I am the Chief Executive of Thames Reach, a charity working with homeless and socially excluded people. I hope this blog bring to life the complexities, dilemmas and doubts involved in trying to help people escape homelessness, as well as the triumphs and successes. Above all, it is intended to tell the stories of the inspirational people I have met in my work, many of whom have endured years of homelessness, yet gone on to do great things.
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Highway to hell: The grim journey to multiple exclusion homelessness - and the route back
There is a ‘fact’ doing the
rounds on twitter which juxtaposes the information that Madonna has, allegedly,
eight mansions in London with the number of homeless people in the capital, the
implicit proposition being that homelessness could be ended if only the
ostentatious wealth of the celebrated performer were redirected for the social
purpose of housing the homeless.
I found the image of
hundreds of homeless people living in communal nirvana in Madonna’s mansions entertainingly
surreal. This injustice ‘fact’ has been re-tweeted with gusto, so presumably
there really are people who think that solving homelessness is a matter of
matching people with accommodation, whether it be a mansion or a bedsit and
that’s it – job done.
The truth is that homeless people,
especially those living on the streets or close to it in hostels, squats and
bed and breakfast hotels, have a complex mix of needs including poor mental
health, substance misuse problems, poor literacy skills and limited, sometimes
destructive, social networks. The impact and significance of these factors were
comprehensively and convincingly demonstrated through an impressive piece of
research into multiple exclusion homelessness which deserves much greater
attention than it has so far received.
research from Heriot Watt University investigates a group of 1,286 socially
excluded people using ‘low threshold’ services such as day centres, direct
access hostels and drop-in services and then analyses in greater depth the
impact of social exclusion and homelessness on 452 individuals from this cohort.
The quantitative richness of the research is considerable and its validity
The research provides a
number of illuminating, occasionally shocking, statistics including that 39% of
the multiply excluded homeless had attempted suicide. It evidences childhood abuse
and neglect as a major determinant of the more complex forms of multiple
exclusion homelessness. Intriguingly, the researchers place in a timeline the
various events that contribute to individuals becoming socially excluded,
called a sequencing analysis. The life history of a typical chronically socially
excluded person thus follows a grim trajectory. Most leave home, or local
authority care, around the age of 17. Street drinking and dependency on alcohol
and hard drugs commences early, from around 17 to 22, and early signs of deteriorating
mental health exhibited through bouts of anxiety and depression also arrive in
the early 20s. The experience of rough sleeping homelessness occurs relatively
late along the lifeline, on average at the age of 26.
Housing problems are not therefore
the major factor triggering or shaping the journey destined to end in multiple
exclusion homelessness. However, the
researchers note that settled housing is likely to be an important factor in
providing a base from which the socially excluded can seek a pathway towards
stability and independence.
I suspect that this timeline
sequence will be of little surprise to the experienced hostel worker, well aware
that tackling homelessness is about a great deal more than resolving a housing
problem. It is certainly of no surprise to my colleague Ben, a competent,
dedicated outreach worker. Ben talks
eloquently about his life as part of his personal commitment to encouraging
others to make changes in theirs. It is a story that in its bleakness is not
easy to hear.
His early life was blighted
by his father’s violence. Ben talks
about him and his brothers cowering in fear when their father returned home, a
home they shared with an alcoholic mother. Although his actual violence was
infrequent, the threat was constant. His
older brother, learning from the father that aggression confers dominion over
weaker people, systematically and brutally bullied Ben.
At this early stage his life compass was set
towards disaster. He left school without qualifications, devoid of self-esteem and
unable to form constructive relationships.
Despite qualifying as a plasterer, his self-hatred left him exposed to
manipulation and he was introduced to heroin and became heavily dependent. His
worst moment he told me was sitting in a burned-out car, trying to find a vein
that could take a needle and knowing that around him people were passing by,
oblivious to him and his life.
Somehow this deeply
impressive man overcame these massive disadvantages. I asked how the miracle had
occurred that enabled him to deal with his traumatic past and develop the
determination, resilience and self-belief to shape a new life. Ben has sought and embraced individual and
group counselling and the insight that it has brought him has clearly been of
great benefit. He talks candidly about the journey of recovery from heroin
misuse and remains relentlessly watchful and self-questioning in order to avoid
falling back into old ways.
He has been especially
inspired by another former homeless person, a man who also suffered from
appallingly limited life chances and was forced to confront a severe alcohol problem.
It reminded me of the potent power of peer support; the strength derived from
another who has faced the same challenges and become the influential role model
who has successfully plotted a course away from addiction and self-destruction.
The multiple exclusion
homelessness research rings true, yet the extreme grimness of the life
histories it illuminates could give rise to abject despondency and a sense of
hopelessness. I needed to hear Ben’s story of redemption and escape in all its
rawness. As the final question I asked
him what he liked about himself. He laughed
ruefully; it sounded like pride mixed with remorse. ‘I like myself for having
compassion for people despite everything that I have experienced and done’. It
was a good and true answer spoken with confidence and it left me pensive and
then, suddenly and unexpectedly, just a little choked up.
A version of this blog was published in Inside Housing on April 19th 2012
 Multiple Exclusion Homelessness in the UK
(Fitzpatrick, Bramley and Johnsen – 2011)
There is a crepuscular light and a chilly autumn wind is
sending leaves upwards into the evening sky.
Nonetheless, I maintain the ritual of stopping to watch the
skateboarders at London’s South Bank.
They cavort and shimmy in the cavernous space under the Queen Elizabeth
Hall, the harsh concrete backcloth these days covered with vivid graffiti. So much life and energy where there was once
misery and desperation. For this was the place where, thirty years ago, the
greatest number of rough sleepers could be found. By the late 1980s, following some misguided
and deeply damaging welfare benefit changes introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s
government and an absence of an effective strategy to address an inexorable
rise in rough sleeping, over 120 people were sleeping around the brutalist
architecture of the South Bank. In the evening,
huddles of rough sleepers would gather at tables within the Royal Festival Hall
and wait for the arrival of the first soup run. I was one of the outreach wo…
In the last six months there have been five
deaths of rough sleepers, all well known to the Thames Reach outreach workers
seeking to help them build a life away from the street, each death a crushing
blow. They include a Polish rough
sleeper found dead on a dirty mattress along a canal tow-path. Another, a man
in his early forties who discharged himself from hospital where he was being
treated for pneumonia. Heroin dependency drove him back onto the street and his
body was discovered at his regular begging pitch outside a south London train
station. This cull of blighted lives; it can’t go on. All five were long-term rough sleepers, or ‘entrenched’
as we call them nowadays. Entrench: ‘To
construct a defensive position by digging a trench’, a dehumanizing word which
subliminally implies that the person has elected to sleep rough, obdurately
burrowing away in order to avoid the reality of the world around them. It meshes neatly with a suite of words or
phrases that places responsibility…
In my first year working with homeless people an older
colleague, with foreboding, informed me that the homeless people we were
supporting were more complex, challenging and needy than anybody had previously
experienced. I remember being shocked, considering
it remarkable that I should be starting at the very time when the profile of
the homeless population was changing so dramatically. It didn’t occur to me to
ask ‘how do you know?’ Every year since, I
have heard something like this same statement made. I was therefore not in a
condition to be knocked down by a feather when, as a predictable pre-Christmas
truism, it was stated that those working with the homeless were encountering an
unprecedented increase in ‘the range of complex issues’. Wiser now, I understand
that what I first heard those thirty years ago was hyperbole. A degree of embellishment in the context of such an emotive
issue as homelessness is, perhaps, inevitable. However, when hyperbole descends
into factual mis…