Homelessness: sympathy is not enough

It is traditional at this time of year to spare a thought for those left out in the cold. And this Christmas many are concerned about the increasing numbers of street homeless, despite the government’s bold ambitions to halve the numbers by 2022 and ‘eliminate’ the problem by 2027.

Homeless charities usually struggle for volunteers, but they have been inundated with offers of help over the festive period. So much so that they are having to turn volunteers away. Such offers are no doubt kind. But non-committal volunteering can be as much a hindrance as a help to a sector dealing with increasing need.

Indeed, with a problem as difficult and complex as homelessness, well-meaning virtue-signalling is not enough.

This year thousands took part in ‘sleep outs’ in Scotland, organised by the charity Social Bite. People camped out in their sleeping bags and were rewarded with performances from KT Tunstall and others. But there’s something distasteful about such stunts. Bruce Forbes, director of the Angus Housing Association, told the BBC he thought the event was ‘quite patronising to homeless people’.

To its credit, Social Bite raised £4million from its ‘sleep out’ last year, which was spent on a ‘village’ for 20 homeless people in Edinburgh, and contributed to a housing initiative that turned 800 homeless people into tenants. But, even then, is this really enough? How many fields full of people playacting at being homeless will it take to get the genuinely homeless off the streets and into permanent accommodation?

According to Shelter, there are 320,000 homeless people in Britain at the moment. This is somewhat misleading. Shelter conflates families living in B&Bs and hostels (the bulk) with the relatively few, if rapidly growing, number of people sleeping rough. But, inflated statistics aside, there is clearly a problem here that needs to be tackled.

Complex factors can lead to people sleeping rough or losing a tenancy. Mental illness, family and relationship breakdown, alcoholism and drug problems all play their part. Changes to the welfare system have contributed to recent rises, too. Stories of people losing their jobs and then their homes because they had to wait up to eight weeks to receive Universal Credit – the UK government’s new benefits system – and then couldn’t pay their rent are as familiar as they are depressing. But these explanations never really get to the root of the problem.

Too often we focus on politically convenient targets – whether it is the Tories and their supposedly nasty new benefit, or so-called austerity driving people into food banks and out on to the streets. But, in truth, it is a chronic shortage of housing, longstanding economic stagnation, rising costs and falling living standards that have created the conditions conducive to people losing their homes in increasing numbers.

No amount of awareness-raising, volunteering or Christmas spirit is going to solve these problems. Instead of hugging the homeless, we should be grappling with why so many people are forced out of their homes in the first place.

First published on spiked



More inspections won’t solve the care crisis

The Conservative Party might want to forget the ‘dementia tax’ debacle that haunted its General Election campaign, and marked the beginning of the end of its parliamentary majority. But the social-care crisis is not going away. An ageing population, rising costs (as providers are forced to pay care workers the National Living Wage), and cuts to local authority funding (estimated at £824million in England in 2017/18), are putting 12 per cent of the UK’s care homes at serious risk of going bankrupt, according to the latest research.

The pressure is expected to increase, with an anticipated growing demand for places (with one study in the Lancet identifying the need for 70,000 more by 2025) and a longstanding shortfall in staff – predicted to worsen with the much-cited Brexit effect supposedly putting off foreign workers coming to an allegedly hostile UK.

Care homes have been closing at a rate of around 500 a year, and for those that remain – it is not unreasonably argued – care standards can only suffer.
HMRC is currently chasing care providers for millions of pounds worth of back-payments for workers who were paid below the minimum wage for ‘sleep-in’ shifts. This will make further closures even more likely, argue those in the sector.

But do these factors fully explain the crisis in our care homes? It is certainly the case that local authorities are running out of options to deal with the crisis – other than raise council tax and make better use of the Better Care Fund (aimed at integrating local health and social care) – as central funding dries up. The Department of Health has responded by saying it will toughen up the inspection regime. But is the problem really that the Care Quality Commission (CQC) is too lax in its monitoring of care homes and the quality of the care that takes place in them?

I don’t think so. While there is a place for ‘light touch’ visits to weed out the worst offenders, it is the public-sector audit culture itself that is making a solution to the social-care crisis so hard to find. Notwithstanding ever-increasing demands and historic under-resourcing, the focus on meeting targets and pleasing inspectors crowds out a culture in which a commitment to care, and the autonomy of cared-for older adults, might otherwise be allowed to flourish.

‘What’s it like to live in a care home?’, published this month by consumer rights body Healthwatch, gives a sense of how bad things have got. In over a third of the nearly 200 care homes its volunteers visited across England, conditions were poor – from peeling wallpaper and rotting pot plants to being so generally dirty that a ‘deep clean’ was insisted upon. Some residents reported having no internet access or not having the opportunity to get some exercise for weeks on end; and others complained that they ‘didn’t get enough time to connect with those caring for them’.

For all policymakers’ high-flown rhetoric about ensuring older people are given more independence, choice and control over their lives, too often care homes were found to be failing even to uphold residents’ dignity or just ‘get the basics right’. As national director, Imelda Redmond, put it: ‘Care homes are not institutions, they are people’s homes.’ The sooner the managerial ethos is abandoned, and those who live and work in these homes are able to take control of decisions about care, the better.

First published in sp!ked

Lou the transphobe? Please!

‘Walk on the Wild Side’ Lou Reed’s most famous song, hit the headlines recently courtesy of the University of Guelph Central Student Association in Canada.  Originally recorded for his bestselling classic album Transformer produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson (formerly a Spider from Mars to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust), it somehow slipped a line about ‘giving head’ past the censors in 1972. This time around, 45 years later, the would-be censors published an apology for the song and its ‘transphobic lyrics’ finding its way onto a playlist at one of its events.

Apparently ‘the person making the list did not know or understand the lyrics’. They weren’t the only one. The rush to seek offence – a regrettable feature of contemporary life, both on campus and in the field of identity politics – is such that all is swept before it, even a song written by somebody who was no stranger to transgressing the norms of his day. ‘Bi? The fucker’s quad!’ one roadie was reputed to have anwered when quizzed about Reed’s sexuality. While David Bowie with that album had brought him renewed fame, it was Reed and the Velvet Underground, and the mifits that populated Andy Warhol’s Factory, that were the original gender-benders.

Candy Says, from the Velvets’ third album and also written by Reed, is a sad and tender song about Warhol muse and trailblazing transsexual drag-queen Candy Darling, who died tragically at the age of 29.  Reed even dedicated his sometimes overlooked gem of an album Coney Island Baby to his drag-queen lover Rachel. He was transgressive to the end, with his critically panned project with Metallica, Lulu, based on a couple of obscure German plays, with sexually-shocking lyrics sung by a 60-something Reed from the perspective of a female stripper-cum-prostitute.

But lets go back to the song in question. According to Hal Willner, who produced Lulu and Reed’s other late albums: ‘This song was how the world first heard about these people. It’s a song about love.’ Not least Lou’s love for the New York misfits he knew and wrote about. A world away from the curiously conformist one inhabited by today’s students and activists. What’s good about this bizarre controversy is that Lou Reed is back in the news. Dying just a couple of years before Bowie, I’m not sure enough people really know what a genius he was. And so influential too. Bowie wouldn’t have been Bowie without him.

He’d no doubt have dispatched his critics with a monotone-delivered but deadly one-liner if he was still around. The least today’s generation can do is take Lou’s advice. Take a walk on the wild side.

Don’t use nurses as fodder in the NHS war

Increasing numbers of nurses are leaving the NHS, choosing to take jobs stacking shelves in supermarkets instead. That’s according to NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson, who is responsible for most NHS hospital, mental-health and ambulance trusts in England. He said on Monday that nurses’ pay is so poor – pay rises have been capped at one per cent in recent years – and their working conditions so stressful that many are simply giving up. Hopson’s intervention follows claims by the Royal College of Nursing that more and more nurses are relying on foodbanks to get by.

But the problem with the NHS isn’t as black and white as it seems. Whether or not nurses are so underpaid that they’re actually going hungry, or are so demoralised they’d rather work in a supermarket, it is true that there is a crisis in the NHS. Prime minister Theresa May’s response to Copson – pointing out that there are ‘more doctors, more nurses, more midwives’ in the NHS than ever before – did nothing to address the fact that there still aren’t enough, and that the Tories are starving them of funding. Of course nurses should be paid more – they do an incredibly important job. And despite May’s cheery outlook, the NHS needs more funding to meet the increased demand on services from an ageing population, exacerbated by service dysfunction and the cuts to social care.

Solving the NHS crisis won’t be as straightforward as simply raising taxes, but without a greater funding commitment it won’t be possible to implement the changes needed to put things right.

In response to Hopson, May said that ‘you can only put extra funding into the NHS with a strong economy’. It was, of course, a jab at Jeremy Corbyn. But the problem is that the Tories have not produced a strong economy. This is why they’ve pursued public-sector cuts as part of their obsession with slashing the deficit. They’ve been incapable of fostering real growth.

But rather than challenging the government’s cuts to the NHS on economic grounds – arguing for more growth as a means to more funding, and a much bigger overhaul of the care system – the Labour Party and health-sector lobbyists have opted for emotive electioneering. They have framed the discussion about the NHS as a war between angelic nurses and cruel austerity.

Such cynical tactics won’t work. Instead of trying to shame the government with spin about impoverished nurses, critics would do better to challenge the NHS love-in, and ask if this aged institution is fit for purpose. The crisis in the NHS isn’t just about funding and wages. It is about the way that the NHS is run. Given the targets it is burdened with, you would think its purpose is to populate spreadsheets with agreeable figures rather than make the sick well again. It is this culture that is responsible for driving down morale, and undermining the sense of public duty among staff.

Groups that represent health workers should be offering up solutions as to how the NHS should be run better, rather than leaving it to the NHS’s target-obsessed managers. Instead of holding them up as objects of pity, why not urge nurses to take inspiration from the junior doctors, and lay down their bedpans until they win a better deal from the Department of Health?

Published in spiked

Is there a ‘silent epidemic’ of loneliness today?

Is there a ‘silent epidemic’ of loneliness today? The Commission on Loneliness, initially set up by the murdered MP Jo Cox, was launched in January with claims that it affects at least 1 in 5 of us, and can lead to depression, stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure and the onset of dementia. Britain has even been described by researchers as the ‘loneliness capital of Europe’. According to Sue Bourne, who’s documentary Age of Loneliness was broadcast last year, experiences like ‘losing your job or constantly having to move for work makes you rootless’. For all our so-called ‘friends’ on social media more of us live alone than ever before.

The breakdown of marriages can mean the loss of wider social networks and of a sense of what the future might hold. New mothers cut off from the support of family can also feel alone, and stranded with only demanding children for company. The young are lonely according to recent research, with leaving home – especially for students – an upsetting time. While Bourne argues that volunteering initiatives have a role to play in ‘creating new support networks to replace the traditional ones we’ve now lost’, is there anything worse than having to endure the enforced civility of well-meaning befrienders when all you really want is to be left alone?

The ‘cure for loneliness’ is not so much about meeting other people as about ‘learning how to befriend yourself’ argues Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City. That and recognising the ‘larger forces of stigma and exclusion’. She’s only half right. In recent months we’ve heard little else from the young Royals than their ‘awareness’ campaigning, with government, about their and our mental health, prompting an irritated Katie Hopkins to suggest they ‘put a sock in it’. The emotional correctness of being told not to bottle-up our problems, and instead wear our proverbial hearts on our sleeves like their late mother, is indicative of where official campaigns to make us talk about our problems can lead.

It seems to me that the new high profile for loneliness instead of being an opportunity to examine the psychological impact of social fragmentation and the breakdown of community that is such a feature of modern life, is instead being used as Laing describes it, to homogenise and gentrify the emotions, and to reduce ‘difficult feelings’ such as ‘depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage’ to a health problem.

Turning loneliness into a mental health problem ignores the positive side to being alone, which more of us are able to experience as a consequence of living longer, more affluent and mobile lives. The experience of leaving home, getting a job or going to university in a new town, used to be exciting prospects full of the promise of independence, money, academic study or wild parties; not, as is increasingly the case, with isolation, emotional and mental health problems, and an excess of introspection. Surely there is something to be said for the quiet and contemplation that comes with solitude; and enjoying one’s own company.

But still we shouldn’t ignore the fact that Individuals have increasingly turned in on themselves as a therapeutic ethos has taken hold. There is a fearfulness of engagement with others, of commitment to relationships; and an absence of a social framework within which to engage with others. The demise of the family, church, workplace, the pub and the working men’s clubs, as places where people can meet, find meaning, socialise and share of themselves is as much a consequence of this as it is its cause. These institutions of the past reflected the way people used to live their lives. It is perhaps only in the creation of new solidarities emerging organically from our attempts to re-engage with each other, that the problem of loneliness will be tackled?

First published in WriteYou