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.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Rough sleeping: Facts, fables, fatalities

Ex-services personnel make up 25% of the rough sleeping population’ stated a business leader to me at a recent event with what a colleague caustically referred to later as ‘the unerring certainty of the terminally ignorant’.  His pronouncement came to mind as I was reading the latest CHAIN annual rough sleeping figures for London which show that 9% of the rough sleeping population were formerly in the armed services; 3% in the UK armed services and 6% in the armed services of other countries.

I spend an inordinate amount of time talking to groups and individuals about rough sleeping and invariably the conversation will coalesce around two questions: who and why? Around both swirl myths and misconceptions. The antidote to the plausible but unsubstantiated anecdote upon which, distressingly, policy decisions are occasionally based is the CHAIN report and data which is unique in terms of the richness of the information and its reliability. The data is compiled cumulatively by outreach teams and is ‘real time’ data, inputted by individual outreach staff during a street shift. Over the year a remarkably full picture of the rough sleeping population is built up.
CHAIN figures show that there is an extraordinary flow of people onto, and from, the street. In 2014-15, 5,107 people were found sleeping rough in London for the first time. Over the same period 2,624 men and women were helped into accommodation or to return home, a big figure we seem coyly reluctant to highlight.  

Curiously, a prevailing myth is that outreach workers only stick to areas popular with rough sleepers. From this a further assumption emerges, that certain sub-sets of the rough sleeping population who seek to sleep on their own in out-of-the way places remain hidden, overlooked, perhaps disregarded. Young people and women are often mooted as examples. This is based on an anachronistic picture of outreach teams working with cardboard city-size congregations of rough sleepers in parks or huddled together in shop doorways, which is how it was when I was an outreach worker in the 1980s.
Nowadays, a ‘hotspot’, the term given for a visible site where rough sleepers can be found as a group, can comprise as few as three people. Instead, outreach workers frequent derelict buildings, tunnels, night-buses, tower blocks, car-parks, canal boats, tow-paths, riverbanks and woods. The dispersed nature of rough sleeping is one of the most significant changes witnessed over the last decade.
Yet some things don’t change. The latest figures show that 45% of rough sleepers have a mental health support need, a figure that has been consistent for over ten years. There are around 600 people sleeping rough in the capital with severe and enduring mental health problems who have been on the streets for at least a year. Why this large number does not create outrage is difficult to fathom. It may be because of another enduring myth; that people with mental health issues are eccentrically choosing a street homeless life-style and should be left alone to get on with it. 

The endearingly whimsical notion of the ruggedly independent rough sleeper certainly fits the fable which grew up around the legendary Anne Naysmith, who slept rough for many years. The mental health professionals I have spoken to who knew Anne well see things very differently, believing that the psychotic episodes she endured were brutally debilitating. Anne feared that malevolent spirits would punish her if she left the street and occasionally her anxiety was such that she would be found weaving amongst the traffic on busy roads. Earlier this year Anne tragically lost her life when she was hit by a lorry.       

Beyond dispute is the remarkable change in the nationality profile of rough sleepers. The latest figures show that 57% of London’s rough sleepers are non-UK nationals. With limited rights and fewer options to escape rough sleeping, non-UK nationals are especially vulnerable and sleeping rough brings enormous risks.

And, when the numbers have been pored over and the reports compiled, there is ultimately only one justification for this obsessive scrutiny and that is to make rough sleeping in 21st century Britain a historical abnormality which, in time, will seem as incongruous as our ancestors’ sufferance of bear-baiting. Last month, a Polish rough sleeper with severe alcohol dependency problems which led him to persistently reject offers of assistance was found dead on a dirty mattress on a canal tow-path. The mattress has already been requisitioned by another rough sleeper. Acquiescence is not an option.       

This blog was originally published in Inside Housing on August 14th 2015  

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

An affront against humanity

In those most desperate of weeks that crossed Christmas and the New Year I was getting daily updates on the Somali couple living rough outside TK Maxx on a busy south London street.  A mother and son both with severe and enduring mental health problems, exhibiting delusional behaviour and severe self-neglect. They had been there for months, resisting all offers of accommodation or hospital treatment.  Engagement with mental health specialists, our outreach workers, the police and members of the Somali community had all been in vain.  Over the months their belongings blossomed around them. Carrier bags within carrier bags, suitcases, bedding, food cartons: the detritus of the destitute.  Around the corner and out of sight of passers-by stood buckets in which they defecated.

With Christmas approaching and the temperature falling the plight of the Somali couple became a shared obsession.  Multi-agency case conferences took place to consider their mental capacity to make decisions and the last resort option of a compulsory admission to hospital using the Mental Health Act, was mooted.  By now we were visiting daily, all of us dismally remembering a woman rough sleeper who, in similar fashion, resisted leaving the streets and was eventually found dead.

It was a period of bitter weather; low temperatures and prolonged rain, the killer combination for rough sleepers, a time to increase the number of outreach shifts and when the vigilance of the public in spotting isolated rough sleepers and contacting us on their behalf is crucial. 

Around this time, a rough sleeping story broke. Outside a complex of up-market flats in south London the developers had set metal spikes into the concrete to prevent rough sleepers bedding down.  On Twitter, outrage at this callous response to rough sleepers burst into life and fed stories that appeared in the national press. Further spikes were discovered outside Selfridges and other stores.  Campaigners described the spikes as ‘an affront against humanity’.  Petitions were signed and journalists put out the call to be informed if further spikes were spotted in order to ‘name and shame’.  
Bumping into a haggard outreach worker who had just completed an early morning shift, hands wrapped around a cup of tea, I was shaken by how inconsequential he regarded the spikes furore.  ‘They’re appalled by spikes stopping people sleeping rough but indifferent to the people actually living on the street’, was his bitter assessment.

Turning this comment over in my mind later, I began to see it from the perspective of an outreach worker, out in all weathers searching for rough sleepers, the most vulnerable of whom will be in hidden places.  Around them swirls the humanity of the city with the vast majority of people apparently oblivious to their work, yet accustomed to the homeless figure lying in a doorway.  The anaesthetic of familiarity is a most powerful drug. 
When yet another Tweet circulated, this one from a journalist I know well, a committed and compassionate person, requesting to be alerted to further sightings of spikes I responded by asking if she had ever rung the StreetLink number through which outreach teams can be notified about a rough sleeper who is of concern.  She had the good grace to acknowledge that she never had.    

Next, a linked story emerged with a theme of how much better rough sleepers are treated in Vancouver, Canada.  In Vancouver, to make it easier for people to sleep rough, an ingenious contraption has been designed which creates a temporary roof over a park bench.  An article in the Daily Telegraph urged London to take inspiration from Vancouver. 
Far from being inspired, the roof-over-the-bench solution left me dispirited.  We are adept at finding ways of mitigating the worst aspects of sleeping on the street.  Over the years creative people have sent me intricate designs for pop-up tents and pod-like living capsules to make surviving on the street easier.  Kind members of the public and corporate supporters regularly offer coats, sleeping bags, mittens and hand-warmers. 

But how can these be the solution?  The brutal truth is that such responses which seek to help people live more comfortably on the street have cataclysmically failed.  Vancouver offers clear evidence of this failure on a mega-scale.  The 2014 Vancouver homeless count found 2,777 people sleeping rough or in shelters.  Vancouver has a population a third of the size of London but with 957 rough sleepers on the street on any single night the city has 30% more rough sleepers than London.    
As spikes stories multiplied, in a parallel universe the determined partnership which refused to accept that the Somali couple should die on the street got a breakthrough when, in early January, they were admitted to hospital.  Encouragingly, we were assisted by supportive individuals from the immediate neighbourhood and by a local journalist, all deeply moved by the couple’s plight and giving every impression that they regarded their unresolved, distressing predicament as - well - an affront against humanity.  Sadly in April, having refused all offers of accommodation, they returned to the street, providing yet another reminder that ending rough sleeping would be considerably easier if all it involved was finding someone a home.
The latest quarterly figures for London show that 44% of rough sleepers have mental health problems and we estimate that at least 600 people in poor mental health are, like the Somali couple, long term rough sleepers.  These are people who commonly have disturbing life histories and often unfathomably obscure reasons for not accepting help to come off of the street.  The challenges are enormous. 

Rough sleeping remains one of the great outrages of our time. Our failure is to enthusiastically focus on piece-meal responses, strong on ameliorating the immediate suffering of the poor and destitute, evidentially ineffectual in changing their situation permanently, for the better.  We desperately need a programme to end the disgrace of people with severe and enduring mental health problems living and dying on our streets.  It must be a properly resourced, multi-agency approach involving mental health professionals committed to working on the street to assess and support, outreach workers, the police and local authorities.  I believe it is the kind of initiative that local communities and the wider public will back.  It must be a programme within which roofs over benches do not figure.

A shorter version of this blog was published in Inside Housing magazine on June 5th 2015

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Sleeping rough, working rough - with the Roma in London

5.00am. Dawn light is beginning to streak an indigo night sky. The battered caravan seems deserted. A brisk rap on its door by my colleague Ben breaks the silence. This is the early morning outreach shift in an outer London borough. In this road adjacent to a park there are a line of assorted vehicles, most of which appear to be derelict.  My two outreach colleagues, Ben and Helena, between them speak Czech, Romanian, Hungarian, Russian and English.

Eventually there is a rustle from inside and the heads of a man and women emerge. There follows an amiable conversation with Ben who has met the couple before. They are Romanian and working to earn money for their extended family back home. Previously the caravan was located beside another park nearby, but they were required to move from there by the police. The couple paid a vehicle removal company to transport the caravan to this new site. Ben asks after the child who was previously living in the caravan with them and they explain that he has been taken into care by the local authority. The couple are in close contact with social workers and hopeful that the child will be returned to their custody shortly. 

The man has been working regularly, mostly on building sites for small contractors at below minimum wage rates. This type of unregulated labour is part of the vast ‘informal economy’ based on cash-in-hand payments. Every morning he gets up at 5.15am and joins a line of men waiting patiently in a car park nearby, ready to be picked up by a contractor’s van.

Along from the caravan is a car and its two genial male occupants are pleased to converse with Ben in their own language. The police, they tell him, know of their presence and they proffer documents as proof that they are working legally. Beside the car is a large plastic container full of water. As I pass by later, they are using the water to give themselves a rudimentary wash.

Entering the park, we follow the light of Helena’s torch to an encampment hidden away in scrubby undergrowth behind a small copse of trees. In the mouth of a tent sits a balding middle-aged man, his shirt unbuttoned down to the waist despite the temperature hovering close to zero. There follows an animated, finger-jabbing debate with Ben. At one point he interrupts Ben and turns to me, thrusting his face forward and stating emphatically - ‘me no drink’, slapping his chest in time to each carefully articulated word.

Ben informs me the reason for this animosity is that the man is frustrated by the authorities always seeking to move him on. He believes they should be more welcoming and provide some basic accommodation for people like him who are undertaking work that the lazy English won’t do themselves. He has disdain for the poor work ethic of Londoners. In his view they are happier living on benefits and drinking alcohol. His diatribe seems uncannily similar to the florid descriptions of Romanian migrants delivered by certain politicians opposed to current levels of EU migration.   

As we scrabble through the undergrowth back to the main path I reflect with Ben and Helena on the challenges of working with this particular group of rough sleepers. Most are Romanian Roma. The Roma, an ethnic group scattered across central, eastern and southern Europe, suffer very significant discrimination.  In stark contrast to the lurid media stories of Roma entering the UK to beg and claim benefits, the people we have met this morning are proudly self-sufficient with a strong work ethic and few support needs. They are prepared to work to earn a wage that is exploitative by UK standards but considerably more than they would earn in Romania.

Rough sleeping associated with economic migration is a contentious, politically sensitive issue and it is rather easier to generate feelings of dismay and condemnation than to offer solutions. There are aspects of what I have witnessed this morning which are deplorable. Parts of the park are out of bounds to the public because of the encampments and encircling detritus and it is understandable that local authorities will seek to recover public space, working alongside outreach teams who can support people slipping into destitution to return to their countries of origin whilst urging and assisting those who can work to legitimise their employment situation in the UK.  

But for people who have little, the financial reward for undertaking unskilled work in this country is considerable. The cost of even basic private rented accommodation would eat significantly into their earnings and the temporary hardship of sleeping rough is, they conclude, worth enduring. Yet I ponder the heavy price being paid by the couple in the caravan whose child has been taken into care.  And meanwhile, the flourishing informal economy provides a troubling backcloth to this transient way of life, undercutting wages and creating an environment where exploitation can thrive.

Recently the UK government announced a package of proposals designed to deter EU migration, including the imposition of a four-year period before in-work benefits can be claimed. This will reduce the already slim chances of working migrants finding affordable accommodation and increase the disincentive to legitimise their employment status. The proposals are highly likely to increase the number of migrants sleeping rough. They will also, of course, deliver a barrow-load of votes.

A version of this blog was published in Inside Housing on March 27th 2015

Monday, 4 August 2014

Put a dog in the picture


My colleague Dean is telling me about his day, his harrowing day. Most of it has been spent at the hospital supporting Samantha.  Samantha is 31 and she has been addicted to heroin since the age of 15. Her weakened immune system has led to the onset of septicaemia. Dean found her in her usual rough sleeping spot lying in he own faeces and called an ambulance. 

Samantha has lived the life of a homeless drug addict for the last decade. All her friends are from the street. Today she was visited in hospital by her boyfriend who is also a heroin user. He is found by her bed with a syringe, surreptitiously trying to inject her. There is uproar. Nurses and security are called and he is bundled out of the ward. Dean arrives at the height of the commotion and succeeds in calming Samantha, preventing her, dressed in a hospital gown, following her boyfriend out of the building and back to sleeping rough.

The usually imperturbable Dean is dejected. ‘She has lost the will to live’ he says and I ask him why he thinks that is. ‘It’s because of her life’ he replies, ‘she was raped by her father at 13’.  ‘That’s terrible’ I reply weakly, reflecting that this is information to which no response can be adequate.

Later I find myself thinking further about the conversation with Dean, ruminating on the thanklessness of his task and the challenge of explaining to others the complexities of the heroic work undertaken by colleagues like him. Dean is aware that his appearance at the hospital is observed with weary apprehension by the hospital staff.  Samantha has had many admissions and for over-worked nurses it is difficult to view the arrival of a disruptive homeless woman as anything other than bad news. Yet there is ambivalence in their reactions as they respect the tenacity he shows in not giving up on her.

We work with many people like Samantha, men and woman who have suffered childhood trauma after which they have drifted into drug and alcohol misuse and petty crime. By early adulthood they are afflicted by extremely poor physical and mental health. Not all, or even most, of the homeless people we support have this type of history, but there are enough for us to view this grimly inexorable early life journey as unexceptional. Consequently we are identified as an organisation specialising in helping the most vulnerable and chaotic which can, of course, translate into the most damaged and repugnant.

These extreme representations of homelessness are visible and, as such, influential. For many of the public they are ‘the homeless’, even though homelessness affects a great range of different people in a variety of ways.  Eliciting public support for the homeless can therefore be an enormous challenge. Even convincing my relatives and friends has sometimes been a struggle. A few years ago at my mother’s 80th birthday celebration she asked guests to give a donation to either her son’s homelessness charity or a children’s charity with which my father had an association stretching back to his youth. During the celebration a number of people felt obligated to explain how it was that the children’s charity was their preferred choice. Their reluctance to give to the homeless charity was based on a suspicion that some of the homeless had ‘brought it on themselves’.

It’s a phrase that neatly encapsulates the public’s diffidence and occasional hostility towards homeless people. The innocuous rough sleeper in the shop doorway is viewed with pity, sympathy but also bewilderment. ‘Don’t some of them want to sleep out on the street?’ is a question that has been put to me with unerring constancy over the years.  At the extreme end of the spectrum, the inebriated street drinker or visibly mentally distressed homeless person can provoke disgust or fear.

Of the attributes most likely to attract approval and support it seems to me that innocence is the most advantageous. The innocent have brought nothing on themselves, instead things have been done to them. And nothing is more innocent than an animal, at least of the cute, cuddly, furry and fluffy variety.

As a new, callow Chief Executive I remember expressing dismay at the pathetic financial return we had achieved through our Christmas fund-raising advertisement to the Chief Executive of another homelessness charity who kindly advised me to ‘put a dog in the picture’. His pragmatic analysis was that, whilst vast swathes of the public are largely unmoved by the plight of the homeless, many more people do have sympathy for the dogs that typically or, rather, stereotypically accompany rough sleepers. His experience was that the addition of a dog in the marketing material substantially increased donations.

In 2006 his view was corroborated when, to complement a series of programmes commissioned to show how the public can help homeless people, a BBC opinion poll dispiritingly found that twice as many people would feel sympathy for a homeless dog than for a homeless person with mental health or drug problems.

More recently, a supporter working in a senior position for one of the major supermarkets told me about the dilemma the business faced when they developed a fund-raising challenge requiring customers to select which of two local charities should receive a donation from the supermarket at the end of the month. On each occasion when an animal charity went head-to-head with a charity where the beneficiaries were not animals it won comprehensively. Eventually, the initiative was restructured so that animal charities were only allowed to compete against one another.            

Earlier this year we experienced directly and unexpectedly the impact of the cute and furry on the public psyche when Thames Reach was bizarrely beset by a brief squall of animal-related publicity. One evening my colleague Kate Jones, a member of our London Street Rescue team which works on the streets with rough sleepers every night of the year, came across a distressed cat identified by her name tag as Freya.  She took Freya home and cared for her overnight. In the morning she contacted the owner who was revealed to be a certain George Osborne of 11 Downing Street. A large car duly arrived to transport Freya home in style.

If Kate had been so inclined she could have filled the whole day undertaking interviews on television and radio. Probably wisely, she chose not to.  An article describing her experience ran in the Guardian and the accolades poured down on both Kate and Thames Reach. ‘People like you Kate are the reason why there is still some hope for this species’ ran one comment, favourited by 147 readers.

We were pleased to have helped Freya but also aware that in the week she rescued a cat, Kate and the team had been working tirelessly but with limited success to help off the streets 25 individuals bedded down in a shopping mall in east London, people with few options consigned to sleeping rough in distressing circumstances for weeks, even months.  It felt like a bleak week for homeless humans.         

But it is time for me to stop bemoaning our lot. Whilst we know that in terms of public sympathy donkeys will always trump homeless people, we are grateful to the many individuals who loyally support our work, especially the people who were, or are, homeless and prepared to tell their tale; explaining, educating, inspiring.

And, of course, everything is relative. I am at a House of Commons function, speaking to another Chief Executive. It is our first meeting. We are affably talking about the challenges of attracting funding and I ask him what his organisation does as it is not immediately obvious from its title.  He hesitates. It is almost imperceptible but I can sense that he is quickly weighing me up. ‘We work with sex offenders’ he says briskly. ‘How’s the public fund-raising going?’ I ask. He laughs ruefully, knowing that he doesn’t need to answer.



Monday, 7 April 2014

We are not powerless

Last week I attended a ‘round table’ discussion with the Employment Minister Esther McVey. Around the inconveniently long rectangular table were familiar faces - other chief executives and civil servants from the Department for Work and Pensions. The minister responded thoughtfully to proposals about how job centres and agencies could work together more effectively. From some colleagues in the room there was unrestrained frustration that we had been here before and little had changed.  I left the meeting in a pensive mood, unconvinced that we had got our messages home. There was a depressing familiarity about the construction of our case and the tone in which it was delivered. Despite some constructive suggestions, our stance centred on the dual assertions that things are as dreadful as they have ever been and that much of what is happening is beyond our capacity to affect.

There are times when it feels that acknowledging a government policy is working effectively is an unforgivable apostasy. I remember a meeting with the shadow Housing Minister when we were each in turn asked to comment on whether we considered there to be a homelessness crisis. Each participant dutifully corroborated the view that the homeless had never had it so bad and that the lack of affordable housing meant that we hadn’t seen the half of it. One contributor chose to break rank, claiming that it was a mixed picture and spoke positively about some of the approaches to tackling rough sleeping and improved support for the most vulnerable. An uncomfortable shifting of chairs followed and looks were exchanged.

As I departed I heard one of the invited academics making their views plain to the deviant. The message was, keep to the hell in a handcart narrative or don’t bother showing up. The year when this meeting took place was 2004. Rough sleeping figures were stable and in the previous year the national Supporting People budget had, to the consternation of the Treasury, been established at £1.8 billion. These days of the early noughties are now viewed as a golden age to which, according to sages of the present time, we will never return.

This is not to dispute that there is much to be despondent about, or that homeless people require staunch advocates who, on their behalf, are prepared to hold the government to account. But an approach that doggedly refuses to acknowledge successes or isn’t sophisticated enough to reflect on shades and variations lacks credibility and will fail to convince opinion-formers and the public. Some will see it as self-serving; an attempt by the ‘homelessness industry’ to protect its role and status.  Even more disturbingly, making it an article of faith that these are the worst of times may even lead us into unquestioningly believing this to be true. Consciously or unconsciously, we avoid objectively considering information that challenges this assumption.

The impact of the recession plays perfectly into the hands of the pessimistic fatalists. Who can deny that the last few years have been brutally difficult for homeless people and – damn it – the havoc is being wreaked by a tidal wave of economic forces outside our control.  Yet is it really this simple?

Firstly, the statistics paint a more complex picture than we might assume. Here is one that gives pause for thought. The statutory homelessness statistics show that in the period July to September 2008, before the recession had really hit, there were 72,130 households in temporary accommodation. In comparison, recently released figures covering October to December 2013 show just 59,930 households in temporary accommodation. There have been twists and turns over the five years that separate them, but it remains the case that when I bring statistics such as these to the attention of colleagues they are incredulous as they so starkly challenge the established narrative.

Secondly, blaming an event over which we feel we have little control unintentionally permits the avoidance of individual culpability by decision-makers and plays directly into the hands of our politicians who create the impression that the particular measures they are taking are not optional and unquestionably necessary.

One set of commentators who have resolutely refused to succumb to a simplistic approach are the researchers who produce the excellent Homelessness Monitor funded by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which remorselessly tracks the impact on homelessness of economic and policy developments. The picture they paint of the impact of economic pressures and government responses is grim but nuanced and their conclusions measured and verifiable. 

Most importantly, they refute the notion that the devastating impact of recession on homeless people is inevitable, noting that ‘policy factors have a more direct bearing on levels of homelessness than the recession in and of itself’.  Thus, there are choices to be made about how to respond to homelessness and specific implications associated with the policies pursued.      

After the meeting with the Employment Minister one participant, new to such gatherings and more optimistic that most e-mailed me to ask whether, in my opinion, anything ever happens after an event like this. My response was cautiously positive. I am encouraged that we and some others who were around the table are intent on continuing the dialogue with the minister and her officials, yet I suspect we will be working against the grain for there remains a tribal obligation to project gloom and powerlessness and, in the land of the pessimist, it is the doom merchant who is king.

A version of this blog was published in Inside Housing on April 4th 2014

Monday, 10 March 2014

How local uprisings can loosen the grip of the super-strength beast

Sitting in my in-box is a report on deaths among our hostel residents during 2013. I busy myself with other e-mails, mentally preparing myself before opening it. And because I know what it will contain, I focus my mind on a couple of colleagues, Dave and Dennis, both of whom were once street drinkers knocking back death defying quantities of alcohol and are now, having tackled their addiction, skilled hostel workers. 

Eventually I resolve to click open the report. It includes the following grim statistics. There have been thirteen deaths, ten alcohol-related. In all but one case the specific type of alcohol that caused this carnage was lager and cider of above 7.5% alcohol by volume (abv); the super-strengths. 

It’s a sickening, upsetting report. ‘Sarah’s lower intestine ceased working because of alcohol misuse, causing system failure’. ‘Rick was admitted into the intensive care unit but suffered massive organ failure due to long-term alcohol-related health problems’. ‘Alan died from oesophageal haemorrhaging caused by ruptured oesophageal varices (veins) brought on by liver cirrhosis’. 

We are too familiar with such reports, as I’m sure are organisations the length and breadth of the country supporting people with alcohol dependency problems. In London, 40% of rough sleepers have an identified alcohol problem. The destitute and addicted invariably gravitate to the strong, cheap super-strength lagers and ciders such as Tennents Super, Carlsberg Special Brew and White Ace. For ten years we have campaigned long and hard to tackle the devastation caused by these drinks, seeking to increase the price and reduce availability. It is a campaign supported by a partnership that includes the voluntary sector, health professionals, the police, local authorities and communities. We are heartened by the breadth of support and the opprobrium with which the super-strengths are held is little short of universal. 

Yet their impact remains undiminished. Massed cans of Kestrel Super gleam enticingly in bulk on off licence shelves. In my local shop, plastic three litre bottles of White Ace line the aisle, conveniently close to the till. The major supermarkets, with apparent indifference, continue to stock super-strength lagers. Our few successes, such as convincing Heineken to take the commendable step of stopping production of their super-strength ciders White Lightning and Strongbow Black, have not loosened the grip of the super-strength beast.

These drinks are astonishingly cheap. Other liquids, including bottled water, are decidedly pricey in comparison. With the cheapest half litre of methylated spirits retailing at £2.50 and a similar volume of White Ace costing 99p, there is little prospect that we will see the resurgence of the meths drinker should the white ciders ever face a substantial price hike. 

We are fully aware, of course, that if super-strength alcohol was not available, the seriously dependent would not become ‘dry’ overnight. But experience shows us that if we can move people onto weaker beers and ciders, the damage to their health slows and the periods of lucidity during which we can productively engage with them increase. 

Bewildered and appalled, we continue to see super-strength lagers and ciders cause more deaths among the homeless population than heroin and crack combined. And, as I am often reminded by landlords, many of those seriously addicted to super-strength alcohol are housed, remorselessly drinking themselves to death behind closed doors, too often friendless and isolated. 

Yet there is hope. The government may have reneged on its commitment to make strong alcoholic drinks more expensive through the introduction of a 45p minimum price per unit of alcohol in the face of fierce lobbying by the drinks industry, but locally councils, voluntary sector organisations, the police and community groups have been galvanised into joint action to reduce both the appalling impact on health and the associated anti-social behaviour problems that accompany the consumption of super-strength drinks. 

One of the most effective initiatives is the Reducing the Strength campaign led by the Suffolk police which secured agreement from two-thirds of off licences in Ipswich to stop stocking super-strength ciders and lagers. The compelling results from this campaign showed street drinking and associated anti-social behaviour falling dramatically alongside positive health outcomes as people were helped into treatment. Unsurprising, similar campaigns are being considered in towns and cities across the country. 

Meanwhile the drinks industry, viewing these local uprisings with considerable nervousness, is seeking assistance from the Office of Fair Trading to challenge them on the grounds that European competition laws are being infringed. You will understand that, when it comes to deriving profit through blighting the lives of people and communities, it is important that a level playing field is maintained. 

I don’t know why I have kept the letter for so long, a small piece of sustenance perhaps to alleviate the ache caused by our failure to prevent the super-strengths taking their toll. Or maybe it’s just the coruscating simplicity of the statement that is its culmination. It is a letter written by Rosemary, a 64-year mother of two, to David Cameron in support of our campaign. ‘I have seen and experienced the ups and downs of life’, she says, ‘and accept that part of living is making choices for oneself about how to live one’s life. However, what choices do those down on their uppers have, those homeless, jobless, friendless and penniless?’ And then the statement that so perfectly sums up the essence of our case: ‘Prime Minister, there seems to be a profusion of evidence pointing to a need for a change, but no evidence for doing nothing’.

A version of this blog was published in Inside Housing on 7th March 2014