Last night I spoke in a debate organised by the Brighton and Hove Fabian Society. We debated the proposition: “Is Brighton and Hove’s homeless community best served by the numerous diverse agencies working with the homelessness?” Here are a few points I made:
Are there too many homelessness charities in Brighton and Hove? And are homeless men and women best served by having so many? I think the answers are ‘yes’ to the first, ‘no’ to the second.
When BHT was set up in 1968 our founders would have been appalled to think that we would still be needed in 2014, and that our services are needed as much today as they ever have been.
There are almost three dozen organisations working with homeless men and women in the city, a far cry from those early days. On a positive note, it means that clients have wider choice, and if one of us is providing a service that is not wanted or is not effective, clients will vote with their feet. It also means that there is less chance of an individual falling through a gap in services.
I have five main concerns about the plethora of homelessness charities in the City.
The first is the matter of standards. Are all charities working to the highest possible ethical and professional standards? Frankly one or two do not. Some still choose to go it alone rather than working in partnership with the rest of us. They don’t share information and there have been occasions when ethical standards have been woefully lacking.
Secondly, and this is probably my main concern, are all organisations working to end homelessness rather than sustain people on the streets? Every time a new charity is set up, or a church starts a new project, it works at the most basic level, often helping to sustain people to stay on the streets rather than being focused on moving them away from homelessness.
We have lots of ladders for homeless people in Brighton and Hove, but too many only have the bottom rung! It’s almost as if they are saying “Let’s keep homeless people in their place so we can continue to do our good works”.
The third concern links to that last point about moving people from homelessness and into work. There is the lack of ambition by some charities and some workers, a lack of ambition for our clients.
Too many are comfortable applying a label to a homeless person, and they aren’t working to remove the label.
Because of my class background, my status, my financial security, my personal support structures, it is very unlikely that I will be the person knocking on the door needing help, but I could be. If it is me, if it is you, if it is one of our loved ones, I want someone doing more than providing me or you with a mere cup of soup and a cheese roll. I would want nothing less than them pulling out all the stops to get us as far away from the streets as possible, and as quickly as possible.
The fourth concern relates to the cost of running all these charities. Each will have its own overheads, its separate premises, its senior staff. Through a rationalisation of the sector, savings could be made and the cuts we are all experiencing could be mitigated meaning that reductions in front line delivery could be avoided.
My final concern relates to complacency. Too many charities have too much invested in homelessness as an industry. Being inspired to help the poor, the needy, the homeless is one thing, but I have to ask “where is the righteous anger that in this day and age, in the seventh richest country in the world, in one its wealthiest cities, we have 130 men and women sleeping on the streets, and an ever increasing numbers turning to food banks to sustain themselves?”
The Latin American priest, Dom Helder Camara, once said: “When I feed the hungry they call me a saint. When I ask why they are hungry, they call me a communist”. As a representative of a charity I can’t be party political, but I can and will ask why are they hungry, why are they homeless. I will speak out when I think policy is failing, and I will praise when praise is due, in equal measure, without fear or favour.
My ambition is to see the end of homelessness services, because we, as a civilized, decent, compassionate society, has put an end to homelessness, once and for all.
Sadly, I don’t think I will see that in my lifetime.