“I’m sorry we have to ask this”: Asking questions of clients experiencing homelessness

By 23rd November 2015 Uncategorised No Comments

Blog post by our colleague Senior Practitioner Ruth Wallbank, the original can be found here.


Questioning, questioning: The way we ask homeless people questions.


What I’ve been thinking:

When I first met the people who are now my closest friends I’m pretty positive that our first interactions didn’t go like this:

“Hi, how are you, please tell me about any childhood trauma you may have experienced and whether any of your close relatives are terminally ill?”

The first time I met my friend Rich, we were 16 and being shown around the dark room in our sixth form college art block on our first day. He said: “This is like a low budget haunted house”, I  was sixteen so I can only assume I took a five seconds break from back combing my super cool hair to make some ghost noises, we laughed, and have been friends ever since.

When I approach a service for help, my GP, my dentist, my landlord, my mechanic I expect to talk about the reason I’m there. It would throw me off balance slightly if my mechanic wanted to have a look at my teeth. Or indeed, if my doctor ignored my asthma so that he could look under the bonnet of my Skoda. Bit weird.

I’ve been thinking about the way I approach the conversations I have when I first meet someone. When I’m building relationships and when I’m asking for help. The conversations I have are different, my attitude and my expectations are different and I generally have an idea of how it’s going to go.

Why I’ve been thinking it:

But when I think about the people experiencing homelessness that I support in my job, and the many conversations I’ve witnessed them having on initial contact with services I don’t know if they can ever predict what they’re going to be asked.

I supported a customer to attend an assessment to look at her suitability for a Drug Rehabilitation Requirement. This assessment was completed by the local drug service that the customer already utilises: for needle exchanges, to see the doctor; the service administers her script, she sees a drugs worker there. However the assessment she attended seemed to disregard all of this. It was completed by a worker the customer had never met and involved filling out several very large forms. The assessment started from scratch. The customer was asked how much methadone she was prescribed by the service who prescribe her methadone.

What struck me the most was how many times the customer was asked about her children, where they were, what social services involvement there had been,  what contact she has with them etc. Unsurprisingly the removal of her children is an extremely sensitive subject for this customer, one that causes her great upset and something that she does not like to discuss.

Few of us would want to talk about the most difficult thing that ever happened to us with someone we had met five minutes previously; and I started thinking about how I would change exchanges like this, both in my own practice and as a wider issue.

The purpose of this appointment was to assess the customer’s suitability for a court ordered drug treatment programme, filling in vast amounts of forms overshadowed this. On that day there was an opportunity to discuss how this order could help her, what she wanted from it, what would be expected of her, the future; but that didn’t happen. The focus was entirely on the past.


How could it be different:

Being seen by a worker who she had built a relationship with:

A worker who knew the client would be better placed to  make the decision about whether or not to recommend her for a court order.

A worker who knew the client would also know the difficulties she has discussing her children and the fact she has no contact with them, so the difficult safeguarding questions could have been avoided.

If this was not possible:

If another worker needed to complete the assessment; this customer was already open to the service conducting the assessment, she already has a file containing all of the information she was asked. If these files are never opened, never read, never utilised to make a process easier for the customer, why are we keeping them?

If the question still needs to be asked:

Sometimes asking a question can not be avoided, particularly where safeguarding is concerned, but acknowledging that the question is a sensitive one, explaining why it is being asked and only asking once – even if the form asks it thirty thousand times – could help to put someone at ease.

When I think about my own first job in the sector, my role involved interviewing people who were homeless to assess their suitability for supported accommodation. There were questions that needed to be asked, to insure the customer got the help they needed and that risks were managed. However, there were questions on the assessment form that I believe I had no right to ask. So I did what a lot of support workers do when faced with a form to complete that makes them uncomfortable, I apologised for it, I said things like:

“I’m sorry we have to ask this”.

I’m lucky enough to work for an amazing, solution focussed project that doesn’t require me to conduct lengthy assessments the first time I meet a customer, but faced with the same situation again I would change my practice:

I never asked why we had to ask it.

Maybe there’s a reason for asking the question, maybe there’ll still be that jarring feeling of asking someone something that feels intrusive but at least you’ll know the logic behind it and be able to explain this to the customer, and they can make an informed decision about whether or not they answer it.

Or maybe asking your manager why the organisation requires this information (particularly why it’s required at a first meeting) could change things. It’s possible that a question sits on a form unchanged for fifteen years because no one has asked why it’s there.


Just because someone is homeless doesn’t mean we can ask them anything.

Just because someone’s situation is complex doesn’t mean we need to know all of the information the first time we see them.

I’m a complete believer in approaching things holistically, if you’re a drugs worker and someone wants to discuss their mental health, let them, but don’t think it’s your right to ask about it the moment someone steps through the door.

All of this may seem like common sense, it may seem ridiculously obvious, but I watch my customers, time and time again, they are so used to relaying their entire life story that they don’t bat an eyelid when someone they’ve never met asks them something very personal

I think we should ask ourselves, do I need this particular piece of information at this exact moment to support this customer now?

Initial meetings should be about building a relationship, sussing one another out. Or they can be about a focussed intervention where someone asks for help. But how can someone ask for help if they’re so busy answering questions?

Unless we think more about the questions we ask we’ll never make better first impressions on our clients and people will keep telling us what they think we want to hear.