Today I met with colleagues from some of the country’s larger homelessness charities, at a gathering organised by Homeless Link, one of our trade bodies. Amongst the themes discussed were those that come up at many meetings I attend these days, including severe funding restrictions, the “race to the bottom” as far as pricing tenders (“the race is over”, said one colleague from an area that has had cuts of over 80% in its Supporting People budget), and the risk to the quality of services.
One issue that struck me was a comment by someone I admire a great deal who said that any discussion around a minimum standard for homelessness services would rapidly become the default position. He spoke of the danger of a provider then going beyond ‘poor’, such as happened with the Winterbourne homes for men and women with learning difficulties.
All providers have their own ‘bottom line’ beyond which they won’t go, but there was a recognition that there are other agencies (not all exclusively in the private sector) who might bid at domiciliary care rates, where ‘support’ is reduced to a mere attendance as workers (inexperienced and untrained), and even volunteers, dash from one appointment to another.
The inevitable consequence will be an erosion of quality, increased turmoil for those with mental health problems, exploitation of those who are vulnerable, anti-social behaviour by some, and (in extreme cases) death through neglect.
The scenario was presented that in these circumstances, workers and volunteers are particularly at risk (a la Jonathan Newby), and clients might be overlooked, possibly with tragic consequences.
What is shocking about the current state of affairs is that, for the first time since 1968 (the year of Cathy Come Home and the setting up of homelessness charities including Shelter and BHT itself), there is no national funding framework. The ring fence for support services was removed by the previous government, and the devolution of funding to local commissioning bodies, is resulting in huge differences in provision across the country.
Notwithstanding the principles of Localism, there are groups of vulnerable people whose well being cannot rely on the vagaries of local funding decisions and where a national safety net is required, not least homeless men and women.
When we have a spate of deaths on the streets, there will be a mad panic to put something in place. Why not do this in a planned and co-ordinated way that will prevent man of these deaths in the first place?
What is clear is that the situation in Brighton and Hove and in East Sussex is so much better than in many places across the country, not least because of the all-party support there has been over the past few years for protecting services for homeless and vulnerable men and women. Long may that continue, particularly in these difficult times.