Housing the homeless

Some years ago I was a deacon in a Baptist church at a time they were without a minister and we had to seek out a replacement. To help us in this quest, we solicited the services of someone who when introduced described himself as an “honest broker” insofar he would try to match the opportunities, needs and vision of the church with the person best placed to help. It seemed to me he needed qualities like tact and diplomacy, and to be wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove. The role of honest broker is something I have tried to fulfill ever since, with varying success, when working in the community with disparate parties, in particular in the area of homelessness. I may need to squash a tendency to be opinionated and outspoken with doing what is needed to get different groups working together to benefit those they purport to serve, i.e. the homeless.

Often when speaking to different folk, I hear criticism of various organisations and in the interest of promoting joint-agency working I try to keep my own counsel, especially when not fully cognisant of the facts. While we may want to criticise, this needs to be constructive and our intention must be to lend support. From time to time, I come across practices and, pertinent to this posting, statements that I feel need to be challenged if we are to make progress, otherwise too many smug people in positions of power will remain inactive based on blissful ignorance, when what matters is addressing needs. One such statement was recently made by the head of a homeless charity, who declared its aim is to stop homelessness in three years, with that charity taking the lead.

I wouldn’t want to curb such ambitious intentions provided these are grounded in reality and not just in order to attract support from those who like to be told what they want to hear. While I have seen some remarkable progress in the work among homeless folk in the few years I have been involved, particularly in the area of joined up working, it seems to me that if anything the plight of the homeless has got worse and, since the devil is invariably in the detail, which appears to me to be blatantly absent, I hope I can be excused if looking upon such claims with a degree of skepticism.

The questions I would like to ask are:

  1. Do you know how many homeless people there are in the area you serve and to what extent do you understand their circumstances?
  2. How are you measuring and intend to measure how well you are doing to meet your goal?
  3. Do you include sofa surfers and those living in appalling accommodation in your figures?
  4. How can you be confident you can eliminate rough sleeping in your area when national figures indicate the number of people sleeping rough is on the increase?
  5. Given you have been going a number of years and the number of rough sleepers in your area has if anything increased, what will you be doing differently to reverse this trend?
  6. Where are these folk going to live given there is a dire shortage of affordable accommodation in your area and what about those who have no recourse to public funds and/or are not allowed to work, or those who are victims of the benefits squeeze, or who cannot afford to pay rent on what they are earning?
  7. Even if accommodation were to be found where costs can be met from benefits or low paid work, how do you get around issues like rent deposits and guarantors?
  8. What about the homeless people with support needs or with issues like alcohol or mental health, possibly the majority of the homeless population, how do you intend to support them and do so in such a way they can sustain their tenancy?
  9. What about the homeless people you exclude for some or other misdemeanor, or who won’t engage with you because they don’t think you are particularly helpful or able to meet their needs?
  10. How do you intend or like to work with other agencies who are also committed to eradicating rough sleeping in your area as well as services like mental heath that are noticeable by their absence?

I am not trying to be difficult here, but it wouldn’t be an idle boast for me to claim I do more to help the homeless than most people in my town and I understand the issues more than most and, while it does not necessarily make me right, it does mean I have earned the right to speak on these matters. All I am asking is for those involved with this charity, which I know to be doing a fantastic job in difficult circumstances, and those with unrealistic expectations, to live in the real world and refrain from making irresponsible or unsubstantiated statements. I hope they will continue to build on the good work they are already doing. along with community activists like myself, people of good will who are keen to help for free, of which there are many, other agencies, landlords, politicians etc. in order to achieve the end we all want: for homeless persons to come off the streets, living in suitable accommodation, at peace and contributing to the community. We may disagree regarding predictions and methods but at least let us work smarty and unitedly to the end whereby people involuntary sleeping rough will be a thing of the past.

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