About homelessness

Woman sitting on the pavement crying into her hands.

From 1995 – 1997 I worked for the Shaftesbury Society with young homeless people (16-25 year olds) in London. I worked in three hostels: two direct access (in Kilburn and Camberwell) and one supported hostel in Bermondsey.

I remember hearing at that time that there was enough money being pumped into the various homelessness charities and services to buy each and every homeless person in London a house. And I remember thinking at that time that that was an awful lot of money, even with lower house prices ten years ago, and surely the money could be put to better use.

You see the solution to the homelessness problem isn’t in pouring money into hostels to remove these ‘inconvenient’ homeless folks from the streets: out of sight, out of mind. The solution, surely lies in investing time and money in trying to help transform these people’s lives.

(I suddenly realised that I could be writing about the Church here too! But I digress, back to homelessness …)

A lot of the homeless young folks who entered our hostels we saw again and again. From our short-stay hostels many would be allocated a council flat and move out. Only to return to the hostel a few months later, having lost their tenancy. The reason being that many of these young people didn’t have the social or domestic skills to be able to look after themselves or to keep a house.

It’s maybe something that many of take for granted: keeping a house. But it’s an enormous leap — especially for an 18 year old — to go from living on the streets, or on a friend’s couch, or in a hostel to your own flat. It takes courage and discipline and patience and responsibility. I have a great deal of respect for those who managed it; I know a few who died trying.

Open letter

So it was with delight that I read Big Issue founder John Bird’s open letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown in last week’s issue (June 28 – July 4). Here are a few key paragraphs:

Ninety-five percent of the budget that goes towards homelessness services-the-problem rather than ending-the-problem. If you look at the amount of people who get out of homelessness compared [with] the money spent, it is derisory.

Put metaphorically, it is a bit like paying the interest on a loan rather than paying it off.

This is not the fault of the hostels, which become like warehouses. It is expensive getting people out of need, and no-one has that kind of money available.

The same, alas, is the situation in the prison system. We don’t spend money to transform people. Again, we spend about 95% of the budget on keeping people in. But increasingly that does not guarantee that when they are out, they will stay out.

What we need to do is TRANSFORM people while they are homeless, or in prison. Not hold them for a while and then let them go, only to return to their former problems …

He then gives a couple of examples. I certainly recognised this analogy:

Imagine going to the doctor and being told that you need an operation. You are immediately booked into a hospital. You are shown your bed. You are shown the thing to change the telly. You are asked what you want to eat. The next day is the same. And the day after. And then the day, the week and the month after. Then one day the nurse says with a smile, “You’re going home tomorrow.” And you say, “But I thought I was going to have an operation.” The nurse says, “Oh yes, you were, but we can’t afford the cure. We haven’t got the money for that.”

That is what life is like when you’re homeless or in prison. The cure is not a part of the deal. People are sometimes cured, but the rate is so low that the amount of investment makes a mockery of the process.

Lena Fox House

That’s why I was proud of what we did with Lena Fox House in Bermondsey, SE1. We moved from being a direct access hostel (that is one that takes people straight off the street) to being one that offered training in life-skills.

We had three levels of accommodation: residents moved from supported accommodation, where we cooked meals for them, to semi-supported where they’d have to budget and cook their own meals, to independent living in bedsit flats next door.

Some of the young folks we worked with moved into their own flats, got jobs and as far as I know are living successfully on their own or in relationships. It’s just such a shame that there wasn’t the money to keep that work going, and the project folded a few years after I left.

New Start Project

That’s also why I’m proud of Jane’s involvement and achievements with The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award New Start Project which works with young people in prison and at risk of offending. Their efforts have really enhanced the lives of so many young people and worked to help solve the problem, not just help fund it.

… Dear Gordon

If I may close with a few more words from John Bird:

The other big issue … is to dismantle the oxygenators of social collapse in the first place. The culture of benefit-supported poverty, the culture of social failure …

You need to go upstream. You need to get to the family before it is a family. We need to dismantle the poor parenting, the poor estates, the poor living conditions and culture. That is where the majority of crime, violence and murder is bred. It’s bred in the early years of life. And we have to be brave and stop that source of oxygen to social failure.

The 2004 Joseph Rowntree Trust Centennial report said that, in spite of spending vast amounts of money on poverty, we are scraping the surface. Prime Minister, you have the power to really make poverty history, rather than a short-sighted utopian media campaign.

The Big Issue is more than happy to help in the dismantling of homelessness, crime and poverty. In fact we think it is our duty. And imagine the vast savings of money you will make because instead of just paying the interest on that loan, you’ll be paying the loan off.

Much more to be praying about, I think, dear Saints of the Internet; praying and writing to our MPs and the Prime Minister about.

You can contact your Councillors, MP, MEPs, MSPs, or Northern Ireland, Welsh and London AMs for free at www.writetothem.com.

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Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Former Scrum master at Safeguard Global, Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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