‘They save lives’: the lettings agency that’s exclusively for homeless people

The affluent town of Walton-on-Thames in Surrey is probably the last place you would expect to find a lettings agency for homeless people. But on the corner of the high street stands RentStart, on the site of a former bank and estate agents, its shop window looking into a light-flooded space with high ceilings and modern, funky furniture.

Before its completion in July curious passersby knocked on the door to ask “are you opening a new bar?”, says RentStart chief executive Helen Watson.

Her decision for the charity to open what is thought to be the first lettings agency in the UK exclusively for homeless people was rooted in visibility, dignity and the removal of shame. “I thought ‘why don’t we seize the high street back for us? And why don’t we make our clients have the best experience? We’re making a stand about it, saying ‘come in’, removing the stigma and being proud of who we are.”

Despite the area boasting some of the highest property prices in the UK, Watson explains: “There are some real pockets of hidden deprivation in our borough and the difference between the haves and have-nots is stark. It makes it hard to see.”

Yet there has been a five-fold increase in rough sleeping in the borough of Elmbridge since 2015, when just two people were recorded on the streets. Nearly half the demand for housing is from single people. As of 31 March 2020, 46% of those on the council’s housing register were assessed as requiring one-bedroom accommodation.

Some 450 homeless people contact RentStart – directly or through the council – each year. Of these, about 150 are found accommodation with the 30 private landlords who let to low-income householders through the charity. RentStart provides landlords with written guarantees that their scheme will cover unpaid rent in the rare case of the tenant defaulting and also pays one month’s rent upfront.

Of the 300 or so people who don’t find housing through RentStart, a fifth have more complex needs and are referred to specialist mental health or drug and alcohol services, and one in 10 have no local connection, so aren’t eligible for help – but about a quarter would be able to find a home if more landlords were willing to rent through the charity.

Although it can’t house everyone who needs help, the charity offers more than just a roof over someone’s head.

It tries to get people back on their feet through finance and employment training, such as budgeting, CV writing, or setting up meetings with potential employers, and runs a matched-savings scheme to help people start to put a little bit of money away every week, or month, in collaboration with charity, Commonweal Housing.

Simon Hicks, 51, was put in touch with RentStart during lockdown. “A series of unfortunate events”, he says, including the decline of his thriving gardening business and having to move out of his parents’ home left him with no choice but to live in his van.

“Over the last year or so things have just gone really pear-shaped. Living in the van and trying to go to work, it’s all mentally just wrong. It was just such a mess, my worst nightmare really.”

He was eventually put up in a hotel by the council, and RentStart is now trying to find him a more permanent home. Hicks was hesitant at first: “Often people don’t see that you have worked hard and have just taken a few hard turns,” he says. But he says he has been blown away by the reception he has received.

“Whenever I speak to them they make me feel like a million dollars, like I’m going to be OK. They phone me most days just to see if I’m OK. Sometimes it’s nice just to know someone is thinking about you.”

Hicks is expecting to be housed within the next few weeks.

Another client, Blair Darby, 64, found himself on the streets in 2016 following a 30-year career in the arts.

“I went from being on stage, lauded and applauded by loads of people and six months later I was on the street. It was almost like it wasn’t me,” he explains. “Even when I walked out the door with my suitcase I was sure a miracle could happen and I would not end up on the street.”

He spent eight days sleeping rough at night and pretending to be a tourist during the day, eventually ending up in a shelter for two months before being moved to shared accommodation by the council.

It referred Darby to RentStart, which has found him sheltered housing.

“They save lives,” he says. “Even if you’re not with them any more, as soon as you walk in you just feel they’re there and that nobody’s too busy. They make you feel human.”

The vision of a busy, community hub with a permanently open door sadly hasn’t yet come to fruition. The pandemic has meant an appointment-only policy.

Watson and her team of 13 staff and volunteers are gearing up for a surge in demand, with the chancellor’s less generous job support scheme replacing the furlough scheme next month coming on top of the lifting of the eviction ban last week, which could see as many as 55,000 private renters who have built up arrears during lockdown being at risk of losing their home.

Helen Watson, chief executive of Rentstart. ‘The reason for the shopfront was not just about more people knowing about us. It is also about encouraging the whole community to come in, not just people who need support.’
Helen Watson, chief executive of Rentstart. ‘One of our primary drivers for the shop was to reduce the stigma around needing support.’ Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

In response, RentStart is expanding its team with a preventions officer to help people who may have lost their income to stay housed. It also hopes to get more landlords on board.

“The reason for the shopfront was not just about more people knowing about us. It is also about encouraging the whole community to come in, not just people who need support,” says Watson. “It makes us more attractive to local landlords and volunteers as well as clients. One of our primary drivers for the shop was also to reduce the stigma around needing support. Our shop is welcoming to all in the community and is designed to be a place where all of us can come together.”

Watson believes that the pandemic has opened people’s eyes to the possibility that personal circumstances can change in a nanosecond and that homelessness can affect anyone, even in leafy towns and villages.

“Bad things happen to good people and you just need someone to give you a chance. That’s the kind of thing we do. Yes, we’ve got to look after the property and get the rent paid, but we can still treat the client with dignity and help them get back on track.”

She would like to see a RentStart-type organisation in all parts of the country and is interested in helping others replicate what it does.

She says: “The private rental sector needs to become a more affordable option or the number of homeless people will continue to rise.”

The Guardian

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