Sunday, 22 January 2017

We need evidence-based action to end rough sleeping, not post-truth emotional spasms

In my first year working with homeless people an older colleague, with foreboding, informed me that the homeless people we were supporting were more complex, challenging and needy than anybody had previously experienced.  I remember being shocked, considering it remarkable that I should be starting at the very time when the profile of the homeless population was changing so dramatically. It didn’t occur to me to ask ‘how do you know?’ 

Every year since, I have heard something like this same statement made. I was therefore not in a condition to be knocked down by a feather when, as a predictable pre-Christmas truism, it was stated that those working with the homeless were encountering an unprecedented increase in ‘the range of complex issues’. Wiser now, I understand that what I first heard those thirty years ago was hyperbole.      

A degree of embellishment in the context of such an emotive issue as homelessness is, perhaps, inevitable. However, when hyperbole descends into factual misinformation, we homelessness campaigners do ourselves no favours. When a high-profile Christmas campaign claimed 80% of London’s rough sleepers to be between 18 and 25, reliable data showing the real figure to be 10% the pointer on the bullshit detector dial really did begin oscillating crazily.

I’ve also noticed a perverse reaction when statistics on rough sleeping are published where, if numbers are increasing, there is sometimes an unfortunate impression given of collective satisfaction from homelessness organisations, a form of, ‘there - we told you so’.  Whereas, if numbers are stable or falling the response is more likely to be a questioning of the validity of the data and even a palpable, lip-chewing anxiety.    

I remember participating in an annual street count in a London borough a couple of years ago when this troubling inversion, through which good becomes bad, struck me particularly forcibly. That night, one of the teams taking part in the count returned to base following a lengthy search of streets and parks, tired and deflated. Apologising to their colleagues they bemoaned the fact that, despite a rigorous search, not a single person sleeping rough had been found. This, I should emphasise, delivered entirely without irony.
So, at times it feels as if an unspoken consensus prevails which requires the mood music to remain unremittingly bleak as if, instinctively, we are more at ease with the comforting familiarity of doom and gloom.

Moreover, I’ve heard it proposed that the numbers really don’t matter that much; even that a focus on figures is a fixation with a cultural dimension. Three years ago at an over-crowded homeless day centre in Paris I asked the beleaguered manager how many people slept rough in the city. ‘Between 5,000 and 7,000’ he answered. I persisted: ‘Is it 5,000 or 7,000?’ ‘Between 5,000 and 7,000 he unwaveringly repeated, adding, ‘What about in London?’  I gave him the precise, to a single digit, figure from the London annual statistics. ‘You are so Anglo-Saxon!’ he responded, breaking into a disarming smile.

But credible statistics must matter. To end rough sleeping we need know how many people are on the street, who they are and what approaches to tackling street homelessness, including preventative measures, work. We can then target resources to make the greatest impact. Yet, at times, there appears to be a curious indifference to investigating which interventions are succeeding, even unwillingness to acknowledge that we are making any headway at all.

For instance, statistics covering the last two quarters indicate that the number of people sleeping rough in the capital is reducing. We don’t yet know whether these figures are a blip or will constitute a trend.  Certainly Thames Reach’s teams continue to find demoralisingly high numbers of rough sleepers on London’s streets.  Nonetheless, should we not be analysing what went right for the 525 people who, the most recent quarterly figures show, were successfully helped off of the street? Whatever is working is worth exploring, with a view to doing more of it.

London is fortunate in having agreed protocols for recording rough sleepers on a cumulative, night-by-night basis, unlike most other cities. To establish a national rough sleeping figure we are still dependent on the street counts which take place every November. Unfortunately most local authorities provide estimates rather than undertake actual night-time counts. With respect to the last national count for which we have statistics (2016), just 14% of local authorities chose to count and the UK Statistics Authority has concluded that the rough sleeping figures in their current form do not meet the required standards of ‘trustworthiness, quality and value’ necessary to be designated as national statistics, something the Department for Communities and Local Government is actively seeking to rectify. 

Encouragingly, there are notable efforts underway elsewhere to produce better homelessness data and a credible evidence base. The European End Street Homelessness Campaign, a collaboration of organisations from different European cities, is actively seeking to improve ways of collecting detailed, relevant information on rough sleepers’ needs to achieve better outcomes and accurately track progress towards ending chronic street homelessness.   

Yet we do not convincingly show an unwavering determination to seek the hard data and evidence-based solutions to address the human catastrophe of rough sleeping. We can even give the impression that its continuation is rather convenient.  After all, we have long-fetishised street homelessness and the image of a rough sleeper in a doorway is virtually a brand. Of course we want to end rough sleeping – it is brutal and morally unacceptable in this second decade of the twenty-first century. But we must do far more to show that we are implacably in defiance of this post-truth era, with its corrupting appeals to emotion designed to make truth of secondary importance.      

A shorter version of this blog was published in Inside Housing magazine on-line on January 10th 2017. This blog was updated following the release of the 2016 rough sleeping statistics by the Department for Communities and Local Government on 25th January 2017       

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Outreach work - not taking no for an answer

There is a crepuscular light and a chilly autumn wind is sending leaves upwards into the evening sky.  Nonetheless, I maintain the ritual of stopping to watch the skateboarders at London’s South Bank.  They cavort and shimmy in the cavernous space under the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the harsh concrete backcloth these days covered with vivid graffiti.  So much life and energy where there was once misery and desperation. For this was the place where, thirty years ago, the greatest number of rough sleepers could be found.  By the late 1980s, following some misguided and deeply damaging welfare benefit changes introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government and an absence of an effective strategy to address an inexorable rise in rough sleeping, over 120 people were sleeping around the brutalist architecture of the South Bank.  In the evening, huddles of rough sleepers would gather at tables within the Royal Festival Hall and wait for the arrival of the first soup run.

I was one of the outreach workers tasked with visiting the South Bank, attempting to do the best we could to mitigate the plight of the people congregating around the concert halls, theatres and galleries. In the malodorous space under the Queen Elizabeth Hall, rough sleepers made the best of it by building semi-permanent structures called ‘bashes’ out of bits of wood, metal, cardboard and blankets. I retain strong memories of the extraordinary individuals who existed there, many of whom slept rough for years.  None more so than of two particular characters, John Beglin and James Hamilton, whose divergent destinies inescapably came to encapsulate my own personal failure and success as a street outreach worker.      

James and John slept side by side against the back wall of the cavernous space under the Queen Elizabeth Hall, two men in a long line of bodies. As outreach workers, we worked the line as a pair, checking on people, passing out cigarettes, taking details of people who wanted to book into a hostel, arranging appointments for the next day, sometimes calling an ambulance where we found someone in need of medical attention. 

James worked during the day. It was not uncommon for rough sleepers to have jobs. On one occasion, we undertook a brief piece of research to ascertain how many rough sleepers were working and discovered that at least 20% were in some form of employment. Mostly the jobs were kitchen porter jobs, ‘KPs’, (essentially washing up on an industrial scale) of the kind that had changed little from the time when George Orwell was experiencing homelessness, recorded in his book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’.  Typically, this meant queuing up at the kitchen entrance at the rear of a London restaurant or hotel early in the morning.  The work was monotonous beyond belief, the ‘cash-in-hand’ pay minimal and the regularity of employment entirely unpredictable.

Unusually, James had a road sweeper job with a local council, though he would never confirm which one.  This meant he often got to his sleeping out spot which was nothing more than a sturdy piece of cardboard and bundle of scanty blankets late in the evening. John’s day was generally more orthodox. He too got the occasionally bits of KP work but usually spent much of his day in parks or in the day centre at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church at Trafalgar Square from which he was banned sporadically following altercations with the staff.  At the weekend, he gravitated to the American International Church in Tottenham Court Road which provided free meals.

John had turned taciturnity into an art-form.  Early in our relationship he was delighted to discover that we were called the Central London Outreach Team (CLOT) and deeply relished the moment of our arrival when he was able, with feigned weariness, to announce, ‘Oh Christ, here we go, a couple of clots have arrived’.  Confusingly, on occasions when other rough sleepers joined in his denouncement of us he immediately snapped back in our defence, describing us as the only ‘crew’ who came out night after night whatever the weather. He also resisted all of our encouragement and cajoling to move off of the street into accommodation.

Week after week we visited the South Bank, sometimes demoralised as numbers of rough sleepers increased, occasionally elated as we were able to help people away from rough sleeping and into a hostel and even, in time, their own flat.  With disturbing regularity, we would hear of the death of a rough sleeper and feel a mix of frustration, helplessness and sorrow. 

Rough sleeping is brutally attritional and we would witness the inexorable toll it took on the mental and physical well-being of people we were meeting night after night, many of whom had drink and drug dependency issues that contributed significantly to their problems.  Because James was arriving late at the rough sleeping site, it took us longer than it might otherwise have done to realise that he had developed a hacking cough which became so intense on occasions that in the middle of a conversation he would stop and become bent double until the coughing fit relented. Night after night we implored him to visit a doctor at the Great Chapel Street Medical Centre in the West End which accepted homeless people who were not registered with a GP. James obdurately refused to seek any medical attention but he did ask to meet up to complete the forms for a ‘hard-to-let’ council bedsit. It was a breakthrough and we were delighted.

Looking back, it feels as if the bedsit took many months to materialise, though in fact it was probably less than three months. Eventually a letter giving a date to view arrived at our offices and I accompanied James to see a small bedsit on a north London council estate.  He seemed very satisfied with it and noted that he wouldn’t have far to travel to work. We were able to buy him some second-hand furniture including a small cooker and he duly moved into the flat.  By this stage the winter had arrived with a vengeance.  It seemed to me that in the preceding weeks James had aged considerably. He was in his mid-fifties but had the lined face of a much older man, consistently grey with fatigue. And, of an evening at the South Bank, that troubling hacking cough would announce his arrival before he materialised out of the evening gloom. 

We agreed a date for me to visit him in his flat but before this time arrived I received a call from the coroner’s office to pass on the devastating news that James had been found dead in front of his gas fire by the estate manager following an attempted break-in at his flat. The cause of death was later identified as pneumonia. 

It turned out that James had four children all of whom came to London for the funeral, his son flying in from the United States. I met him on the day before the funeral at my office and a desperately disturbing exchange ensued that I will never forget.  His son asked me how I knew his father and I explained that James slept rough, a term that clearly meant nothing to his son. I explained what rough sleeping involved, at which point his son paled and slumped back in his seat, staring at me in disbelief.  ‘But I’m a rich man, he explained, with a house in London that my father could have moved into at any time’.  He added beseechingly: ‘Please, can we agree to keep this from my sisters?’ I willingly assented to this deception.          

For a long while I felt consumed by guilt as a result of James’ death and replayed time after time our many conversations. I dwelt at length on the different occasions when I might have called an ambulance and bitterly admonished myself for buying into the seductive notion of rough sleeping being a ‘lifestyle choice’.  And I thought often of the conversation with his son and what I interpreted as the sceptical look that followed my explanation of James’ rough sleeping life, a look that said…and if this had been your father would it have taken so long to have got him away from this hell on the street?        

Meanwhile John remained impervious to my increasingly insistent offers of help. The winter nights became more bitter and I obsessively watched him for signs that his health was deteriorating.  Then one night, as I once more offered him a place in a hostel his patience snapped. Incandescent with rage, thrusting his face into mine he bawled, ‘No! No! No! Will you not take no for a fucking answer?’ It was a standoff I will never forget because I felt angry too. I told him that I was going to keep on coming back.      

Given the ferocity of the interaction, I was surprised that the next meaningful conversation with John was a brisk, muttered request that we talk privately away from the congregation of rough sleepers at the South Bank. We headed over to the all-night tea stall close to Waterloo station where John, to my astonishment, told me that he was ready to come in. ‘But don’t ask me why’, he added. And I never did.

Shortly after this he moved into a room in a small Thames Reach hostel in Marylebone. Occasionally I asked after John and was bemused to hear from the hostel manager that he was an exemplary resident, even one occasion helping to calm down another resident who was threatening to smash up the kitchen. 18 months after moving into the hostel, John accepted the tenancy of a bedsit in west London. I visited his meticulously maintained home on three or four occasions. I could see that he had settled well and would never return to sleeping rough.    

I hadn't seen John for many months when, out of the blue, I received a call from a woman called Helen who had heard that I might be able to help her trace her brother, John Beglin. It quickly became clear that she really was John’s sister and I believed her motives for a reunion with her brother were genuine and laudable. I rang John with the good news but was quickly cut short by his icy and unequivocal response. He did not wish to see his sister Helen, or indeed any members of his family, ever again.  I rang Helen back with this upsetting information and explained that our confidentiality policy meant that I was unable to pass on any of John’s contact details to her. She was distraught and I was unyielding as she implored me to at least indicate which area of London he lived in.     

It must have been over a year later that I picked up the phone in my office to be asked by the caller if I had done a shred of work since we had last spoken or whether I was still just sitting around on my backside at meetings. I felt a wave of affection wash over me on hearing John’s inimitable tones and readily agreed to his surprising request that I visit him in his flat on a specific evening the following week.

That particular day turned out to be long and fraught and it was late by the time I got to his flat and was buzzed in via the intercom.  Once inside I quickly realised that he had another visitor, a woman in her forties with the same Suffolk accent as John; it was Helen, his sister.  As he returned to his armchair John was uncharacteristically chuckling and shaking his head in mock disbelief. ‘This is the one’ he said, unnecessarily pointing in my direction. ‘He just wouldn’t take no for an answer’.  

John for reasons he, naturally, had no intention of explaining had eventually decided to ring Helen on the number I had left him. Over the next couple of hours Helen regaled me with stories of the various reunions that had taken place in the preceding months as John met with nephews, nieces, cousins, uncles and aunts; people who he had not seen for years or, in some cases, had not been born when John broke the links with his family. Helen explained that he had spent Christmas with her and that it had been wonderful. John listened with smug satisfaction, drily interjecting when he thought his sister was sounding too preposterously upbeat.  On the bus home I was beset by a complicated mix of emotions; happiness for John and Helen, some pride in having played a part in John’s successful journey away from the street and, most keenly of all, a feeling of redemption.

I still occasionally accompany workers from Thames Reach as they undertake outreach work with rough sleepers.  It is a different job these days with fewer rough sleepers congregating in one space as they did at the South Bank. I think the outreach workers are more skilled and professional now, compared with when I undertook the work. I observe them with respect and admiration as they tenaciously engage with men and women sleeping rough in appalling conditions who, inexplicable though it may seem, are often reluctant to move from the street and into accommodation. These outreach workers are simply not prepared to give up on people. They just won’t take no for an answer.       

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Ronnie wants a job. You had better believe it.

Ronnie sits slumped in his seat; impassive, listless and avoiding eye contact. In the chairs around the room the various professionals shift uncomfortably. This is the regular ward round at a rehabilitation unit for people detained under the Mental Health Act. As an alliance of organisations we are collectively seeking to support people to live a fulfilling life in the community and the first step is to help people to recover and stay well. 

Directed by the doctor chairing the review meeting we each introduce ourselves. Ronnie is clearly familiar with the roles of most of the people present. I’m preceded by the psychiatrist, senior nurse and the pharmacist. Then it’s my turn and I explain that Thames Reach supports people to manage their home and find work. Ronnie rapidly adjusts from being virtually supine to upright and alert. ‘Can I speak to you after – I want a job’.
Regretful sympathy fills the room like an invisible mist as the group subliminally shares the view that a job is, well, rather aspirational. The exchanges that follow focus on the predictable areas of medication levels and behaviour on the ward before the doctor impressively turns the conversation back to ‘hopes and dreams’. Defiantly Ronnie confirms that he wants a job and it is agreed that helping him ‘improve his skills-set’ is something the ward team will give attention to.

Trudging across the hospital car-park I reflect once again on the divergence between what the service user wants and what the support services think they need, which invariably comes to a head over the importance of work. At Thames Reach we are undertaking our regular survey of service users’ needs and, as usual, will ask about attitudes to paid employment, though we know the answer already because it’s been the same in the last three surveys. Around 70% of our service users want to work and fewer than 10% are working. If there is one thing we can be certain of, paid work is a top priority for the people we support and to justify our commitment to being a user-led organisation we must do more to help them achieve this.

We know perfectly well why this is because theirs is exactly the same motivation that makes you and I determined to get, and retain, a job. Being without work and wholly dependent on benefits is a restrictive and demoralising existence. The Department for Work and Pension’s own analysis [1] evidences that, of the groups at higher risk of poverty, the unemployed face the highest risk of all with 72% experiencing poverty after housing costs are taken into account. A recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies[2] on living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK concluded that a reduction in the number of households with no one in work has been a key factor in preventing inequality from growing during the period of recovery from the recession.

You might assume that nothing would be more likely to shape the priorities of housing and homelessness organisations than the need to tackle poverty and reducing inequality. Yet, it appears, focusing on employment is something that we do not feel terribly comfortable about. Assisting people like Ronnie to get work is a long hard slog and entry level jobs are invariably poorly paid. ‘We wouldn’t want to be seen to be furthering the government’s agenda’ I was told at a recent meeting of organisations seeking to end discrimination in the job market for people with criminal records, later clarified as meaning that we shouldn’t be supporting people to get ‘any old job’. 

I struggle with this as, apart from it being the service user’s decision not ours, how do you get the next better job without doing the first job?  And why should we think our obligations stop after that first job has been secured rather when the person is earning enough to feel they can fully participate on an equal footing in daily life and can confidently wave us goodbye?

I am under no illusions about the gross disadvantage facing many homeless and marginalised people seeking to enter the job market after many years of unemployment and the Herculean efforts they must make in order to compete for work. Inequality arising from a damaged education, a common experience for many of the people we support, creates a cruelly uneven playing field as I was reminded by a service user who recently completed one of our volunteer training programmes. He noted that now, at 31, he was going on to do a diploma in social studies and counselling. ‘I stopped attending school at 13 and it’s taken me a while to catch up’ he explained, with an understated stoicism that was both poignant and inspiring. Yet many homelessness organisations don’t even seek to actively employ former homeless people themselves. Can there be a more unthinkingly brutal vote of no confidence than this?

So we wince and stick to safer areas, especially those which give us the chance to take care of people, preferably for long enough for our indispensability to be ineluctably established. At a recent conference I attended, enjoyable though it was, workshops majored on those areas where homeless people are exemplified as vulnerable, if not permanently impaired. They included caring for people with complex needs, addressing psychological trauma and supporting people with dementia. There was nothing at all on employment.

Certainly getting an entry level job will not immediately spring a person from the poverty trap but that palpable sense of liberation I have been privileged to witness when a person gets paid work after months or years of trying creates enormous, transformational momentum. 

And ambitions for our service users should focus not only on liberation from poverty and inequality but also, I’m afraid to say, release from the smothering embrace of the homelessness sector with our apparently inexhaustible need to be needed.  

A shorter version of this blog appeared in Inside Housing magazine on 22nd July 2016

[1] Households Below Average Income - DWP (June 2015)
[2] Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2016 – Institute for Fiscal Studies (July 2016)

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Homeless? Your failure to engage means you've only yourself to blame

In the last six months there have been five deaths of rough sleepers, all well known to the Thames Reach outreach workers seeking to help them build a life away from the street, each death a crushing blow. They include a Polish rough sleeper found dead on a dirty mattress along a canal tow-path. Another, a man in his early forties who discharged himself from hospital where he was being treated for pneumonia. Heroin dependency drove him back onto the street and his body was discovered at his regular begging pitch outside a south London train station. This cull of blighted lives; it can’t go on.

All five were long-term rough sleepers, or ‘entrenched’ as we call them nowadays. Entrench: ‘To construct a defensive position by digging a trench’, a dehumanizing word which subliminally implies that the person has elected to sleep rough, obdurately burrowing away in order to avoid the reality of the world around them. It meshes neatly with a suite of words or phrases that places responsibility unequivocally on the rough sleeper themselves for their plight. ‘Failure to engage’ is one such stable-mate. This is the common verdict where efforts are made by different professionals - mental health specialists, drug and alcohol workers, housing officers - but the person self-destructively undermines the best laid plans. Then there is the familiar ‘choosing to sleep rough’ used recently by Conservative Minister Baroness Williams as a part explanation as to why the number of people sleeping rough continues to rise. This transmutes smoothly into the phrase ‘lifestyle choice’ which rests on the assumption that there are certain attractions associated with rough sleeping such as being able to avoid the responsibility of paying bills and having to get a job.

In my experience rough sleeping is, for the vast majority of people, a joyless, brutal experience. Yet, if we accept that few people given a decent alternative would choose to sleep rough, there is an inescapable paradox to wrestle with.  All five individuals who died were offered assistance to move from the street as well as help to tackle substance misuse problems. They were not sleeping rough consistently month after month but on occasions entered emergency accommodation, treatment services and hospital. These people were not nonchalantly putting their health and, ultimately, lives at risk but instead were engaged in grim struggles to tackle deep-seated problems where progress is never going to be linear but inevitably messy, complicated and lengthy.   

In London we seem unaffected by the high number of deaths of rough sleepers. Whether this is because of limited public awareness or the opposite - we are so accustomed to hearing about such deaths that we’ve become de-sensitized - I’m not sure. Either way, our reaction seems unfeeling in contrast to the response of the city of Belfast which has also had a spate of deaths of rough sleepers and is in open mourning. When recently I undertook to do a radio interview on the subject of the Belfast deaths, I was impressed that the focus was on seeking to understand why they occurred and how this tide of deaths could be turned. There were no concessions to accepting that a high level of mortality amongst rough sleepers is unavoidable; no tired clich├ęs of the type that some people are just not prepared to accept help.

There are other honourable exceptions to the standard response of wearied inevitability in the face of another life lost. In December 2010 a man was found dead from pneumonia in a sheltered alleyway in Lambeth, south London where he had been sleeping rough for some months. Impressively, and unusually, the local authority launched a Serious Case Review to see what lessons could be learnt from the death of ‘Mr A’ that might prevent similar tragedies occurring.  A wholly illuminating report published a few months later outlined how the investigating panel tracked back to explore the circumstances that led to Mr A, a man with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, sleeping rough.

It discovered that he had formerly lived in self-contained accommodation but that eviction proceedings had been set in train in relation to rent arrears without any efforts being made to find him alternative housing. Following eviction, Mr A commenced sleeping rough. The unequivocal conclusion of the panel was that the eviction represented ‘a failure to understand Mr A’s underlying condition and basic needs. The panel was also critical of the number of occasions when Mr A had been discharged from statutory mental health services because of his ‘non-engagement’.    

I hope that there will be more occasions when local authorities will feel it incumbent to put under the spotlight the death of a rough sleeper through a Serious Case Review investigation. And if a groundswell of revulsion about the number of deaths of people sleeping rough were to arise, perhaps we would be more determined to challenge the actions that are keeping people entrapped on the street such as the continuing propensity of some of the public to give money to people begging, even though the evidence built up over many years is that the money is largely being spent on hard drugs - crack cocaine and heroin.  

But I fear that on this count I am deluding myself. I was given a salutary reminder of how far we have still to go when accompanying a colleague on an outreach shift in East London recently. That night he was urgently seeking Tina, a rough sleeper with a crack cocaine problem.  Eventually we came across her - sallow skin, eyes dulled and a sore at the corner of her mouth. We reminded her of her appointment in the morning at the local drop-in, after which she could be taken to accommodation.

Later we spotted her sitting cross-legged outside a late-night food store, benefiting from the generosity of the local hipsters coming out of the clubs. And I remembered the words of a hard-bitten colleague who told me that to maximize your begging return you should be female, have a dog with you and be close to death. And I sardonically reflected that, whilst Tina didn’t have a dog with her that night, two out of three ain’t bad.

A shorter version of this blog was published by Inside Housing magazine on April 19th 2016                  



Saturday, 23 January 2016

Missing documents and Schubert: losing and finding your identity in the Ukraine and Slovakia

Beside Kiev railway station there is a space the size of a small waiting room and on this dank December evening the first homeless people are filing in, some a little hesitantly as this is a new destination; until recently they were sleeping rough outside and in derelict buildings or tunnels – anywhere to escape the vicissitudes of the harsh Ukrainian winter.  

The room has been made habitable through the installation of benches by Depaul International in response to an urgent request from the beleaguered railway authorities, struggling to cope with the hundreds of destitute people living rough in the vicinity of the station. I and fellow trustees from the London Housing Foundation (LHF), a grant-making charity providing financial support for Depaul’s work in the Ukraine and Slovakia, are visiting to witness at first hand the homelessness situation in these countries and the impact of Depaul’s work.

Svetlana shows no reticence in talking about her situation. Following the loss of her identification documents she has been sleeping rough for a number of weeks. Despite an itinerant lifestyle Svetlana has been working regularly, but now the loss of her papers has rendered her unemployable. Given that the night ahead will require her to sleep sitting upright squeezed between other bodies, Svetlana is unnervingly cheerful though her chirpiness, she explains, is due to relief at not having to sleep outside in sub-zero temperatures.  

In the Ukraine the consequences of being without the right documents cannot be over-emphasised.   This is not an issue akin to the temporary inconvenience suffered by a UK rough sleeper awaiting the arrival of a replica birth certificate to have a benefit claim authorised.  In the Ukraine there is an incessant requirement for papers to be presented and stamped. Documents are essential for securing accommodation, medical care and legal employment and the result of being without documents is invariably homelessness and destitution. 

Throughout our visit it was reported with depressing consistency that often more than a year will elapse before lost documents are replaced and from support staff working with the homeless we heard that, astonishingly, some people had been without documents since the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.  We may rhetorically speak of homeless people being invisible, but in the Ukraine it seems there is a group of destitute people who are essentially stateless, non-persons.

In the last few years Depaul has worked with tenacity and imagination to provide basic services to a vast number of homeless people in the Ukraine and Slovakia. In Slovakia’s capital Bratislava we visit a former warehouse, upgraded with financial assistance from the LHF to shelter the homeless of the city.  By UK standards it is rudimentary. The cloying, sickly-sweet smell of unwashed bodies hangs in the air.  The year before the shelter opened, 26 people died on the city’s streets during the brutal winter months. This figure fell to zero the year the shelter became operational. 

An hour’s drive from Odessa in southern Ukraine, Depaul has built two houses, one for men and another for women.  At the women’s house we meet three women determinedly re-building their lives. They have bleak stories of violent relationships, addiction and children taken into care and speak with quiet dignity about their hopes and dreams and the benefits of being away from the city and its tensions.  Here, they agree, ‘it is a fairy tale’. 

Then one of the women who has spoken movingly about her former life as a musician opens up a battered violin case.  Tenderly taking out the instrument she embarks on a beautiful rendition of Schubert’s Ave Maria.  Somehow, the importance of identity, self-worth and hope is perfectly encapsulated in the aching melancholy of the piece; we are stunned by this special moment.

We spent three days witnessing the struggle of people painstakingly attempting to rebuild lives from the rubble of traumatic pasts in conditions that seemed at times unremittingly bleak. Systems, especially those requiring documentation to negotiate them, appeared designed to create barriers rather than to offer hope or encourage initiative.  The resilience and unquenchable spirit of many of the homeless people we met in the face of such obstacles was remarkable. 

We are, of course, committed to assessing the impact of all the services we fund.  But, in truth, I have no idea how Depaul’s essential work can be given a real numerical or financial value. What is the worth of preventing 26 people dying on the streets of Bratislava?  Measure that my friends – measure that.         
This blog was originally published in Inside Housing on 22nd January 2016      


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Passion and outrage are essential but not enough - In memory of Chris Holmes

This blog was originally published in December 2015 as one of a series of essays to commemorate
 the life of Chris Holmes who made an extraordinary contribution to tackling homelessness. The complete set of essays can be found at

The speaker is in full flow and has the audience at the homelessness conference in his grip. He is a powerful speaker and his controlled anger is palpable as he jabs the air with his forefinger. It is a familiar litany of observations about how the poor are under attack and the homeless are in the firing line, their lives blighted by a series of brutal government policies and incomprehensible funding decisions taken by local authorities. Welfare benefit cuts are castigated, unimaginative local commissioning of homelessness services ridiculed and the inadequacy of the housing safety net laid bare. 

The congregation of homelessness sector representatives have heard this type of denunciation before. It is well articulated and impassioned, ending with a call to action to resist at all costs the stripping back of services to the homeless and vulnerable. We cannot forever go on papering over the cracks he concludes and, in truth, who could disagree with the substance of his speech? The applause is loud and sustained.

Yet as I file out of the auditorium with my uplifted colleagues my mood is pensively downbeat. It is an unexpected feeling, which I explore on the train journey home. What is certain is that there is no shortage of passion within the homelessness sector. The recent Conservative election victory has not blunted the outrage provoked by what many colleagues regard as a calculated onslaught on society’s poorest who are expected to bear a disproportionate share of the burden of austerity. There is a fervent commitment to protect services and defend the homeless. The rhetoric is of the broadly oppositional, unspecific and authentic. Phrases that littered the conference included “we must stand shoulder to shoulder”, “draw a line in the sand to prevent the commissioning of services on the cheap” and “fight tooth and nail against any more benefit cuts”.

I’m old. The language of determined opposition takes me back to the 1980s and 1990s. There are perturbing similarities with our own times; a triumphant Conservative government determined to reduce spending and roll back the state, a Labour opposition weakened by defeat and disunity and, of course, an inexorable rise in the numbers of people sleeping rough on the streets.

As a young outreach worker in my 20s walking the streets of streets of central London, the relentless growth in the rough sleeping population was monstrously debilitating.  For each person for whom we were able to find a hostel bed, a far greater number came on to the street for the first time. Benefit restrictions imposed on young people had a direct and rapid impact on the numbers under the age of 25 sleeping rough, which, when it struck, was a new and disheartening phenomenon.

And then there was Lincolns Inn Fields, a park in central London inhabited by a vast population of rough sleepers, incongruously encircled by barristers’ chambers. Every night we visited this cardboard city of the homeless, trying to find a way out for the inhabitants, some of whom had lived there for months, even years. Living in Lincolns Inn Fields was a dangerous and unpleasant experience. Assaults on rough sleepers by members of the public were a regular occurrence, as were fights between those sleeping there. The common view was that the rat population of Lincolns Inn Fields probably exceeded the human.

Apart from my sense of despair, I was aware too of another competing feeling. It was one of moral superiority and righteousness in the face of the deteriorating situation for the homeless in London. We were the foot soldiers, out at night doing what we could to pick up the pieces in response to government wickedness and incompetence. A peculiar sustenance could be acquired from glory in defeat. Oddly we, like the other services working with the homeless, operated largely in an organisational bubble. Occasionally we would meet another outreach team on the streets and there would be a courteous exchange, a nod to indicate camaraderie, and then we would walk on and away.

Visible rough sleeping creates a potent picture. Images of bodies huddled on the street leave an indelible impression suggesting that all is not well in a country and with a society. Eventually the imperative for a Conservative government to seek help to quell the increase in rough sleeping, hounded for its failures by a homelessness sector that, in time, sought to collectively and pragmatically campaign to address the remorseless rise in numbers, led to change. The result was a progressive and effective programme, the Rough Sleepers Initiative, which funded outreach work and the building of some 3,800 units of accommodation, mostly self-contained, for rough sleepers.  Numbers sleeping rough peaked and then gradually fell.

Homelessness organisations were embracing pragmatism in other ways. The sense of passionate rightness was being blended with a grim determination to reduce rough sleeping, not just around the edges but comprehensively. The unremitting cull of people sleeping rough, with many found dead in circumstances that we studiously avoided passing on to families and friends when attending their funerals, imbued us with cold-eyed resolution.

Above all we wanted to dismantle the cardboard cities, the squalid encampments where rough sleepers lived in appalling conditions. At Lincolns Inn Fields a dilemma arose for the outreach teams. The council had decided to call time on the park as a place for rough sleepers to congregate. It proposed the introduction of a by-law to ban rough sleeping and there was a deal to be struck. The council was prepared to offer permanent accommodation for each person sleeping in the park to enable them to escape rough sleeping for good in return for support from the outreach teams to rehouse Lincoln Inn’s Field's inhabitants.  

There was an additional element to the offer that we couldn’t ignore. The initiator of this approach was the Director of Housing at Camden, Chris Holmes. Chris had formerly been the Director of CHAR, the campaigning organisation for the homeless. This made it difficult to view our engagement as a case of ‘supping with the devil’. As one of my colleagues delicately articulated it at the time, “he’s not one to shaft the homeless”. There was some opposition to the forced closure and an article was published about how the homeless ‘community’ at Lincoln’s Inn Fields was going to be transplanted elsewhere against their will. This had the unintended impact of hardening our support for the proposed by-law. We had spent too many nights at Lincolns’ Inn Fields witnessing the mayhem and hearing stories of assaults and robbery. What we saw was not a mutually supportive community but a disparate and wretched group of people forced together through circumstance, in need of a better life.

Over the next three months individual needs were assessed and offers of accommodation made. I accompanied numerous rough sleepers to view bedsits and flats. Their astonishment at the chance to have a place of their own will forever remain with me. In time, other cardboard cities were tackled at the South Bank, Waterloo (the notorious Bullring) and elsewhere with the same broad offer of accommodation or, where required, access to support for an alcohol, drug or mental health problem. Each closure included an element of compulsion in that there was not, ultimately, an option to remain sleeping rough at the site.  By the end of the century, the cardboard city was no longer part of the London landscape.

In 2015 rough sleeping is a very different phenomenon. Today outreach workers spend more time seeking out rough sleepers in isolated areas including parks, derelict buildings, riverbanks and multi-storey car parks. A ‘hotspot’, the term used for a congregation of rough sleepers, can comprise three individuals.  Despite the continuous increase in rough sleeping numbers over the last ten years, cardboard cities with the permanence of yesteryear have not returned.  But there are new challenges.  Remarkably, the latest annual figures for London show that of the 7,581 rough sleepers met over the year by outreach workers operating in the capital, 57 per cent are non-UK nationals including 36 per cent from Central and Eastern Europe; men and women who have come to London as economic migrants seeking work. With limited rights to claim welfare benefits that would enable them to access accommodation, the options available to non-UK nationals are very limited and the levels of destitution amongst rough sleepers now being witnessed are as extreme as those seen in the 1980s.

In the face of the steady rise in rough sleeping numbers we remain resolute but disconcertedly hidebound. Again, echoes of the challenges of 30 years ago resonate. There appears to be no difficulty in people expressing outrage about the situation of rough sleepers. Twenty-first century communication in the form of Twitter and Facebook can lead to the dramatic multiplication of indignation as witnessed during 2015 in response to some businesses and landlords placing ‘spikes’ outside their buildings to dissuade rough sleepers bedding down. Some outreach workers on the frontline expressed disappointment that distress about spikes did not transfer to a similar collective concern and call for action on behalf of actual people sleeping in shop doorways.

But the numbers sleeping rough continue to rise and my gloom stems from a belief that there will be no respite whilst solutions are piece-meal, responses lack focus and, above all, we lack ambition driven by an icy determination to end rough sleeping, once and for all. We seem incapable of making the substantial step that was achieved in previous years which brought to an end the cardboard cities.

Let me return to Chris Holmes, Director of Housing at Camden and later Chief Executive of Shelter. I was privileged to have known Chris in his days at CHAR, Camden Council and Shelter. Indisputably Chris was passionate about ending homelessness and his working life exemplifies a furious commitment to achieving this goal. Most importantly, so do his accomplishments, the ending of the use of bed and breakfast accommodation for homeless families whilst at Camden and the extension of a statutory right to housing for more people through the Homelessness Act during his spell at Shelter.

But the special alchemy that defined Chris Holmes was based on a pragmatic approach to securing outcomes as well as the need for the fervent call to arms. Here was a man who sought to understand the different motivations of apparently competing interests in order to close a deal. In the case of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, he recognised that it was unreasonable for a public space to be blighted by a sprawling cardboard city of the homeless and that the third world conditions experienced by those living there were also unacceptable. He believed its inhabitants deserved the chance of something better. To achieve this Chris was prepared to face unpopularity, including from within his own ‘tribal’ group; the left of centre activists who comprise the great bulk of people working in the field of homelessness and housing. 

Are we brave and imaginative enough to collectively find a solution to a similar 21st century rough sleeping phenomenon?  In parks in central and outer London mass rough sleeping could conceivably emerge again. Today we are witnessing significant numbers of central and eastern Europeans sleeping rough in tents and encampments, taking this step so they can undertake below minimum wage work, primarily car wash, building site and gardening jobs. Chillingly, in the last two months we have lost two rough sleepers on our streets, both Polish, men who suffered ignominious deaths many miles away from their families. We have to do better than this.

Expressing outrage is easy and directing it at the full range of potential wrongdoers – government, rogue employers, landowners and local authorities – can be especially cathartic, if ultimately futile. We must seek a new approach, which means working with a range of partners including local authorities, the police, landowners, the immigration authorities, local businesses and employers. We have to understand the motivations and aspirations of those who have come to this country to secure work and a better life and address the reasonable concerns of local communities who experience public spaces becoming, for them, out of bounds. It will require compromise, imagination, negotiation, persistence, planned co-ordination and hard-nosed delivery.  We will need solutions that are currently far from obvious and will certainly be contentious, imperfect and unpopular. We must be driven by an uncompromising belief that homelessness, especially in the most extreme forms that we are now witnessing, is an obscenity.

 The story of our achievements over the last 30 years and the examples of the exceptional people that delivered remarkable outcomes for the homeless is that passion and outrage are, by themselves, not enough.   

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Homelessness - an event, not an imposed identity

“Where have the homeless moved to? Can you help us find them?” asks a woman on the phone. It’s a bad line and there is traffic noise in the background. “We are seeking out junkies, winos and vagrants.”  It occurs to me that perhaps she is being deliberately provocative by using such pejorative terms but no, after a few questions it is clear that she is sincere.
She is with a church group which has travelled into central London, moved by “the plight of the homeless”. Central London is overburdened with vast numbers of visiting soup runs, so I don’t offer directions but refer her to Housing Justice which does an excellent job working with faith groups to ensure their important contribution is coordinated and effective.

Then I muse over her language and what it tells me about how people who are homeless are perceived. I am influenced by @bullringbash who tweets in an illuminating way on homelessness issues, a man who by his own admission spent destructive years in the 1990s at the Bullring near Waterloo Station, London, one of the most notorious rough sleeping encampments.  He has strong feelings about the phrase ‘the homeless’; its dehumanising impact and the impression it gives of a homeless tribe. In a recent tweet he went further, commenting: “No such thing as homeless people, only people who are homeless.” 

This notion that the homeless can be defined and analysed in the way that we might an ethnic group is enhanced by research that seeks to establish an average age of death of a homeless person. The age currently favoured is 47 but has, at different times over the last five years, been announced as 40.2, 40.5, 42 and 44.

Delving into this research a little further it becomes evident that the problem is definitions of the homeless varies considerably, which is hardly surprising given that homelessness covers so many situations. The range can include not only rough sleepers, families in bed and breakfasts and hostel residents but squatters and even, in a piece of research surely straining the definition beyond breaking point, someone who has had to leave ‘a negative home environment’ to sofa-surf for as short a period as a week.
The public perception of the homeless, embraced with insouciant condescension by swathes of the media, seems to be of a badly dressed man with a beard, a sort of hipster with a grubby collar and poor dress sense. This is how The Daily Telegraph reported on Cristiano Ronaldo disguising himself as a homeless man, before showing off his football skills in the centre of Madrid: “Real Madrid star dons fake beard and fat suit before posing as a tramp.” And when on social media people describe themselves as looking homeless as they frequently do, they mean looking unkempt, a bit rough. 

The legitimate concern of @bullringbash is that the concept of ‘the homeless’ carries with it a stigma that can continue to blight a person’s life well after their homelessness experience should have dimmed to an uncomfortable memory.
Surely homelessness should be regarded as an event and not given the authority of an imposed identity? I share his concern about the implications of propagating this ultimately toxic view of the homeless as a homogenous group. There is something gratifyingly comforting about the concept of helping the homeless. I fear that it brings out the worst kind of paternalism in us. That sense of personal fallibility in the individual leads inexorably to the next conclusion; that the homeless, rather like the poor, will always be with us.
Recently walking through the West End, absorbed in my own thoughts, I found myself confronted by a man who claimed to remember me from the time when I was working with rough sleepers 30 years earlier. Looking up, I could immediately remember his name and even where he slept rough. I braced myself to hear a story of a fall from grace, an incident that had brought him back onto the street and, rather insensitively, I asked if he was back sleeping rough. He looked puzzled but then burst out laughing.

“No, no,” he exclaimed. “You got me the flat, then I got a job. I work in IT now and own my home.”  We talked briefly about when he slept on cardboard in a shop doorway. “Bad days,” he said, momentarily looking grim. Then he shook my hand and strode off towards Leicester Square tube station, not one of the ex-homeless, but someone for whom homelessness was a shocking, unpleasant aberration.     

With special thanks to @bullringbash

A version of this blog was publish in Inside Housing magazine, October 2015.