I started working for BHT 25 years ago today. I hope you will forgive me for posting something more lengthy than usual: my reflections on BHT, what we are here to do, and the need to increase the pace and scale of change for the benefit of our clients.
BHT’s Mission (“combating homelessness, creating opportunities, promoting change”) doesn’t go back quite 25 years, but it continues to provide a neat summary of what we are about. Or does it? We have recently reviewed the Mission and what we mean by it, and fresh challenges have emerged, not least because of the economic and social policy changes we are facing.
In his speech in Downing Street, immediately after being asked to form a government, David Cameron said he aimed to “help build a more responsible society here in Britain… those who can should and those who can’t, we will always help. I want to make sure that my government always looks after the elderly, the frail, the poorest in our country”.
Since that speech, government ministers have emphasised the message that individuals ‘who can’ are expected to take responsibility for addressing their situation and for moving from dependency on benefits and into work. Measures are being put in place to put pressure on claimants to seek work. The change to housing benefit eligibility is an obvious and high profile measure that the government seems determined to implement in spite of wide-spread opposition.
There are some proposals which I, personally, welcome and endorse. The government is determination to tackle drug problems. Those with drug problems will have to engage in treatment or they will lose their benefit entitlement. I have some serious concerns about this, but not so the treatment model that Ministers are promoting. They have instructed the National Treatment Agency to “champion abstinence”, a 180 degree change from that of the previous government where stabilisation and harm minimisation was the objective. This is a policy change that I, personally, have advocated for more than a decade and one which I warmly welcome.
I believe that if we are to see lasting change for those with addictions, achieving abstinence is not the end goal, it is merely the starting point for a transition to normal living.
The services provided by BHT remain as relevant as ever, and the need is likely to increase. What each service seeks to achieve will need to be reviewed, partly in light of the changing social policy and financial environment, but mainly because regular reviews are the right thing to do.
BHT must retain and enhance its reputation of ‘doing difficult’, working with homeless men and women, including those with complex needs, and we must retain our ability to work with people where they are at. But we must also ensure that by emphasising the vulnerabilities and problems experienced by some of our clients, we do not ‘ghettoise’ all clients. Many of our clients are in housing need simply because of the lack of affordable housing. As my colleague John Holmström continually reminds me, we must put housing back into homelessness!
BHT recognises that there is a genuine shortage of affordable and social housing and that alternate provision is required to meet housing needs of our clients through the private rented sector. Securing social housing for our core client group is becoming a less achievable outcome and will remain so, at least during the lifetime of this parliament. Councils are using new legal freedoms to give people with a job an advantage over unemployed people when it comes to gaining social housing. Already Manchester, Rochdale, Newcastle, Barnet, Uttlesford and Westminster (who between them manage almost 86,000 homes) are amongst those who plan to give people in work or training priority in the allocation of social housing.
BHT’s current policy is to campaign for greater provision of social housing. While we will continue to argue the case for public investment into bricks and mortar, in the current environment our clients are likely to be best served by increasing access to the private rented sector. In doing so we will need to be upfront and honest with our clients that social housing is not likely to provide a solution to their housing need. We need to ensure that they are focused on preparing themselves for housing in the private rented sector and all that that entails. If our clients are able to secure social housing, that will be a bonus.
BHT creates opportunities and circumstances that will increase the potential for clients to be housed, undertake training and education, and secure employment since poverty is a major reason for homelessness and ill health. In the current environment, our clients will not thrive if they opt out of engaging in rehabilitation, training and employment opportunities. Our staff must ensure they motivate clients to actively engage with this approach, and they should spell out the consequences of ‘opting out’ in terms of housing opportunities and future welfare benefit entitlement.
We must ask if we trap people with their labels, get people identified by their problem. Do we inadvertently create ‘ghettos’ by reinforcing the problem by providing services that might suggest that mainstream services are for others? Do we have the right attitudes, culture and expertise to ensure that clients have ambitions, and that those ambitions are meaningful and achievable? And do we nurture hope and aspirations within our clients?
On the whole I think we are doing ok and in some areas very well, but there are some areas and individuals who may argue that clients have a right, for example, not to address their alcohol or drug problem, who will excuse a failure of a resident to pay rent, or who will focus on a ‘counselling approach’ at the expense of housing, training and employment solutions. I believe that should such attitudes or work practices exist, they need to change.
‘Combating homelessness’ and ‘creating opportunities’ are fairly straightforward concepts. Not necessarily so with ‘promoting change’. Most, if not all, staff would support the concept of ‘change’, and BHT does some inspirational work in facilitating change for our clients, but we now need to go to the next level by being clear exactly what “promoting change” means. There may be a few who would qualify a commitment to change with “only if that is what the client wants” or “but clients have the right not to change”. What the client wants or does not want should not be the defining factor for us. We have a moral duty to work in the best interest of the client and clients as a whole. True advocacy requires the advocate to spell out what is best; it is not merely giving a voice to a client’s wishes regardless of how unachievable or non-sustainable such wishes are.
I believe that the pace and scale of change can and must be increased, firstly, because it is right for our clients and, secondly, because of the prevailing economic and social policy imperatives that have emerged following the 2010 general election. There should be an expectation that staff ‘drive’ change. The concept ‘promoting change’ is not passive. In doing so we must equip clients to manage their problems and to sustain progress made.
Whatever our views are of the approach of the Coalition Government, those “who can” who remain dependent on welfare benefits and state support will find fewer opportunities (accommodation, benefits, etc.) and a more ‘coercive’ approach from government. We must prepare our clients for this reality. There needs to be a sense of urgency about this agenda.
During the remainder of 2010/11, we need to review our approach to ‘change’, its scale and pace, and put in place new policies and approaches should they be required.
There are a number of issues that will need to be explored further. For example:
- How can we understand the difference between ‘can’t change’ and ‘won’t change’, and how we should continue to work with clients in each group? We don’t want to create new classes of excluded men and women.
- How should we position ourselves regarding choices and consequences? For example, with rents, should we only support move on if someone has no arrears, or no arrears for 3 or 6 months, etc.? This is a real client-centred approach where we treat them in the real world, not in some cotton-wool world.
- What can we expect, even demand, from clients when considering what is “for the greater good”?
How we do this must be left with individual services, but I am giving out a clear message that we need to increase the pace and scale of change. It is a message that should be welcomed by most, not least because the greater the change, and the sooner it happens, can only be good for our clients. BHT, its staff and supporters have a lot to be proud of, and we can be excited about the difference we will be making to the lives of our clients for the next 25 years.