Disability and Housing: she’s better off in a residential care home…

Alicia Wood is the housing guru and chief executive at Housing & Support Alliance. H&SA is delighted to join with Disability Horizons to offer a monthly article with help and top tips on housing. This month, we’re talking about care homes.


A few years ago, myself and two other colleagues got a job doing some mystery shopping of random housing departments around England for the Department of Health. They wanted to know about the experience of people with learning and physical disabilities when trying to get housing. We traipsed up and down the country disguised as house hunters and their PA to find out what really happens when disabled people try to get housing. We also tested a lot of councils over the phone to see how easy it was to get information.

The house hunters used their real identities but fabricated the same situation with each housing department so that we could make fair comparisons; the fabricated situation was that the disabled person lived in a residential care home with 5 other disabled people. They were living with a person that was loud and aggressive to all the other housemates and they wanted to move out and get their own home urgently as the situation was unbearable. They wanted to move to the local authority we were mystery shopping in to be closer to their family, friends and support network.

Without naming local authorities there was a clear north/south divide in how readily they helped people get housing with the northern councils generally making it easier. That was down to a mix of the obvious fact that there is less affordable housing the further south you go down the country, but also the processes for getting housing and good old customer service skills just felt better the further north we went. Of course there were exceptions and we had great service in the north, south and in the Midlands as well as pretty poor service in all of those.

There were many experiences I could tell you about but those of you who have tried to get housing will already know, the lack of information, the holding back on telling people about their housing rights, the lack of action in helping to get housing, ignoring the Equalities Act, the assumption that the disabled person can’t speak for themselves, the list goes on..The big thing that struck me that was the same in every housing department, was that no-one suggested that the person was living in an unacceptable housing situation because of domestic abuse(the fabricated scenario made it clear that the person was being verbally and emotionally abused). I assume that the reason not one of the many housing departments we visited mentioned this was because it is commonly accepted that if you live in residential care, you have no real choice over who you live with and if you are unlucky enough to live with someone who makes your life hell, tough, that’s just how it is.

One housing department was very blunt about this. The housing officer, who refused to make eye contact or speak directly to my wheelchair using colleague, told me that “she’s better off in a residential care home” on the basis that there was very little housing available and the housing that is available goes to the people who need it more. We were shocked to hear such a blatantly discriminatory statement coming from a council officer and after getting over the initial shock, we put it down to a one off experience of an individuals dinosaur views, made a complaint and offered training to council staff. (they never took it up but did say sorry…)

So fast forward to just a few months back when the chief executive of a well known and influential national disability charity made a surprising and weak call to think differently about residential care, based on the argument that there is not enough housing for disabled people. Essentially the gist of this piece was there’s not enough housing and funding for care, though we know that’s what you want. So instead of seeing residential care as the opposite to independent living, let’s call it something else and it will be better. Did that make sense to you? Me neither…

There will no doubt be good residential care homes that people love living in out there and I am not criticising disabled people who make that genuine choice or care home providers that support people really well but really, is anyone better off in a residential care home? Even in the best residential care homes, you have no choice over who you live with, who provides your support and who comes through your front door. It is often a happy co-incidence when none of these things impact on the quality of life of the people that live there and if they do get this right, there is the big issue that you are not in control of your own money and get a weekly small ‘allowance’ instead. Does anyone really think that is ok in 2015?

Of course care and support can be cheaper if you live with other people (though not always) and many of us want to live with other people but let’s not confuse residential care and arrangements where we share with others. Disabled people are perfectly capable of arranging houseshares on their terms and pool resources and buy in care and support on their own terms. Though they may need some help to make this happen.

Charities that have their resources tied up in models of housing and care that people no longer want need to instead use those resources to find ways of helping disabled people make arrangements where they are in control. This may mean using capital and reserves to fund housing, or to develop expertise in arranging housing and support solutions with disabled people, or helping disabled people find housemates (with or without disabilities). To call for the rebranding of residential care as a solution to a lack of housing and care funding is out of touch with what all the disabled people (and anyone else that needs support ) i know want. Unless I am the one that is out of touch that is…interested to know what you think?

By Alicia Wood

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