This page is an introduction to working in the homelessness sector, for people who have had no prior experience of working in support roles. You may be looking to change careers, looking for your first job, or have had experience of homelessness yourself.
This page focuses on supportive or ‘front line’ roles working directly with homeless people. However there are other career paths linked to homelessness which you may wish to consider, including: policy, practice and campaigning work which aims to influence the work of policy makers and frontline services. These roles are often located within think-tanks, local and national government, larger homelessness charities such as Shelter or Crisis, and Homeless Link itself as the umbrella organisation for the sector. They include:
The skills gained in any of these sectors are often transferable and sought after in working with homeless people. It may be worth thinking about how you can specialise within your current profession to work with homeless people.
Working with homeless people can be a hugely rewarding career, offering an opportunity to support vulnerable people to change their lives. It can also be challenging and stressful, especially when the right solution doesn’t exist, or your hopes of change for an individual are disappointed. Working with a homeless service user is rarely as simple as merely finding them a roof; in many cases you will also support them to address mental health problems, drug and alcohol use, social isolation and low self esteem, or destructive behaviour patterns. The work is hugely varied since each individual’s needs will differ. In a support work role, an average day at work could include:
Some key current approaches to the work include a focus on empowering service users to manage their own needs and to become increasingly involved in designing and running services; a recognition of the importance of risk management, including a growing vigilance over the abuse of vulnerable adults; and a focus on moving service users towards employment.
There are a number of skills and attributes that contribute to making a good support worker. It may be worth considering whether these fit well with the skills you already have and with those that you would like to develop:
In most posts you will also need good IT and written skills for the completion of assessments, support plans, letters, and forms. As well as transferable skills, many roles will require you to have experience of support work. Volunteering can be an excellent way of gaining this experience.
The National Council for Voluntary Youth Services has produced a careers fact sheet on being a Young People's Housing Support Worker which outlines the responsbiltiies and skills needed to work with a young person who is homeless.
There is a range of settings in which support to homeless people is usually delivered, and it may be worth thinking about which would best suit you. While there may be any number of specialist models of support, the main settings are:
Most posts in the sector are generic ‘project worker’ or ‘support worker’ roles. However you may wish to take on a more specialised role (eg. supporting homeless people into employment) or to move into managing services. Skills gained are highly transferable to other closely related fields such as mental health, substance misuse, or work with ex-offenders. Work in this sector may also be a useful basis for working towards a professional qualification, such as social work.
Vacancies in the homelessness sector and related fields are advertised in the Guardian ‘society’ section on Wednesdays, local newspapers, and websites including:
You could also consider registering with an employment agency with a social care or housing department, as organisations often recruit temporary and even permanent staff in this way. Some homelessness organisations also advertise locum posts to cover temporary vacancies.
If you have no previous experience of working in social care or support roles, spending some time as a volunteer is usually the best way into the sector as the majority of posts provide previous related experience. We suggest you read the Homeless Link briefing on volunteering.
St Mungos, Thamesreach and other homelessness organisations do offer trainee posts for those with no previous experience. The St Mungos scheme is open to formerly homeless people, while the Thamesreach scheme is open both to career changers and formerly homeless people.
Lookahead Housing and Care offers a scheme for new graduates. If you have personal experience of homelessness, you could also contact the services that supported you to find out more about routes into employment. Many organisations are keen to recruit former service users, or they may be able to suggest other schemes or organisations locally.