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, 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 I am told with unerring certainty by those that know that we will never see a return to the ‘golden age’ of the first half of the noughties.

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

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Christmas Dream: A life more ordinary

It is the last meeting of the Saturday Club before Christmas. Next week it’s the Christmas meal. Roy, the elected head, has negotiated a price of £12 a head with a restaurant near Leicester Square. ‘That’s turkey with all the trimmings’ he explains. The group is just about scraping by financially. Members are pleased with the deal Roy has struck.

There is an end of term feel to the Saturday Club. An apprehensive mood prevails as each member ruminates over what the festive season may bring. The conversation revolves around memories of best and worst Christmas days. Each person, it seems, has something in common; they have all experienced a Christmas day when they have been on their own. Patrick describes spending Christmas day 1973 in a derelict house without windows in Deptford, south London.  A new arrival to the country from Ireland, he was unaware of the services available to the destitute and tried to sleep away most of the day, waking to find himself gently keening for his family back in Athlone. That same year Bill had plenty of company as he was serving his last year in prison and remembers opening a soap parcel from his family, the arrival of which offered hope that they were not completely estranged.

Ah yes, ‘the family’, that source of sustenance and love, providing stability and identity. The very same kinship structure that can also produce festering rivalries and damaging early life experiences of the type many Thames Reach’s service users spend the rest of their lives striving to recover from. The supplements are full of ‘what Christmas means to me’ items, the featured celebrities entwining family and Christmas with unerring predictability. Likewise, the men and women of the Saturday Club clutch at memories of family and hopes of happy engagements with loved ones at Christmas. 

Most stories illustrate a complicated mix of feelings. Trepidation based on fear of rejection, determined resolution to ‘not care’ if the invitation to Christmas dinner does not materialise and gratefulness that past misdemeanours have been forgiven. Ben, meanwhile, is bracing himself for Christmas in the knowledge that he won’t be with his children. Already he is meticulously planning to keep remorselessly active to avoid lapsing into maudlin feelings – and worse.

Lee’s worst Christmas was seven years ago when, unable to cope with his mother’s death, he spent Christmas week alone, visiting her grave and knocking back a bottle of scotch a day. Then he takes me on a tour through his best Christmas’, each one featuring his wider family – brother, nieces, nephews and cousins sharing Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. Becky’s memories also centre on the family as she talks wistfully about Christmas 1988 at her uncle’s house in east London, sharing a Christmas dinner Caribbean-style with her cousins.   
As we talk I reflect that, of course, it is to be expected that the Saturday Club members mirror the wider cultural norms and expectations of the society of which they are a part, even whilst they frequently feel disconnected from it. For example, the ambivalent attitude towards alcohol that is apparently hardwired into the British culture is exhibited in its full destructive glory in two members of the Saturday Club, their lives blighted by drink problems, who select as their best Christmas days ones that they are unable to remember because of the relentless drinking spree that spread through the day and beyond. Alcohol consumption increases by 40% during December and every year over 8,000 people die in the UK of alcohol-related deaths, a figure that is 15 times greater than the number of heroin-related deaths.  Don’t fool yourself, we, the wider citizenship, are all complicit in the Saturday Club drinkers’ ruinous denial.

Sitting alone, one member is in a particularly melancholy mood.  He wants to tell me about his worst Christmas day. ‘It was the one when I was raped by my half-brother’, he explains. That’s the thing about working with homeless people, you can connect with many of their experiences and then, suddenly, a yawning gulf appears, a devastating episode is described that creates an unbridgeable chasm. 'That must have been a terrible experience' I say, lamely. ‘Not really’, he replies with the numbed indifference I have noticed before in those who have endured acute childhood trauma, ‘he raped me on other days too’.  

It is not the image of the family that has been the focus of the morning’s reflection and is a brutal antidote to the cloying sentimentality that has slowly beset our family-dominated conversations. This year he is spending Christmas with some friends, a couple who are both psychotherapists, and his spirits rise as he thinks ahead to Christmas day to come, a lovely man, respected by the group, battling some particularly vicious demons.

So these are the reflections, hopes and fears of the Saturday Club, a group of determined individuals drawn together by a shared experience called homelessness, gruffly affectionate towards each other, trading friendships, building up what we like to call ‘social capital’. They have lived extraordinary lives and many of their experiences of the street, prison and living outside the mainstream are unremittingly grim. Yet what each person strives for, and deserves, is not the drama of the homeless person’s life but the stability derived from a decent place to live, a job, friendships and family. They want a life more ordinary- with all the trimmings. Happy Christmas.      

This blog was originally published in Inside Housing on December 13th 2013. A big thanks to my friends at the Saturday Club.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Killing with kindness

Much has been written about the psychology of giving, the reasons why we donate to charity and the different triggers that spark acts of generosity, some rational, others visceral. I am particularly fascinated by the impulses that lead us to give money to people begging on the street. In fact, to be candid, I am frequently left incredulous at the justification given for dropping money into that cap next to the sign that says ‘hungry and homeless’.

Research indicates that for 90 per cent of people who give, compassion is the motivating factor. So I should not have been surprised that when speaking on BBC radio last week on the subject of begging, the first question was ‘isn’t it counter-intuitive that a homelessness charity is urging us not to give to beggars’? There he is, the homeless man cross-legged beside the cash point, beseeching, grimy, desperate. Do the right thing.

A few years ago, one such man attracted the attention of Grant Shapps, then the shadow housing minister, when he accompanied us on an outreach shift. We appreciated Mr Shapps’ willingness to brave the wet and windy weather that night and by 11.30pm he was confidently approaching homeless people, looking every inch the outreach worker. After speaking at length to the man by the cash point he returned wearing a pensive expression. The story was this. The man was living in a bed and breakfast in central London and was on a methadone ‘script’ as part of a planned withdrawal from heroin. But he was going through a bad patch and had come to the cash point, well-known for being a lucrative pitch, to beg in order to ‘top up with heroin’. The shadow housing minister concluded that on the streets ‘things are not always as they first seem’.

Indeed they are not, especially when it comes to begging. It is now 10 years since Thames Reach and other like-minded homelessness charities first sought to persuade the public not to give money to people begging on the street. Over the ensuing period, numerous campaigns have been undertaken to drive home this message in towns and cities across the country. The reason why such campaigns are considered necessary is because of the incontrovertible evidence that the vast majority of people begging on the streets are doing so in order to purchase hard drugs, like heroin and crack cocaine. Naturally the street outreach teams are well aware of this. It is also regularly confirmed by the police following operations to arrest persistent beggars when, consistently, at least 70 per cent test positive for hard drugs. Usually the majority of those arrested are not sleeping rough but in some form of accommodation. 

There are those who contend that the recession is bringing a new kind of beggar onto the street, a person not addicted to hard drugs but simply in need of food. I am unconvinced. Data from a recent police-led operation in Birmingham that took place from August to October this year shows nothing has changed. In total 28 arrests were made for persistent begging. Six out of 10 of the arrested had their own home and all tested positive for drugs.

To understand the complexity of the relationship between the recipient and the giver, nothing is more illuminating than speaking with those who have systematically begged as a desperate vocation. Cheryl begged every day for five years around London’s Charing Cross train station. She had habitual givers who knew her well and through their contribution was able to sustain a ferociously destructive heroin habit before a social worker, after yet another hospital admission, found her a hostel, from where she embarked on a treatment programme. In Cheryl’s opinion, women are the most successful beggars because of their perceived vulnerability and, reflecting on her begging years, she was aware that, perversely, the more ill she looked, the greater grew her begging returns.
I was particularly interested to know how the interaction with her regular contributors played out. After seeing her on the streets for months, sometimes in conversation with outreach workers, they must have been aware that her problem was more than needing somewhere to live. Cheryl’s assessment was that they undoubtedly knew that she had a big drug problem but as long as it wasn’t mentioned, all parties could agreeably go about their business and nobody was left feeling bad. So, in the manner in which it is rather vulgar to ask a fellow guest about the value of their house at a dinner party, certain things were left unstated lest the warm glow of giving be uncomfortably dimmed.

Some people don’t need this charade. They are sanguine about their spare change being spent on drugs. ‘Because I feel sorry for them’ is a common justification. At which point a hot wave of anger will sometimes wash over me and my mind shifts to the front line staff, the people invariably left to try to pick up the pieces in the face of such complacency. To the hostel workers who earlier this year were unsuccessful in their valiant attempts to revive a young woman who took heroin bought largely with money begged in the early hours from the good people emerging from clubs and shortly after drowned in her bath.

So we will battle on, supporting people to enter rehab, complete treatment programmes and deal with the complex underlying issues that have led them into dependency, all the while rowing hard against the seemingly unstoppable tide of public generosity.

  This blog was first published in Inside Housing on 25th October 2013

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

England's dreaming if we think human trafficking isn't happening here

Marek isn’t exactly sure at what point he realised his liberty had been lost, but he thinks it was probably when the expressionless van driver pushed them into the filthy storage room and he heard the key turn. He remembers the look of fear on Pavel’s face and was suddenly certain that they had been duped.

It had started promisingly. Marek is naturally outgoing, but he tells his story with restrained earnestness, occasionally looking towards the door as if fearing his captors might burst in at any moment to return him to the storage room prison. Marek is from a small town in the Czech Republic where he lived in a cramped flat with his girlfriend.  Apart from occasional work on building sites he has been mostly unemployed over the last three years and when a neighbour offered to link him with people in the UK who could find him well paid work with accommodation, Marek responded enthusiastically. He was encouraged to bring a friend, so contacted 63 year-old Pavel who had family problems he was eager to leave behind. 

As promised, the flight tickets arrived, delivered by hand to his address by a helpful stranger and, on arrival at Luton airport, a van was waiting for them. The men couldn’t believe their good fortune. Here in the UK there was an opportunity of earning a wage of a size inconceivable in comparison with the paltry sums on offer in the Czech Republic. 

It was at this point, Marek explained, that the first niggles of doubt arose. The back windows of the van were blacked out and the driver cursorily waved away questions about their destination.  Hours later, they were bundled from the van and shoved into the storage room which had no toilet, water or heating - just two dirty mattresses. It was to be there sleeping quarters for many months. 

Marek composes himself with care before detailing the horrors that followed.  The men had been trafficked against their will for an unscrupulous gang-master and were put to work in various car washes. They worked a relentless 15-hour day without pay and were given portions of food rationed so that they were just about able to sustain themselves. A lack of protective clothing meant they suffered permanent burns on their hands and legs from the chemicals used to wash the cars. Each evening they were transported back to the filthy storage room. Early on, provoked beyond endurance, they confronted their captors and demanded to be freed. The response was a brutal beating which had a damaging impact on Pavel’s health.

But the day came when, as Marek was being transported between jobs, he was momentarily left unattended.  Seizing the opportunity he escaped and over two days walked and hitched to London where, traumatised and disorientated, he went to the police and from there was directed to the Czech Embassy, connected to Thames Reach and booked into a safe house.  

There then followed a painstaking exercise to locate the notorious storage room, with the objective of springing Pavel from his prison. Marek knew that they had been driven to the south coast and the name of the town included the word ‘sea’. Poring over a map of the south coast, he was eventually able to identify the name of the town.  Marek knew that he had been held close to a railway station and opposite a Chinese restaurant. On Google maps, he painstakingly viewed pictures of all the Chinese restaurants in the town until, finally, the restaurant and adjacent storage room were identified. Armed with this information, the police broke into the storage room and rescued Pavel and he too was taken to a safe house for victims of trafficking.  Both men are now being supported at home in the Czech Republic, though the mental and physical damage wrought by their experience will take many years to recover from.

This is the extraordinary reality facing a group of vulnerable men prepared to take risks in the face of devastating levels of unemployment in their own countries and the lure of comparative riches in the UK. Thames Reach has helped 81 men escape forced labour situations, working closely with partners including the Salvation Army, the UK Human Trafficking Centre and the Human Trafficking Foundation. We fear that there are thousands of people being trafficked into forced labour situations and that most traffickers remain undetected. 

Disturbingly, in the case of those people contacted and ensnared by traffickers within the UK, particularly fertile recruiting environments include homeless day centres and soup runs. In a case last year with which we were closely involved, the Hungarian man who was trafficked met his exploiters at a soup run in Westminster.  Apparently the standard spiel is...’it doesn’t have to be like this, queuing up in the rain for soup, come with me and earn good money’. Thankfully there are day centres such as the Passage in Victoria which assertively protects their users from the white van waiting around outside, the one which squeals away when approached by staff.

On the 18th October organisations supporting people escaping from forced labour captivity are raising awareness by marking the day as Anti-Slavery Day.  Slavery! Can this really be happening here, by the seaside?  But Marek’s is a true story and we need to be shaken out of our somnolence because, to steal from Johnny Rotten, there is no future in England’s dreaming.     

Because of a continuing police investigation, the names of the trafficked men have been changed to protect their identity and the seaside town where they were held captive cannot be divulged.

This blog was first published in Inside Housing on 6th September 2013

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Bullshit Detector: Investigating a report into homelessness amongst former armed forces personnel

The Bullshit Detector

The Bullshit Detector being an occasional investigation into stories associated with homelessness and social exclusion, with a view to establishing their accuracy and veracity

The July 2013 Bullshit Detector

‘Up to 9,000 British heroes who served Queen and country are homeless after leaving the military’

What’s the story?

On 21st July 2013 the Sunday Mirror ran a two-page campaign ‘exclusive’ on the plight of British services personnel leaving the armed forces. The piece was highly critical of the government, claiming the situation has got much worst under the Coalition and, in an accompanying leader, comparing the UK situation unfavourably with that in the United States.  

The article centred on two key statistics. Firstly that 1 in 10 rough sleepers ‘across the UK’ had been in the armed forces, with the clear implication being that these are British ex-services personnel who ‘fought on the frontline but now sleep in doorways, graveyards and parks, begging from the passers-by whose freedoms they defended’. The 1 in 10 figure, according to the article, derived from a recent report by homeless charity Crisis which found that 500 people sleeping rough in London ‘this year’ had been in the armed forces.

The article also stated that there are currently up to 9,000 homeless ex-services personnel in Britain. The definition of being homeless included living in bed and breakfast hotels and hostels as well as sleeping rough.  According to the journalist, this figure was provided by the charity Homes 4 Heroes, though there is no reference to any source material to back up the statistic. 

The article is unequivocal in its stance that the situation has got worse stating: ‘Incredibly the numbers have soared since the government outlined its duty to serving and former personnel when the Armed Forces Covenant was enshrined in law in 2011’.

The article received wide coverage and has since been uncritically referenced in blogs and on Twitter. In particular, the figure of 500 ex-services rough sleepers projected as 1 in 10 of the rough sleeping population in the country has already become common currency.

How accurate is the article?

The statistics

The statistics used in this article are unfortunately extremely flawed. The report that is referred to that shows 500 ex-services personnel slept rough in London was not produced by Crisis, though the charity has extensively, and accurately, quoted from the report which was actually produced by Broadway and is the annual Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) report for 2012-13. The statistics in this report are collected by the various street teams working with rough sleepers in London and are generally viewed as providing an accurate picture of the numbers and profile of rough sleepers in London.

A closer interrogation of the CHAIN report shows that 501 ex-services personnel slept rough in the year in question. However, 70% of this group (356 individuals) were non-UK nationals and had therefore been in the armed services of other countries. Only 30% (145 individuals) were UK nationals and thus likely to have served in the UK armed services. It seems highly probably that the author of the Sunday Mirror article did not take the trouble of reading the report that lies at the heart of this exclusive. 

It is difficult to give a definitive figure for the number of UK ex-armed services personnel sleeping rough in the UK. The figure of 145 for London is the figure for the entire year, not the number who would be found sleeping rough on any single night of the year.  There is a flow of people onto, and off of, the streets, so the overall number of people sleeping rough over a year is significantly higher than that found on any single night. Based on annual figures from the last decade, the ratio of the number of people sleeping rough on any single night matched against the number for a year is around 1:10. On this basis there is likely to be 14 or 15 ex-services personnel sleeping rough on London’s streets tonight.

In the government’s last annual rough sleeping figures produced for England (autumn 2012), it was estimated that 24% of rough sleepers were to be found in London. On the strength of this information it would be reasonable to project that some 60 UK ex-services personnel will be sleeping rough tonight in England, including London. 

The Sunday Mirror article defines homelessness not only in terms of rough sleeping, but also includes people living in hostels and bed and breakfast hotels. If this definition is accepted then the number of UK  former armed forces personnel who are homeless will be considerably higher. As is the case with investigations into rough sleeping, much of the plausible research has focused on London and it is therefore difficult to project a figure for the whole of the UK. 

The most comprehensive and convincing piece of research of recent times is The Experiences of Ex-services Personnel inLondon (Johnsen,Jones, Rugg 2008) which tentatively concludes that around 1100 ex-services personnel are homeless, using this broader definition of homelessness, on any single day in London. This figure would clearly need to be inflated significantly to accurately reflect a national figure, but it is difficult not to conclude that it would still fall considerably short of the 9,000 figure used in the Sunday Mirror article.

It should also be noted that many of the projects that are included under the definition of hostels provide not only high standard, self-contained accommodation but excellent support services offering help with employment and counselling to assist those suffering from poor mental health including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as alcohol dependency. Some of these projects are referenced in the section that follows.

Is the situation becoming worse?

The Sunday Mirror exclusive is adamant that the figures show an increase in homelessness amongst UK ex-services personnel. Unfortunately the CHAIN report on which so much of the credibility of the exclusive relies indicates that this is not the case. The report notes in unequivocal terms that: ‘The proportion of people seen sleeping rough who have experience of the armed forces has stayed the same (10%) when comparing this year to the previous year. It is important to note that the proportion of people seen sleeping rough from the UK who have had experience of the armed forces has remained consistent over the last three years, at 3-4%’.

Positive responses in terms of changes to homelessness legislation and the development of innovative projects appear to have prevented increases in homelessness amongst ex-services personnel and there is certainly no evidence that, as the Sunday Mirror states, ‘numbers have soared’.  For example, a new project, the Beacon, has been set up close to the Catterick barracks in Yorkshire offering housing, training and support for personnel leaving the army, with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) providing land and funding for the scheme. Other impressive schemes have been developed in the last two years by supported housing providers Riverside, the Oswald Stoll Foundation and West London Mission. To be fair, The Sunday Mirror article does draw attention to one such high quality project, managed by Coventry Cyrenians. 

Furthermore, recent changes in homelessness legislation has ensured that those who have served in the armed services and are assessed as being vulnerable should be treated as being in priority need by local authorities, considered to have a statutory right to housing and given help in finding both temporary and long-term accommodation.   

Is the situation worse in the UK than in the United States?

The Sunday Mirror leader is categorical in stating that ‘In America there is a sophisticated care system’, adding: ‘Here there is virtually nothing’. This is perhaps the most puzzling and least convincing statement of all and there are no examples from the United States provided in the exclusive to back this assertion up.

In fact the support systems in the United States are well known to be extremely limited in terms of the capacity available to support homeless people and reduce homelessness. Although there are a range of effective services available to assist ‘veterans’, as they are referred to in North America, this has not prevented veteran homelessness becoming endemic in the United States.

The comparisons are startling. Whereas around 600 individuals sleep rough on any single night in London, in New York with a similar sized general population, the last street count found 3,262 rough sleepers (January 2012).  The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 62,619 veterans are homeless in the United States on any one given night.The safety net in the United States is clearly far flimsier that in the UK.

In a nutshell

The Sunday Mirror ‘campaign exclusive’ is a deeply flawed article which fails on nearly all counts to accurately portray the situation facing ex-services personnel who are homeless or at risk of becoming so. It focuses exclusively on UK ex-services personnel but uses figures that reflect homelessness amongst both UK and non-UK nationals and gives every impression that the author of the article did not actually read the CHAIN report on which much of the exclusive is based.

Whilst the problem of homelessness amongst those who have been in the armed forces remains of grave concern and addressing it should continue to be a high priority for charities and government, the figures provided appear to be significantly inflated and the article would have benefited from covering in greater detail the excellent work and innovative solutions being delivered by a range of charities supporting ex-services personnel. The equally disturbing issue of rough sleeping by ex-services personnel who served in the armed forces of other countries is not tackled at all.

The spurious figure of 500 UK ex-services personnel sleeping rough, projected to represent 10% of the rough sleeping population nationally, is already being referenced enthusiastically by the media, politicians and a variety of organisations and we can expect it to be used regularly over the coming months.