Monday, 14 December 2009

‘Tis the Season for Exaggeration and Outrageous Distortion

As a callow young Chief Executive I received some interesting guidance from members of the Worshipful Company of Chief Executives of Homelessness Charities. (No, it doesn’t exist, but perhaps it should). One piece of sage advice sticks in my mind in particular. Thames Reach had placed an advertisement in the Big Issue magazine one Christmas to try and attract donations. The image of a homeless man looking suitably uplifted by our assistance secured a single £15 return from an elderly lady in East Dulwich. A grizzled Chief Executive veteran offered this counsel: ‘Put a dog in the picture’. He went on to explain in his characteristically forthright way that ‘most people don’t like the homeless. They reckon they’ve brought it all on themselves. But they love animals’.

At the time I felt vaguely affronted on behalf of the Great British Public. Even though we did have space in some of our hostels for the person and their pet and could therefore justifiably include a cute pooch in the picture, I figured that we wouldn’t need to resort to these shenanigans as enough of the public wanted to help the homeless.

I was wrong, of course. In the battle to convert public munificence into a tangible financial return, homelessness charities can never compete with animal, children’s or health charities. If Thames Reach is shaking the tin at a tube station and collectors from an animal charity turn up and offer an alternative, probably our best bet is to head for home. I’m not whingeing. This is the way of the world and I accept there are many richly deserving causes. Public sympathy places children, animals and those afflicted by terrible illnesses and health problems first.

So I have enormous sympathy for homelessness charities making their pitch at Christmas-time. At this time of the year homelessness charities have some advantage. It jars when, pre-occupied by thoughts of presents and Christmas with the family, you pass someone lying huddled in a shop doorway, under a thin blanket. ‘Ain’t you got no home to go to?’ Actually: no. Somehow it seems worse at Christmas.

Homelessness charities need therefore to pull out all the stops at Christmas. And in December as their leaflets fall out of the colour supplement magazines, I become increasingly uneasy about the message we collectively impart.

Over the last twenty years we have been extraordinarily successful in reducing rough sleeping in this country. Over half the rough sleepers in England are to be found in London and when I was a street outreach worker in the mid-1980s, shamefully there were over 1,000 rough sleepers congregating on the streets of the capital on any single night including groups of over 100 people at certain locations. In the last ten years more than 20,000 people have been helped off of London’s streets through the co-ordinated actions of homelessness charities. Tonight there will still be around 300 people sleeping on the capital’s streets. So - more to do, but nonetheless enormous progress has been achieved. In contrast, New York had 2,328 people sleeping rough when the city authorities carried out the last city-wide street count early in 2009.

But to attract that donation we need to shock and appal. The impact is undoubtedly helped by Big Numbers. For these to be wrung from a scenario of steady progress in reducing homelessness, a certain degree of inventiveness is required.

The youth charity Centrepoint’s Big Number, for example, is 779. Centrepoint is a charity doing essential work. I have had plenty of contact with them over the years and been impressed with how they support some very chaotic and vulnerable young people. Their appeal material explains that 779 is the number of homeless young people ‘like Amy’ who need a safe haven at Christmas. She is 16 and ‘as temperatures drop and the streets empty out, people like Amy become more vulnerable than ever’. 779 does not correlate very closely with the number of under 18 year-olds met by street teams working with rough sleepers across London which input data on the individuals they help onto a central database called CHAIN. Over the course of the entire year 2008-9, a total of five under 18-year olds were found sleeping rough.

Some young people will have not been met by street outreach teams. For example, I heard of one young person who spent all night travelling around on night buses. But whatever way it cuts, this figure distorts the reality of rough sleeping in 2009. The monstrousness of young people sleeping on our streets has largely been ended and Centrepoint has played an invaluable role in achieving this.

Crisis at Christmas is an event that is looked forward to by many of Thames Reach’s homeless service users. They see it as an opportunity to renew acquaintance with old friends, get a health ‘MOT’ by talking at length to a sympathetic GP and meet committed volunteers who are genuinely interested in their lives. Crisis’ Big Number is 2,000 – according to their literature, the number of people who settled down to the Crisis Christmas dinner. Given that we know some 300 people will be sleeping rough on the streets when Crisis opens its doors this Christmas, we can predict with some certainty that fewer than one in seven of Crisis’ guests will be rough sleepers.

Creditably, Crisis’ literature makes it clear that the homeless in their terms includes isolated people living in hostels, squats, bed and breakfasts and with friends. All these people can attend their Christmas centres. Yet I remain uneasy about the picture we create about homelessness in 2009. In its most extreme form - rough sleeping - the size of the problem has diminished. But, it seems, in order to raise funds we have to pretend we are failing. At its worst it feels as if we are attempting to outbid each other in some perverse auction where the rules are, the grimmer the picture painted, the higher the bid you will receive. The most outrageous figure, currently being ‘re-tweeted’ with enthusiasm on Twitter, is that 1100 ex-military personnel will be living on London’s streets this Christmas. In fact the evidence of the CHAIN data shows that ex-services personnel currently form around 6% of the rough sleeping population in London. There will be some 20 ex-services personnel on our streets this Christmas. 20 too many maybe, but the reality is way, way short of this apocalyptic scenario doing the rounds.

It’s hard for homelessness charities. Despite the determined efforts of organisations such as New Philanthropy Capital to encourage donors to select and reward those charities that can evidence the positive difference they are making, this isn’t how it works in practice. Individuals frequently give as a visceral act of atonement. ‘You made me forget myself, I thought I was someone else, someone good’ sings Lou Reed in ‘Perfect Day’. The glow received by doing something for someone who is less fortunate than you. I’m a good person really. You can’t knock it can you? It’s just a pity that to raise funds homelessness charities leave the public with a false impression about the size of the problem and the remarkable effectiveness of our work in tackling it.

6 comments:

  1. I think what your article speaks most to is the difficulty of approach that sees rough sleeping as possible to end in lieu of the ending of homelessness generally when you have some very vulnerable people sleeping rough in quite some groups in London and then communities develop that whilst dis-tasteful to the middle and up sections of society to see, yes, just aren't as appealing as hospitals, animal focused or otherwise t fund improvement of.

    I also think homelessness charities too often are seen as poverty pimps however who benefit and offer quite little palliative input to the wider problems in society that lead to homelessness, which are, let's face it - quite mostly economic in nature as you rightly state.

    Where I disagree is in the 'remarkable effectiveness' of your work however when you begin to speak of "we" as in some kind of homelessness concerned cabal, it becomes kind of sinister. Who is the royal "we"? Your organisations work may be good and kind, remarkable effectiveness however, sounds a bit hummmmmmm? yeah.

    Chain statistics are chain statistics. 4+ million people in this country are dissatisfied with their housing conditions, with tens of millions more wondering "what the hell am I paying all this money for?" - against that backdrop - a charity sector competing to see who can either "crackdown on" or "pander to" - "the [most visable] homeless" doesn't inspire the donations, or at least support in joe public - that it probably should.

    I applaud your frank and thoughtful article here but wonder why so few homelessness charities come out and clearly state the bottom line in homelessness: The government sold us out, and so does charity now perpetuate the lie they can 'end' homelessness if only you donate and pay more tax for social housing. People are evicted from it everyday. There's always going to be people experiencing homelessness in a world like this. They are not the problem they are made out to be, more the sufferers, of a cynical and cold society... that doesn't have to be that way.

    The price of patronising the public is apathy basically. Good blog! Thanks for the soap-box!

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  2. Janum

    Thanks for your comments and glad you like the blog.

    I used the 'we' in recognition of the fact that the work carried out in helping rough sleepers escape homelessness is very much a joint effort with agencies working closely together- by no means is it only Thames Reach doing the work. And I think that this ability to work collaboratively is not something that we highlight enough. The perception is therefore that we are competitive rather than collaborative. I feel a New Year resolution coming on!

    As I say in the blog, over 20,000 people have been helped off the streets by outreach teams in the last 10 years. I think it is justifiable therefore to claim that our work is remarkably effective. New York has more people sleeping rough on their subway on any one night than we have in the whole of London, despite the size of the populations of the cities being similar.

    I think it is inaccurate to say that homelessness organisations are not involved in 'palliative' work. Thames Reach supports over 2,000 people in flats across London who are vulnerable and in danger of becoming homeless without out help. In this way we, like many homelessness charities, undertake a great deal of preventative work 'upstream' as well as helping people escape destitution on the street.

    Finally, I'm sorry that you feel that we can't end homelessness and that this is somehow a lie perpetrated by charities. I think we can, and will end homelessness over the next few decades and there is no reason at all why street homelessness shouldn't be ended by 2012 so long as the commitment, resources and belief is there.

    Thanks again for adding to the debate - it's important.

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  3. True points I have seen the uglier side of New York a little bit and was surprised also...

    I say palliative because that's what it is, too busy caring in the here and now for considering on or uniteing about stopping the economic causes of homelessness at source... the charity sector necessarily attempts to clear up after the failed responsibilities of govvernment bodies but the more slack is picked up, seems the more is going to be asked of altruistic bodies rather then the responsible community body - the Local Authority.

    I fear the rise of the third sector is locking in a cycle of looking to social housing alone along with shelters and rough operation poncho type 'engagement' that makes people less free than otherwise they should be... What percentage of people are truly sleeping on streets because their government, community, themselves, let them down and now can't get back up (99%?-100%?) - because that's the system and if getting out of homelessness was too easy... perhaps a lot more people would be jumping into it?

    Some people don't want a home. That's why I think this end homelessness talk is kind of retarded! But these are not easy issues and it's good to have a goal the government and charity can work towards in their own ways certainly.

    Merriest of Christmases to your clients, co-workers and good self, apologies for going on! Cheers.

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  4. Janum

    You under-estimate how much work goes on campaigning to get government to make the resources available to help stop people becoming homeless in the first place. For example, a lot of excellent campaigning has led to a much better response being given to men and women leaving the armed services who may be at risk of homelessness. Similarly we are vigorously tackling the issue through lobbying and campaigning of people leaving prison without the right kind of help and consequently washing up on the streets as a result.

    Anyway, enjoy the festive break!

    Jeremy

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  5. Hello,

    I've just come across your blog whilst looking for ones about homelessness and London. It's really interesting to have a blog from your perspective of it, not one we often hear perhaps.

    You might be interested in my blog, an ongoing collection of stories from homeless people in London - www.justaplotofearth.blogspot.com. I hope it's ok with you if I link to your blog from mine :)

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  6. Hi Prozacandpearls

    Thanks for telling me about your blog which I'll take a look at and, of course, you are very welcome to make a link to my blog.

    Best wishes for 2010.

    Jeremy Swain

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