Going Soft on Rough Sleepers?

First published in Huffington Post

This is the time of year when homelessness – or, at least, sleeping rough – comes to public attention. Those charities concerned with getting people fed and sheltered who would otherwise be sat in doorways as the rest of us spend money we don’t really have on seasonal goodies, do their best to tug at our heart strings. But perhaps they could engage with our intellects too?

The problem of sleeping rough is often presented – not altogether unreasonably – as distinct from the housing crisis. It is well documented that those propped up under a cash machine or outside a tube station tend to have a whole lot of non-housing problems. Whether its alcohol abuse, a history of offending, family breakdown, losing a job, mental illness or a childhood in the care system, there is often more to their predicament than can be attributed to a lack of housing. But despite the many problems experienced by the street homeless, campaigns like the government sponsored StreetLink and the mayor-backed No Second Night Out are, for all their good intentions, often based on degrading assumptions. That they go beyond simply providing people with the warmth and shelter they need for a night or two is no bad thing. If somebody does have a serious drink problem or isn’t taking the medication they need then a well-judged professional intervention may be just what they need.

But the approach more often than not is more cynical than that. According to Rick Henderson, chief executive of Homeless Link, the role of charities like his is to put to a stop to “that cycle of drinking, drugs and antisocial behaviour” that puts people on the streets in the first place. Except it doesn’t. This stock diagnosis in which the homeless are mere victims of ‘cycles’ beyond their control robs people of any capacity to change their lives for the better. It also justifies interventions that can only further undermine their prospects of getting off the street. That many have big problems is undeniable but their potential with a little help to deal with those problems is not as diminished as Henderson and others would presumably have it.

There is also a difficulty with focusing on the various problems that some – not all – homeless people tend to experience. While the problem cannot be understood only in relation to the wider housing problem, it cannot be separated from it either. Rough sleeping figures are notoriously questionable but reportedly last year the numbers went up by nearly a quarter and in London there are apparently 43% more people living on the streets than there were a year ago. This is particularly embarrasing for the mayor of London who in 2009 pledged to end street homelessness by 2012. As Dave Hill writes in the Guardian, if he really wanted to solve the homeless problem then he, and the rest of the political class, should have set out to solve the housing problem too.

They could do something to address the housing crisis if only they had the will to do so. Hill describes the scale of the problem, from “unattainable mortgages and bloated rents to the squatting, ‘sofa-surfing’ and surge in households placed in temporary accommodation now so apparent amid a shortage of affordable homes worthy of the name”. Despite the 120,000 new homes promised in the chancellor’s Autumn Statement, I fear we’ve heard it all before. As Mary Riddell points out in the Telegraph, for all the pro-building rhetoric deployed by successive Labour and now LibCon governments, it remains a fact that between 2001 and 2011 there was a 4%fall in house building. And this was from levels that were already hopelessly inadequate.

Instead of focusing its efforts on the ‘vulnerable’ margins none too effectively, the mayor and the government need to build – or else create the conditions whereby others build – more houses to meet the historically massive shortfall. This would not only meet basic needs and begin to match people’s aspirations to own their own homes. It would also provide a much needed boost to the economy. And yet, somewhere between the paralysing cultures of sustainability and apolitical managerialism, the clarity of vision and unity of purpose needed to build enough houses for people to live in has failed to show itself. So yes, lets give our support to initiatives that respectfully give the street homeless all the help they need to get off the streets without undermining their ability to turn their own lives around by privileging their vulnerability. But lets also hope that in 2013 the political class take the longer and wider view on housing, and that they take a wrecking ball to the obstacles they themselves have erected to a rational solution to the housing problem.

Bring Back the Ronseal Test

First published in Huffington Post

I have recently come to the conclusion that nothing does what it says on the tin any more. Or at least what is written on the tin has ceased to have much to do with what’s in it. This has particularly come to mind over the past week. There was the announcement that, at last, there will be an inquest into the shooting of Mark Duggan which supposedly ‘triggered’ last year’s riots. A report making the case for local authorities to raid their employees’ pension funds in order to boost housebuilding, was another prompt. And then there was the story about how Cancer Research UK was voted the most popular charity ‘brand’, with the likes of Greenpeace, Oxfam and Amnesty International not far behind.

What struck me the most about the latest riots-related news was, first of all, this idea that Duggan’s death in some way caused the riots. I don’t think it did in any meaningful sense. It is perhaps better to understand what happened as akin to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and the outbreak of World War I. The events were connected but almost arbitrarily so. But in the absence of anything else, it seems to have become the stand-in for an explanation for something that was quite inexplicable and unexpected. While apologists for the rioters have talked up the poverty, lack of opportunities and poor relations with the police, none of these while attendant factors explain anything. While I don’t accept as some have argued that they weren’t riots at all – according to my dictionary a riot is a ‘noisy disturbance by a crowd’ – they were fundamentally lacking in any sort of content. The violent public display (what was written on the tin) rang hollow. Not that this stopped commentators, politicians and academics – no less opportunistically than the rioters themselves – hurriedly projecting their pet theories onto what were meaningless, if no less serious for that, outbursts.

The world of housing policy, not known for its outbursts of activity – as the absence of housebuilding attests – has also been failing the Ronseal test for some time now. The latest wheeze in an increasingly desperate attempt to boost ‘affordable’ housing and inject some life into an inflated yet standstill housing market, only confirms this. While all sorts of bad ideas from blaming under-occupiers and those with second homes for the housing crisis, to creating new confusing mixes of traditional tenures, are entertained by those hopelessly steeped in bricks ‘n’ mortar jargon; they seem not to notice that housing policy is no longer about housing as such. Social landlords, for instance, don’t build houses any more. They like to be known as ‘community builders’. They are providers of social services, on the one hand, ‘supporting’ their allegedly vulnerable tenants, and getting heavy on the other, policing the anti-social ones. According toDavid Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, ‘the mission is to improve people’s lives, to help them fulfil their potential, to support their aspirations and to create functioning and healthy communities’. Even if that was all all very well – which it isn’t – that’s not what it says on the tin.

The charity world, by way of contrast, has been guilty less of mission creep than of a complete absence of mission. Which is ironic when you think about it. The association of the very notion of charity with the religious orders of missionaries who sought to spread the word; or with the pious reformers of the 19th Century at home penalising and patronising as much as helping the poor, may not be entirely flattering. But it is a reminder of a time when there was no doubt as to the message. Today’s charities evidently have a great deal of difficulty articulating what it is they stand for. There are a number of reasons for this. The reliance of many, particularly the most well-known, charities on the state with regards both their funding and policy agendas, are foremost among them. But it is the absence of that desire to meet desperate need that led Dr Barnardo to create a school for the East End’s orphaned and homeless children; or of that sense of outrage at the filmic depiction of homelessness in Cathy Come Home that led to the creation of Shelter.

Its not that we lack social problems. While grinding poverty and child destitution are largely problems of the past, there are a few good causes I can think of that don’t get the attention they deserve. Whether its campaigning for real development rather than the so-called sustainable development that world’s poorest typically get, or in defence of those scientists and institutions experimenting on animals in the interests of medical science. Whatever you deem to be a good cause I urge you next time somebody rattles a tin – or in the case of a chugger, their clipboard – in your direction to enquire as to its contents. Not literally, but what is it that they are campaigning for and why should you help them with it? The same goes for Orr and the housing sector. If you are no longer about building and managing the housing stock but would rather manage tenants’ lives, then whose going to solve our housing problem? And if we are to make sense of what happened last summer then we need to get to grips with the mismatch between the rioters’ vandalism of their communities and the worthy excuses. I’m sure there are other similar wood-treatment products out there but only the Ronseal test will get us any closer to making sure that riots, housing associations and charities do what they say on the tin.

Public managers should stop telling people how to behave

First published in The Guardian’s Public Sector Network

There is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the public policyagenda today. While on the one hand we are urged to build a big society where citizens run things for themselves, on the other we are told to ‘nudge’ them in this or that direction and make decisions on their behalf.

Something odd has happened to public services over the past decade or so. Services that were once a part of the social settlement that led to the creation of the welfare state, have increasingly become a tool for telling people how to behave. Whether it’s creating better citizens or trying to change their lifestyles, the only question raised is how best to do it.

The government’s approach to recycling is to fund local initiatives rewarding good residents with points redeemable at local retailers. “We want to see people helping us to boost recycling rates by putting out their rubbish correctly,” said environment secretary Caroline Spelman as she launched a public consultation on the matter, “but bullying them with fines is not the way to do it.” Opponents, particularly local authorities none too keen on reverting to the weekly bin collection, only object that scarce public funds would be better spent on other behaviour-controlling initiatives such as the cuts-threatened SureStart centres.

The world of social care, while rhetorically in favour of more independence, choice and control, for its users, is obsessed with vetting the behaviour of staff, volunteers, or anybody else that might come into contact with a vulnerable child or adult. The NHS, of Olympic opening ceremony fame, may be free at the point of use. But no expense is spared on posters in GP surgeries and hospital waiting rooms telling patients that they must change their lifestyles – stop smoking, exercise more, lose weight – or to remind expectant mothers that ‘breast is best’.

Housing associations are as busy managing the lives of their tenants as they are managing the housing stock and more interested in building communities than building new homes. Schools apparently cater more to the contents of children’s school dinners and lunchboxes and managing misbehaviour in the classroom, than filling young people’s minds with something that might encourage them to sit still for a moment. Meanwhilea mass movement co-ordinator for the Olympic and Paralympic Games’ opening and closing ceremonies is apparently using dance – in consultation with the Metropolitan Police and the Criminal Justice Board – to reduce youth crime.

Indeed for those driving public policy today the delivery of public services is not the point. It is all about shaping new ‘active citizens’ the better to meet corporate objectives. But surely this gets things back to front? A truly active citizen acts of their own accord and not according to the imperatives of public management. The good news is that by ditching the policing of people’s behaviour we might emulate the vision of a big society in which responsible citizens take the reins. This is why we should adopt an alternative approach: one that genuinely enables people’s autonomy rather than smothering their initiative.