Reframing anti-social behaviour

By Jonathan Clode – Homelessness Prevention Project Co-ordinator

The term ‘anti-social behaviour’ will be familiar to most people. It will likely conjure images of hooded youths intimidating otherwise tranquil neighbourhoods, and noisy, drunken, uncaring attitudes that impinge upon considerate, law abiding ways. But this is all a question of perception, one often worsened by social anxieties the media is all too quick to fuel. The label of anti-social behaviour can be a debilitating stigma, one that sticks, and for some people leads to eviction from their homes.

Our new Shelter Cymru report, Reframing Anti-Social Behaviour: a review of homelessness prevention good practice in Wales, argues that it is time to start questioning the umbrella definitions we so readily apply to ASB, and instead look at it in more nuanced terms that actually recognise and try to meet the support needs of those deemed to be ‘anti-social.’

The end of the Covid 19 pandemic has regrettably seen a return to injunctions and possessions among landlords, both private and social.

In 2022, Shelter Cymru legal casework saw thirty social housing cases where possession was sought for issues related to anti-social behaviour. Worryingly, in over half of these cases, the tenant or a member of their family had support needs related to mental health, substance misuse, being a victim of domestic violence, as well as neurodiversity.

Anti-social behaviour is not just a housing issue, but it is clear that appropriate housing support has an important role to play in preventing and responding to it. Social landlords have made great strides in providing support to their tenants, so why are there still cases where people are losing their homes?

Over recent years understanding of the impact of adverse childhood experiences and the adoption of trauma informed and restorative practices has become more widespread; and our research found that many social landlords are adopting these holistic ways of working. But landlords and service providers need to be better equipped with resources and updated national guidance to help ensure that good practice is adopted more consistently across the country. The Wales Housing Management Standard for tackling anti-social behaviour hasn’t been reviewed since 2014 and landlords have no obligation to follow it beyond advice around best practice. Our drum is beating to the exact same tune almost ten years later: less enforcement, more prevention – great idea!

Evidence from our casework found that more challenging and complex cases are continuing to fall through the net. Our discussions with landlords and stakeholders suggested that this is because practices are too process led, staff engagement is inappropriate or inadequate, and the support needs of the alleged perpetrator are simply not being identified.

As well as the provision of housing related support services, the reconfiguration of housing management functions is also supporting some social landlords to adopt a more effective approach. Less focus on specific ASB teams and officers, and a switch to more support-focused roles with smaller caseloads, have enabled staff to support complainants and build better relationships between staff and tenants – something that the restorative model to supporting people puts at the heart of its ideology. The idea that you need to build a relationship with someone if you hope to try and help them has always underpinned the very idea of a meaningful support service.

However, housing support staff are not trained mental health professionals, and the ever swelling elephant in the room remains the lack of timely access to mental health services, given the high proportion of people accused of ASB who are also experiencing mental health problems. The link between ASB and mental health must be stated clearly. The vast majority of people with mental health problems do not commit ASB; however, among people who are accused of ASB, we found a high correlation with unmet mental health support need. This means that problems in accessing mental health services are contributing to avoidable homelessness.

It is also important that we recognise that ASB is often a stress response to toxic environments or difficult past experiences. Successful prevention means understanding people’s unique circumstances and triggers in order to prevent them going into that stress response. This type of work is relationship-based, person-centred and support-intensive, but is proven to deliver consistently good outcomes for the individuals involved. From a business perspective it can also assist landlords by reducing void and court costs.

Meaningful partnership working is key to ensuring people have a decent chance of sustaining their tenancies, from allocation and tenancy sign-up, to providing appropriate and timely interventions if things start to go wrong. There are some fantastic examples of community services working together, and for many of them there are common threads that contribute to their success. This involves taking the time to understand the challenges and constraints that each service is under, spending less time playing pass the human parcel, and keeping one eye on the here and now while another is looking down the road to ensure the parcel doesn’t get dumped in the middle of it.

The term ‘anti-social behaviour’ is in itself problematic. It is a term too readily pinned against a number of behaviours, all of which vary greatly in presentation and have a variety of root causes. Perhaps we might recognise the potential for anti-social behaviour traits in ourselves, ones that often fly under the radar because of the way they appear: it’s a balmy weekend, the sun has gone down, we’re having a select gathering, surely no-one round here has work tomorrow, why not open that third bottle of Marlborough sauvignon blanc and bring Alexa out into the garden… anti-social! Says who?

Labelling someone as a perpetrator of ASB leads to an instant judgement that can have detrimental implications in relation to how that person is perceived, particularly among support services. Perhaps if we dispensed with the term ‘anti-social behaviour’ we might find ourselves better able to make a more thoughtful assessment of the particular issues being presented. It could also lead to the type of approach where a person would receive support on the basis of their need at that time, as opposed to a response to an allegation of behaviour.

Perspective matters, and for some people it can define their lives. By reframing ASB as a symptom of unmet support needs, we will be better able to give social housing tenants a voice that isn’t just sought when something has gone wrong, but rather heard at a time that empowers them to be, and remain, part of a community in a settled home with access to the support that they need. In this way, we can build towards stronger and more inclusive communities across Wales.

You can read our report on anti social behaviour here >

For further information about this report or about our wider research work to prevent homelessness in Wales, please email [email protected]