Commissioning homeless services

When I first got into community work in a big way, around the turn of the millennium, it was in the area of mental health, addressing gaps in service provision. In this case, it culminated in the setting up a charity, Trust Links, which I am pleased to say is still going strong. From those earlier incursions, coupled with a good deal of naivety and subsequent experiences of getting my fingers burnt and hopes dashed, I came to a view that filling in the gaps was the way to go but things being as they were it proved not to be a lucrative route. When it came to commissioning and paying for services, not always the worthiest and neediest ones did holders of purse strings and their masters practically back. A further confounding factor was my mantra was also about building the Kingdom of God and unless a sponsor shared these objectives, then projects that had these as aims often didn’t get backed unless with stealth, fudge or compromise.

Things have moved on considerably since then and I am older and wiser. The areas of need and focus that particularly interest me these days are more often to do with homelessness rather than mental health, yet many of those earlier considerations still arise. When today a friend tried to pick my brain regarding the big picture, I had to say that while I try to be savvy as to what is going on that it still went back fundamentally to those two things: where are the gaps and how best to promote the Kingdom of God? While I have a view regarding the bigger picture, it can be a rather damming one and sometimes, rather than letting rip, discretion is the better part of valour. I often feel that I have best employed maintaining that early focus along with encouraging the next generation to do likewise, knowing full well there will remain enormous gaps and plenty of non-preachy scope to advance the Kingdom of God.

Recently, I blogged about the need for a homeless prevention strategy but as I reflected further I realize the term likely arose because of a political agenda to reduce homeless numbers, with local authorities needing to tick certain boxes to get funded. There are many reasons why people become homeless and I am sure information is in the public domain that will articulate and provide weight to many of the reasons. While these do need to be looked at seriously, starting with government policy and the imponderable of how to stop society disintegrating, thereby causing people to become homeless, the stark fact for people like me working at the coal face and with minimal political clout it is this is not necessarily the most fruitful area for our attentions, other than taking note to reduce the risk that having housed a homeless person that person does not again become homeless, is to do what we can to help the homeless person or ensure they are helped to get to a better place.

One thing I learned early on in my mental health activism is the importance of making a case to those who commission services as well as other funders, rather than those who deliver services (although they are important too), and the need to get one’s paper work act together. Sadly, I have met many who go that extra mile on a shoe string and those who get funded because they tick the “right” boxes, who fail to put heart and soul into doing what is needed. I have also met many service commissioners and while many are nice and well meaning they are not always as effective as they might be. They can be severely constrained by changing agendas in what they do and it isn’t always the most worthy organisations who get the funding and it is not always the neediest projects that are supported. My (arguably idealistic) advice to funders and those being funded, is to consider where the most difference can be made, working within these constraints. There is a lot that both funder and fundee could and should be doing regarding such matters.

Regarding my own practice, it is but a few drops in a small pool (I daren’t say ocean) but then it does inspire others to add their drops and it also does relate to some of the drops that are already there, and before long we find ourselves taking over the pool. The point is that the needs of the many homeless folk I regularly come across are many and complex and some of the biggest of these, like getting accommodation, support, counseling, socialization, work and meaningful activity, I may touch on but often barely if at all. For an effective homeless support (as opposed to prevention) strategy, what is needed is all the interested parties: commissioners, providers (paid and voluntary), service users to honestly and openly engage with each other in order to crack the uncrackable and do what was once euphemistically described as providing an integrated, seamless service, and that is to take homeless people, often in a distressed state, and helping empower them to get to that better place.

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