‘There needs to be more opportunities created that utilise the skills, knowledge and experience of people who have been homeless, to inform the solutions to this national crisis.’
First published January 2020 by NPC, written by Martin Burrows, Director of Research and Campaigns, Groundswell.
Looking forward into a new decade it’s our duty as a social sector to ensure that by 2030 homelessness is no longer destroying lives and damaging communities.
Looking back to the start of the last decade things looked promising—homelessness by all measures was at historic lows and innovative concepts and practices were being embraced. The first UK Housing First trials were starting; personalisation was a buzz word and there was a diversity of services to meet the differing needs of people experiencing homelessness. Nevertheless, this was also the beginning of financial uncertainty, political change and the advent of austerity for the UK. A ‘conservative’ calculation would indicate rough sleeping has increased by 165% since 2010. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Despite this, we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the positive steps that have been taken. There is increased dialogue around the connection between health and homelessness, recognising good health creates a foundation for moving out of homelessness. Recognition has also grown around the power of participation, acknowledging that people should have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. Our understanding of the causes and consequences of homelessness has also improved; trauma and gender informed practices being embraced is a key example of this.
From the perspectives of those who are being supported
When Groundswell conducts research and we ask about how people who are homeless want to be supported, they aren’t necessarily concerned by the theoretical and policy underpinning practice. Instead good support means:
- Consistency—building up a personal relationship with the person supporting you, knowing you can depend on them
- Compassion—seeing the individual, not putting people in boxes based on their ‘needs’.
- Flexibility—Going the extra mile when needed and adapting delivery to the individual.
- Having choice and control over decisions.
However, when we ask people affected by homelessness about the support they receive, the feedback tends to be that the system is getting more rigid. While there are pockets of innovative approaches, increasingly people are falling through the gaps.
An inward-looking sector
Our response to homelessness as a sector is inherently inward-looking in terms of the solutions on offer and the lens that we have for creating change. Our model of working often segregates people from the wider community; homelessness is seen before any other need. The stigma and circumstances around homelessness means that people can struggle to access mainstream services, their ‘homelessness’ overrides any other challenges. In doing this the system embeds ‘homelessness’ as condition to be treated not a consequence of wider structural and personal issues. for which homelessness is a consequence.
The archetypal example of this is how we place people in temporary accommodation. We house people in segregated buildings that focus on controlling behaviour and rewarding compliance. Hostels are rarely an environment for recovery, proximity with people with other challenges creates a difficult environment to live in. We work with incredible staff in hostels across London and further afield, but the reality is they are often poorly paid, lack support, have large caseloads and often don’t have access to the adequate training required to support people as individuals. When we ask people who are affected by homelessness what the solution is, it’s homes, not hostels.
Hostels are representative of the short-term fixes and crisis management model that we have been forced to adopt by a lack of resource. This lack of resource extends across the health and social care sector, systems focusing on the bottom-line and not on people.
An outward looking sector
As a sector we need to be focused on changing society and the systems within it. At Groundswell what we have found effective is re-framing the issue of homelessness around health. We want to see a more equitable healthcare system for all, but to achieve that it takes collaboration with the NHS, homelessness services and people who have experience of using both.
At Groundswell two thirds of our staff and all our volunteers have had personal experience of homelessness. I’ve seen an abundance of insight, compassion and creativity through working with my colleagues, and what strikes me most as homelessness increases is the sheer waste that it represents. We need to harness and use that experience to shape the solutions that are created to homelessness.
The process of participation can itself be transformative for people. For example, over 50% of our staff were once volunteers at Groundswell; former volunteer peer advocates now work in the NHS as Nurses and Healthcare Assistants and others have gone on to work in homelessness support services. What better way is there to challenge perceptions of homelessness than to work alongside or to be cared for by someone who has been homeless themselves.
Looking forward 10 years
Looking forward ten years, we need to be able to work flexibly, in a system that can cope with complex needs and responds with compassionate, personalised support. There needs to be more opportunities created that utilise the skills, knowledge and experience of people who have been homeless, to inform the solutions to this national crisis. To achieve this we need to become an outward looking sector that creates change in society, with solutions generated through lived experience.