Bricks and mortar or flesh and blood

The plight of children is at the core of Shelter’s “Stick it to Bad Housing” campaign, which calls for funding to build 20,000 social rented homes. The campaign follows on from Shelter’s Million Children campaign, launched in 2004, which uses pictures of children and claims that “one in seven children are desperate to escape bad housing”. The charity’s chief executive, Adam Sampson , believes such an approach will help raise popular and political awareness. Others, including social policy writer David Clements, believe it is the wrong tactic. Here, an exchange of letters between the two gets to the heart of the challenges charities face in engaging the public and delivering change.

1 Stop hiding behind the children…

Dear Adam,

While few could fail to be outraged by the plight of children living in damp housing conditions or without room to do their homework, it is surely the material conditions to which they are subject rather than their reaction to it that is decisive.

It is for this reason that I ask why, when child poverty is a consequence of living in a poor family rather than the experience of being a child per se, does Shelter insist on placing children’s well-being at the front of its campaign against overcrowded housing?

The charity risks turning what should be a discussion about housing need – and how we as a society go about meeting it – into a therapeutic exercise that has little to offer but competitive victimhood. Is the homeless child any more deserving than the abused child, or the child living in relative poverty more so than the child looked after by the local authority, for instance?

Unicef’s recently published report condemning the UK’s record on ensuring children’s well-being exhibits a sadly familiar despair at the state of childhood itself as much as it reveals the many experiences of the vulnerable child, however ill-defined. Too often, the abused or neglected child – in reality a rare individual – is used to stand for all children and our apparent failure to protect them. Cue the horrendous experiences of Hagar, Melanie, Toure and Michelle on the Shelter website to get across that same message.

But this is to confuse our own moral despair as adults with the poverty that some families on the margins of our society experience. This is not to minimise their plight, but to seek to address it by clarifying what we are dealing with. In short, all I ask is that we stop hiding behind the kids, and campaign directly for more and better housing.

Yours sincerely, Dave Clements

2 …Shelter is about people, not houses…

Dear Dave,

We thought long and hard about the sort of points you make before we launched our Million Children Campaign back in 2004. But I still think we were right.

First, you say that Shelter should “stop hiding behind kids and campaign directly for more and better housing”. But Shelter is about people, not about houses. And what matters is not the housing shortage solely but the impact of that shortage on the people we are here to work for. Talking about the impact housing failure has on people’s lives is not cynical it is at the heart of what we do.

Second, the use of children in our “imaging” or campaigning is deliberate and, we believe, right. Combating child poverty is at the heart of the government’s agenda, and it is sensible for an organisation that is seeking to persuade government to invest in housing to capitalise on the links between housing and poverty. There is overwhelming evidence that children brought up in bad housing suffer lifelong impacts. Why should we not talk about that, or use images to portray their plight?

In the end, what we need is government money and what matters is that we get the job done. We should not be dishonest in our portrayal of the issue. But the points we are making in the campaign are real and are proving effective.

Yours sincerely, Adam Sampson

3 …That avoids political arguments…

Dear Adam,

You say that “Shelter is about people, not about houses”. Really? As the most well-known charity in the UK campaigning on behalf of homeless people – that is, people without homes – surely Shelter is all about housing people?

Dwelling on the personal plight of children might make sense if it is only, as you argue, to do with “imaging” or exploiting government agendas. But you are also avoiding having out the political arguments that might address the problem of homelessness, instead focusing on the alleged damage done by the experience of homelessness.

You say there is “overwhelming evidence” that children “suffer lifelong impacts” as a consequence of poor housing. Perhaps, but I would be more cautious in accepting such claims, however they may support your case. Too often it is assumed that children are fragile, not resilient and for ever marked by such experiences, and that disadvantage – whether as a consequence of abuse, neglect or poverty – damages them irreparably.

I’m not sure we do young people any favours by telling them that they will carry the scars for the rest of their lives. This is to psychologise what is a social problem, and can only distract from what is most critical: the inadequacy of the current housing stock to meet people’s needs.

Yours sincerely, Dave Clements

4 …Only the evidence divides us…

Dear Dave,

At the heart of the difference between us, I suspect, is the question of how we approach evidence. Before embarking on the Million Children Campaign, we looked long and hard at the available evidence about what sort of arguments engage the public and change politicians’ minds. You might want it to be true that a campaign merely based on the proposition that we need more houses would be effective, but sadly it is simply not.

You cannot expect people to buy into the proposition that more taxpayers’ pounds should go into funding social housing – at the expense of other, more immediately popular causes – without explaining why it is necessary. And, given the propensity of people to blame the poor and homeless for their predicament (for which, again, we have plenty of evidence), it makes sense to focus on the impact of poor housing on a group who cannot be held responsible for their plight.

You are, of course, right to be cynical about evidence. However, the evidence that poor housing does have a lifelong impact on children is overwhelming. Just ask Lisa Harker, the government’s child poverty adviser, who assembled the available evidence for us. If bad housing really does wreck some children’s lives, why not say so?

Yours sincerely, Adam Sampson

5 …I’m not cynical, just sceptical…

Dear Adam,

You say that I am cynical about the evidence and that this is what divides us. Well, yes and no. Yes, because the research evidence you refer to is inconclusive and your own take on it rather permissive. And, no, because I’m not cynical, but sceptical.

Indeed, I find your line of argument troubling, not least because it betrays your own cynicism about politics, and about engaging a public whose orientation to the problem of homelessness you find objectionable. You seem resigned to what people apparently already think. And yet I wonder at the implications of your own characterisation of the homeless problem.

While the man in the street might think that the man living on the street is responsible for his own misfortune, is it any advance on this to portray him as a hopeless victim of circumstance caught up in a “cycle of social exclusion and poverty”. These words, used to describe the fate of children living in poor housing conditions, are taken from a press release that accompanied the Shelter-commissioned report, Chance of a Lifetime.

In a section on health effects, the government’s child poverty adviser, Lisa Harker, describes this as “the strongest body of evidence” about the enduring impact that bad housing conditions have on children. However, scroll down a little further and she admits that the “evidence on the long-term impact of poor housing on children’s health is mixed and can be hard to interpret”. I assume this is the document you refer to when you claim that there is “overwhelming evidence” of the lifelong effects of poor housing on children’s well-being?

I hope that your campaign succeeds in meeting desperate housing need. But I fear that your willingness to exploit the figures and the image of the helpless child can breed only more cynicism. I think it is only fair that you have the last word.

Yours sincerely, Dave Clements

6 …You confuse health and well-being

Dear Dave,

I admire your rhetoric but am less convinced by your logic.

The words “helpless” and “hopeless” to describe people in housing need are yours, not ours. We would not dream of peddling those stereotypes (nor, indeed, of continuing to equate homelessness as being “on the street” as you do).

Nowhere do we argue that people may not be, to some degree, the architects of their own misfortune or portray them as incapable of effecting their own escape from the circumstances they find themselves in. Given that the last organisation I ran built its success on employing former service users as staff, I need no convincing of the power of individuals to transform their own lives.

All we are reflecting is that there are structural issues that create housing need: if there are fewer houses than there are people who need housing, someone will lose out. And we are pointing out to the public that, if people are not housed, it is not merely a tragedy for those individuals but for society as a whole.

Your scepticism about the evidence about the importance of housing is misplaced. You neatly manage to confuse impact on health with impact on well-being – it is, as I say, overwhelming. Indeed, I suspect you know this. Why else should you wish our campaign success?

Yours sincerely, Adam Sampson

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