks you may be required to report the concern to the Safeguarding Adults or Children Boards. These are multi-agency partnerships comprising statutory, independent and charitable organisations. The board’s objective is to protect and promote individual human rights and independence and improve wellbeing, so that adults and children at risk stay safe and are protected at all times from abuse, neglect, discrimination or poor treatment.
What legislation do homeless support workers have to follow in regard to safeguarding?
There are various legal powers and duties across the health, housing and social care sectors that may be relevant in specific cases. These include:
The Housing Act 1996 – this is the primary homelessness legislation.
The Homelessness Code of Guidance.
The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 places a legal duty on English Councils to do more to support people who are at risk of homelessness – those being threatened with being evicted within the next 8 weeks – with the aim of preventing them from becoming homeless or “relieving” their homelessness.
The Care Act 2014 sets out statutory responsibility for the integration of care and support between health and local authorities. NHS England and Clinical Commissioning Groups are working in partnership with local and neighbouring social care services. Local authorities have statutory responsibility for safeguarding. In partnership with health they have a duty to promote wellbeing within local communities.
Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 and the Protection of Freedoms Bill – this Act was passed to help avoid harm, or risk of harm, by preventing people who are deemed unsuitable to work with children and vulnerable adults from gaining access to them through their work. Organisations with responsibility for providing services or personnel to vulnerable groups have a legal obligation to refer relevant information to the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).
Working Together to Safeguard Children 2010 – the way that agencies and organisations should work together to carry out their duties and responsibilities under the 1989 Children Act and other legislation is set out in a document called ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’.
It sets out the responsibilities of all agencies in the protection of children, and is aimed at staff in organisations that are responsible for commissioning or providing services to:
- Children, young people and adults who are parents/carers.
- Organisations that have a particular responsibility for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children and young people.
Sexual Offences Act 2003 – this Act modernised the law by prohibiting any sexual activity between a care worker and a person with a mental disorder while the relationship of care continues. A relationship of care exists where one person has a mental disorder and another person provides care.
It applies to people working both on a paid and an unpaid basis and includes:
- Social workers
- Care workers in homes
- Workers providing services in clinics or hospitals
The Mental Capacity Act 2005 – in order to protect those who lack capacity and to enable them to take part as much as possible in decisions that affect them, the following statutory principles apply:
- You must always assume a person has capacity unless it is proved otherwise.
- You must take all practicable steps to enable people to make their own decisions.
- You must not assume incapacity simply because someone makes an unwise decision.
- Always act, or decide, for a person without capacity in their best interests.
- Carefully consider actions to ensure the least restrictive option is taken.
The Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards 2009 (DoLS), an amendment to the Mental Capacity Act 2005, provide a legal framework to protect those who lack the capacity to consent to the arrangements for their treatment or care, for example by reason of their dementia, learning disability or brain injury and where levels of restriction or restraint used in delivering that care for the purpose of protection from risk/harm are so extensive as to potentially be depriving the person of their liberty.
The General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act 2018 introduced new elements to the data protection regime, superseding the Data Protection Act 1998. Practitioners must have due regard to the relevant data protection principles which allow them to share personal information. However, the GDPR and Data Protection Act 2018 do not prevent, or limit, the sharing of information for the purposes of keeping vulnerable adults safe.
The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 – this Act, often referred to as the Whistleblowers Act, encourages staff to report suspected wrongdoing and protects those that do against being dismissed or suffering a detriment by their employers. It also gives protection to employees against suffering a detriment or retaliation from another employee for reporting suspected wrongdoing.
The following legislation is also relevant to homeless support workers in safeguarding children and vulnerable adults, but is not limited to:
- Modern Day Slavery Act 2015
- Prevent Duty 2021
- Domestic Abuse Act 2021
- Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy 2021
- Serious Crime Act 2015
Why is safeguarding training important?
It is important that we all understand safeguarding, and know what to do should safeguarding concerns arise.
Safeguarding induction and training is essential for all homeless support workers appropriate to their role, including:
- Information on types of harm, abuse and neglect.
- How to spot abuse.
- How to respond to concerns.
- Who to report concerns to.
Training should be directly applicable to the responsibilities and daily practices of the person being trained, and to the care and support needs of the individuals that they are working with. An example of appropriate safeguarding training includes Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults (SOVA) Level 2, designed for people who are working with vulnerable adults and teaches the skills needed to safeguard people who are at higher risk of abuse. Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults (SOVA) Level 3 is designed for people who are wanting more in-depth knowledge into safeguarding vulnerable adults.
Safeguarding Children Level 2 is designed for people who are working with children and teaches the skills needed to safeguard children who are at higher risk of abuse and is recommended for homeless support workers who have regular contact with families and children as part of their role.
Other training that is recommended for homeless support workers to provide the skills and knowledge for effective safeguarding include, but are not limited to:
- Domestic Violence Awareness
- Substance Misuse Awareness
- FGM Awareness
- Modern Slavery Awareness
- Adolescent Mental Health Awareness
- Mental Health Awareness
- Drugs and Alcohol Awareness
- Schizophrenia Awareness
- Self-Harming Awareness
Managers should evaluate changes in understanding and confidence of homeless support workers before and after training, assessing this:
- Immediately after the training.
- In regular long-term evaluations, for example as part of supervision sessions.
- Annually, for example as part of the performance management/appraisal process.
Managers should provide feedback through supervision and appraisals, acknowledging how the homeless support workers have learned from their experience of identifying, reporting and managing safeguarding concerns.
How often should homeless support workers renew their safeguarding training?
Managers should assess homeless support workers’ safeguarding knowledge annually, and run refresher training if needed. To help homeless support workers increase their confidence in managing safeguarding concerns, they should at a minimum refresh their safeguarding training at least every 2 years and participate in continuing professional development (CPD).