Section: People in Housing

In Focus: Jane Slowey

This month's online interview is with Jane Slowey, Chief Executive of Foyer Federation.

HMD: What factors led to a focus on the welfare of younger members of society?

JS: During what I would describe as a varied career meander (rather than a career path!), young people and youth policy have featured quite strongly. Youth volunteering became a key area of our work while I was at Birmingham Voluntary Service Council and we did some quite innovative work on the barriers facing young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. While I was on Birmingham City Council, I chaired a sub-committee that was responsible, among other things, for Youth Training and was a member of both the local TEC and LSC.

My involvement with Foyers dates back to the early 1990s when I was on the Board of Shape, the housing association that won the architectural competition to build the first new-build Foyer. I was also a member of a Foyer Development Group, set up by South Birmingham Young Homeless Group, which attempted (unsuccessfully as it turned out) to set up a Foyer in my local area. I always liked the notion of Foyers, and, after 6 years running a generic voluntary sector support agency, I wanted to be a bit closer to the action.

HMD: You have been with the Foyer Federation for three years - did you start with an 'agenda,' and, if so, how do you rate progress with it to date?

JS: I was appointed three years ago with a very clear 'brief' from my Board that the Federation was at something of a crossroads. We looked at how far Foyers had come since the early 1990s, took stock of the environment in which they are operating, and started to think about their future. Our conclusion was that the Foyer approach is as relevant now as it ever was, but that Foyers have, to some extent, become 'trapped' in the bricks and mortar.

We are now broadening our focus, thinking about Foyer as a process as much as a place and looking at how the Foyer approach can be stretched, targeted and taken to new places. This is still very much work in progress but we have managed to secure some serious funding from the government's Futurebuilders programme to develop holistic models of support for young people whose transition to adulthood is particularly challenging.

We have also got funding to look at 'healthy' transitions and 'rural' transitions. In doing so, we've significantly repositioned the organisation's finances. So far so good...

HMD: Looking back over the past 15 years, can you highlight any single factor that has benefited the development of the Foyer sector, and any that have greatly hampered it?

JS: I think I'd identify the same issue for both your questions. I think it's easy to forget just how radical the notion of 'conditionality,' which underpins the Foyer approach, was in the early 1990s. Over the last 15 years, we've become much more attuned to the 'rights and responsibilities' agenda, and the idea that a young person is expected to make a formal commitment to take part in learning and personal development in order to access housing no longer seems so controversial.

Indeed, in many ways the Foyer approach has become much more 'mainstream'. That has undoubtedly helped Foyer development. However, it does have its down side. The clear blue water that used to exist between 'Foyers' and other supported housing projects for young people is nothing like as obvious. It's that 'distinctiveness' that we are trying to recapture with our work on Transitions.

HMD: You refer to the need to 'stretch' the Foyer approach beyond 'brick and mortar' issues - can you give some examples of this process?

JS: Housing is only one of the ingredients that enables a smooth transition to adulthood. Most Foyers are owned and managed by housing associations, and their development was largely housing led. This means they are often seen as a particular type of supported housing 'model,' even though Foyer services encompass education, personal development, health, citizenship, life skills and other services.

What we are suggesting is that there is no reason why the Foyer 'approach' should not be used to support a young person in transition wherever they are living. At present, there is a significant trend towards floating support as an alternative to 'accommodation based' models of support. That floating support can be 'generic' rather than tailored to the specific needs of young people and may be of variable quality. We think we could adapt the Foyer quality assurance process and apply it to that kind of support.

The other aspect of this is that young people live in Foyers for a maximum of two years, and, in most cases, for around 11 months. If as is increasingly the case they move in at around 16 or 17 years old, they are only about 18 years old when they leave the Foyer. Growing up is becoming more complex and challenging, and at 18 it is unlikely that they have completed the transition process. We want 'Foyer type' support to be available to them when they move out, as and when they need it - because growing up is not a linear process. Young people, particularly those who have not had the benefit of supportive family backgrounds, may need to tap into support over a significant period. At present, ongoing support, if it exists at all, is usually quite fragmented.

HMD: You also say the clear blue water that used to exist between 'Foyers' and other supported housing projects for young people is nothing like as obvious. Why is this such an important issue?

JS: For several reasons: Firstly, because there is a distinction between a Foyer and a good supported housing project. Just because you are providing housing with training does not mean you are a holistic Foyer service. And sometimes funders think they can get a 'Foyer type' service on the cheap. Our quality assurance process is important here - it's how we express our custodianship of the holistic Foyer ethos that includes the formal commitment the young person makes to engage in the service.

HMD: Finally, what single 'wish come true' could benefit the Foyer sector most?

JS: One of the real problems we have is the way in which the benefit system interfaces with housing. So my wish would be for a Housing Benefit system that is flexible enough to act as an incentive rather than a barrier to young people gaining and maintaining employment.


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Reporting on June 2007

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