Working in the homelessness sector

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 ‘support functions’ necessary to keep homelessness charities going for instance human resources, finance and marketing
  • housing or other advice services such as those provided by the Citizens Advice Bureau, or within local authority homelessness services. These roles will often involve offering very targeted advice around a single area, such as housing rights, with a high turnover of service users. These services may see a wider range of homeless people such as homeless families or those with low needs
  • work in related social care sectors that may bring you in contact with homeless people
  • services that work with substance misuse, mental health, healthcare, sex-workers, or offenders, often share a client group and similarities in their way of working.

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.

 Is this job for me?

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:

  • one to one sessions with service users (usually called ‘key working’) to discuss each individual’s progress and support them with any problems they’re facing. completing written support plans, risk assessments and file notes
  • following up on cases by liasing with other professionals or writing letters and forms
  • responding to service users crises such as a health emergency, or stopped benefits.
  • a team meeting or discussion of cases with your colleagues.
  • a ‘supervision’ session with your manager where you would be offered support and feedback on your work, or attending a training session. This would usually occur between three weekly and monthly. accompanying a service user to an external appointment.

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.

What skills will I need?

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:

  • strong interpersonal skills, including being an empathetic ‘good listener,’ able to discuss difficult topics in a sensitive way, and to communicate equally well with service users and other professionals
  • an ability to work ‘reflectively,’ challenging your own assumptions, thinking about the effectiveness of your work and possible ways forward. This may also include a self-awareness about the impact the work has on you
  • a non-judgemental and empowering attitude, never imposing your own point of view, but instead supporting service users to achieve their own goals. You will need to demonstrate a genuine respect for the diversity, choice, and strengths of your service users
  • reliability. You will have significant responsibility for managing the safety of your service users, and you will also need to deliver on what you offer service users in order to build a trusting relationship. An ability to work in a ‘boundaried’ way, ensuring that your relationships with service users remain professional rather than crossing into friendship. You need to ensure that you act in the service users’ best interests, recognising the trust placed in you as a professional.

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.

What types of homelessness services are there?

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:

  • hostels and supported housing projects where support staff usually work in a ‘key work’ model with residents, with each staff member taking responsibility for the support of a number of service users, meeting regularly to review progress. This part of the sector is relatively well funded and professionalised. Most hostel residents now have individual rooms which they can use at all times of day, and are offered structured support. Each project will differ in the level and type of support need (eg. substance misuse) that they work with
  • night shelters tend to be a less well resourced form of accommodation and as a result, service users are often housed in dormitories and the approach to support may be less structured, frequently relying heavily on volunteers. Some night shelters only open during winter months, and often attract some of the longer term rough sleepers
  • day centres provide a safe social space for rough sleepers and others and usually operate an ‘open door’ policy, enabling them to work with anyone in need. Most will offer meals, showers and other basic services, while the more developed centres also offer activities and support to help people move out of homelessness
  • street outreach services work at night as well as during the day, to identify, motivate and engage rough sleepers and to refer them into accommodation
  • tenancy sustainment or floating support teams support people who have moved on from homelessness and are housed in independent accommodation. Service users receive regular visits in the community until they are able to maintain their tenancy independently.

Are there opportunities for career development?

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.

Where should I start?

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.

If you are or have been homeless yourself,  the Customer Employment Partnership is a group of London based organisations, including Homeless Link, who are taking positive action to employ people with lived experience of homelessness.  Visit the CEB site for jobs, volunteering opportunities, available training, advice and support and more information about the career opportunities available within the partner organisations.