This week a couple of SpareRoom staff visited the Shelter helpline, which is run out of an office in central Sheffield. We weren’t sure what to expect, but thought it might be a good idea to find out what they do here – particularly since this year we’ve committed to fundraising £75,000 to support the helpline. What we discovered was inspiring and disturbing in equal measures.
The room was abuzz with people facing monitors and speaking into headsets – just what you’d expect from a typical call centre. What struck us though, was the professionalism and care with which the team approached their work. Unfazed by the sometimes emotional subject matter of the calls, they had boundless calm and a seriously impressive knowledge base to call upon. In a very unshowy way, they matter-of-factly took their clients through acts of parliament and county court applications as if they were as every day as supermarket shopping or ordering a pizza.
I sat next to Dan* and listened open-mouthed as he carefully listed the options that the caller should explore to get resolution to their housing plight, without referring to notes or aides-memoire, finishing by wishing the client well and hoping it is all resolved quickly. Even if the person on the phone had been in tears or angry, you got the impression he’d have dealt with them in exactly the same composed manner, which resulted in a hearty thank you and a big sigh of relief on the end of the line.
Over the course of an hour or so I was privileged to hear how Dan responded to the cases that came through. There was huge variety between the issues that were raised, some more complex than others. By chance, all the callers I heard were female, and I was saddened to hear many of them were suffering from domestic abuse. This had triggered their need to move out of home, and resulted in some alarmingly difficult housing situations for these women and their families.
Debbie* needed advice on how to move into a new home, when she didn’t have the means to scrabble together a deposit. Her daughter was doing GCSEs and had self-harmed in the past. She was pregnant and had no partner.
Quoting the Children Act, Dan advised Debbie on how to access help from Social Services to get temporary accommodation for her and her children, and how to search for grants or access credit unions that could help her with the deposit she needs to find stable accommodation in the private rented sector.
Astrid* from Nottinghamshire was living in a refuge with her kids after suffering domestic violence. She had been in secure social housing but had to move out and needed to know what her options were next. Dan showed his incredible knowledge on everything from domestic abuse to credit issues, all of which have an impact on homelessness and housing issues.
Vivian* from Northumberland called about a dispute with her landlord and letting agency, who were trying to charge her rent for a house she’d served notice on, moved out of, and handed the keys back for months ago. Worried she’d never get her deposit back, as well as being charged £450 a month for the rest of the year for a place she was no longer living in, she couldn’t afford legal advice and had turned to Shelter for urgent help. She ended the call confident that she had the facts on her side and knew what to do next. In fact the agent and landlord had overplayed their hand. Their lack of attention to detail meant she could claim up to 3 times the deposit amount. It might not need to come to that, and she was sure she’d be able to get an amicable resolution, thanks to Shelter’s advice.
Jean* from London had a complicated question that involved domestic abuse and manipulation by her former partner, young children in school, and issues around secure tenancies and the private rented sector. Being unaware of her rights and responsibilities until now, she had got herself into a tricky situation where she could potentially become homeless. Dan consulted his supervisor on this one, as it was a very complicated mix of issues, before calmly explaining the pros and cons of each of her options, and leaving her to mull it over.
“What are the most important qualities a Shelter helpline advisor should have?” I asked him. “Patience and empathy are so important, not just having the information at your fingertips. Staying calm even if the caller is in distress,” he replied.
What was clear to me after listening to a number of these calls is how crucial it is that Shelter can offer clear impartial advice to anyone in housing need. Whether it’s someone facing eviction immediately, or struggling to get a fair solution from their landlord or agent, Shelter can help put them on the right track. There’s also a Helpline Plus team that can take on complex cases and take them through to their legal conclusion. All the work is funded by individual donors and corporate fundraising. The helpline is open seven days a week, 365 days a year, weekdays until 8pm and weekends until 5pm.
Andrea, the Helpline Operations Manager told us how they recruit for aptitude and attitude – the team members don’t have a legal background or in depth knowledge of housing before they start. “It’s such a fulfilling job,” she says, “they really feel good about what they do”. They take 3 months to train before they even answer a phone. Last year they responded to 112,563 calls for help, up from 85,000 the previous year. But they’re only able to respond to 60% of calls and need to recruit, train and pay for more staff to fulfill demand for the service. The average call length is 23 minutes, during which time the advisor diagnoses the problem, and gives advice or next steps, referring the caller to a Shelter solicitor if necessary.
If there’s one message the Shelter helpline team wish they could get across to everyone, it’s “Know your housing rights”. Whether you’re a homeowner, a tenant, a lodger or a landlord, you never know when you may need them. You can always find out more about your housing rights and responsibilities on the SpareRoom and Shelter websites.
Can you spare £1 to help keep the helpline open, to allow Dan or his colleagues to spend a minute on a call to someone facing serious housing issues? Please donate to our HomesForGood campaign. Every penny goes to the Shelter helpline.
* All of the names in this piece have been changed to protect the identity and privacy of those involved.