An innovative project, designed to help people impacted by homelessness and staffed by students from the University of Chester, has been shortlisted for a top national award.
The Housing Advocacy and Access to Legal Advice Project is one of the finalists in the 2021 Annual Law Works Pro Bono Awards.
The Awards, run by LawWorks (the Solicitors Pro Bono Group), celebrate the best pro bono activities undertaken by law students and law schools across the UK and the initiative is shortlisted in the Best New Pro Bono Activity category.
The project is a collaboration between the University of Chester Law School’s pro bono group, homelessness charity Share, West Cheshire Poverty Truth Commission, Weaver Vale Housing Trust, Muir Housing Group, Cheshire West and Cheshire Council, and Cheshire West and Chester Multi Agency Rough Sleeping group.
It was set up last academic year in response to a perceived gap in support provided to those impacted by homelessness in the Chester area.
Senior Lecturer Andy Todd, Director of Pro Bono and Community Engagement at Chester Law School, explained: “The aim of the project is to provide a voice to, and an ally to walk alongside, those facing homelessness, experiencing homelessness, or transitioning from homelessness.”
This September, Andy and student volunteers Graham Herschel and Lujean Elfituri took a ‘stakeholder first’ approach and held a focus group with a group of ‘community inspirers,’ who have lived experience of homelessness, and also took the views of those working at the coalface of homelessness in and around Chester.
Andy said: “The community inspirers, with their vivid narratives of their efforts to avoid homelessness, of living through it, and of their efforts to transition away from it, were best placed to give us an insight into what is needed to provide a joined-up approach to the support required by those impacted by homelessness.
“This approach has been designed to allow for the full and direct participation of those who will be impacted by any proposals put forward to help the community impacted by homelessness in the local area.
“This means not just those who are currently rough sleeping, but also those who may otherwise find themselves without a home, should they be evicted by social or private landlords, or unable to escape the cycle of homelessness because they can’t navigate a complex housing and benefits system.”
This approach has already resulted in several project proposals for Chester Law School student volunteers to take forward this academic year, including:
• Creating fact sheets and short videos to empower people to say ‘you can’t do that to me’ on issues such as tenants’ rights; tenancy agreements; eviction and rent arears.
• The Plain English Project – a review of common letters sent by the local authority relating to tenancy, eviction and review processes, resulting in the production of plain English ‘translations’ of these letters, plus bitesize video explainers, and face-to-face guidance sessions.
Andy added: “This partnership approach enables all agencies, organisations and charities involved across the spectrum of support to combat the cycle of homelessness and pull together towards the common goal of avoiding eviction wherever possible. It also allows those ‘in the system’ to be empowered to use their voice and helps our pro bono group to help effect change from the inside, rather than providing an add-on service after the fact.”
Debra Webb, Chairperson and Managing Director of Share, said: “Our collaborative working with Chester Law School is really enabling our advocacy work with people who are experiencing homelessness. It is allowing us to achieve high levels of governance, and the skills offered by the staff and students at Chester Law School are facilitating the process of walking alongside people who are extremely vulnerable, empowering them to access the service and support they need to move their lives forwards. With their help we are developing a more robust advocacy service that can really tackle the root of the problems faced by people who are homeless.”
Wayne Gales, Chief Executive of Weaver Vale Housing Trust, added: “This initiative is both unique and desperately needed to help provide a platform for people to be heard. It’s also being shaped importantly by the voice of those with lived or living experience and this is what will help make a real difference by offering greater legitimacy to what will be delivered and in doing so help to shape and influence the pathways and partnerships needed to enable legal advocacy support to reach those who need it most.”
Anne-Marie Scragg, of West Cheshire Poverty Truth Commission, added: “This project is so important because it is allowing people at the heart of the problem to be involved in the solution by being heard. When the stakes are high, people’s emotions run high. People at risk of homelessness and who experience homelessness really need advocates.” The winners will be announced at the Awards evening at The Law Society on December 7.