I was impressed the other day when I found out about one group dealing with the homeless issuing cards detailing where they can get suspended (already paid for) meals and drink. I was less impressed when another homeless advocate struggled to find information on a GP surgery so he could direct a homeless person to. I found that what I wrote in the rough sleeper leaflet (which I will get to) was no longer valid. Moreover, the telephone number no longer works and while I eventually got the information I was looking for it was not without first going round the houses and being let down. Even though much of the information was there in the public domain it was far from obvious where, even for an old hand like me.
It got me thinking about one of my pet homeless subjects and more generically something that got me going in my early days of community activism. I remember at that time being told by a wise old bird that knowledge is power and finding out in later years how true this was and how important it was to communicate that knowledge if one was to do good. The situation I found myself in was how to direct people with mental health issues to the helps that were out there, realizing there were huge gaps in service provision and the challenge of pointing people in the right direction. This resulted in a few of us producing a widely acclaimed and much used Southend Mental Health Directory, which went through a number of editions, because the nature of information in an area like mental health is services come and go and regular updates are always needed.
This has become a reoccurring theme and I have found a woeful lack of consistency and joined up and forward thinking. One might well speculate as to why providing accurate, comprehensive, accessible information is not a priority. I suspect this applies still to the area of mental health, these days not my primary community focus, but I know does apply in the area of homelessness. There are of course information databases that get maintained and a plethora of other ad hoc accessible data but how helpful and pertinently how do the potential beneficiaries access this? I realize I need to put my grumpy old man mindset aside and take a view this is yet another gap that I might be able to persuade others to address and failing that do so myself as best I can, and this is the course of action I have chosen.
So going back to homelessness, my present focus of activity, and has been for some time now, the challenge I was faced at the beginning was not so dissimilar to that pertaining to mental health – how do we match information that might help particularly vulnerable and disempowered groups to individual needs and do so on an impartial and non-judgmental basis. I discussed this some two and half years ago and is why I regularly blog about homelessness and network. At the time I began to get involved the Council, having been given money to do so, produced nice pretty concertina type affairs the size of several credit cards but could easily fit in ones top pocket that tried to and did answer some of these questions. Sadly, this was not maintained, and a lot of the information soon became out dated. Moreover, questions are continually raised as to best help this or that homeless person, in a paradigm where big gaps still exist?
I got involved in order to pick up where the concertina, credit cards left off and my solution was less grandiose but included the same basic data as before and a lot more besides. It amounted to fitting as much information as can be reasonably fitted on one sheet of A4 paper that can then be folded into an A5 booklet. You can check this out on the SHAN webpage. It has gone through several iterations and the latest (v3.4) has just been added. Already I am working on the next one in my mind, realizing this is a never ending job. In the early days we printed off a 1000 (say) and distributed to the main outlets with the hope these get to homeless people who might benefit. These days I just put the word out and leave it to folk to use the information I have carefully researched and made available as they see fit (one can only do so much). I generally keep a few leaflets to hand to give out, because knowledge still is power.