The Politics of Homelessness

1. Context
At the TLA away day on 19th November 2019 I raised the issue of the political and public awareness of the varying circumstances of homelessness, including what leads to it, what are the optimum responses to it, both individually and collectively, what policies are required and how best can political and public awareness be raised. There was a rather inconclusive discussion and I offered to circulate a brief paper to the Board. This is such a paper. It has been somewhat delayed by political exigencies in the meantime. I do not pretend to be an expert or specialist on the issue, only an informed observer concerned to find answers to the visible problem of homelessness and rough sleeping I am hoping that there can be a "package" which can be supported by other organisations in the field and then used as a tool with politicians and the media to raise awareness and effect change..

2. Introduction
2.1 In general there is a simplistic public view of rough sleeping, which to them is the visible evidence of homelessness: just provide hostels or similar places to sleep and then persuade or even make rough sleepers use them. The diverse complexities that make this impossible are not generally known.

2.2 Although there are members of the public who are unsympathetic to the homeless, there is a surprising level of public concern for individuals. By and large my impression is that more passers by than one might expect provide gifts of money or food together with a kind word. An organisation such as TLA needs to help develop and inform this reservoir of concern, particularly as the cost to public and to charitable funds of providing accommodation, employing support staff, combatting addiction and supporting individuals is extremely high. Knowledge of the sums involved would, I feel, if unaddressed, diminish public support for the relatively small number of men and women involved. It is imperative, therefore, to increase public awareness of the importance of provision not only as part of a caring society but also in order that the vulnerable amongst our own families and friends have future provision available as and when relevant.

2.3 In terms of what impinges on the public consciousness, it is the death of a rough sleeper that attracts the public attention and sympathy. They get a great deal of coverage in the local newspapers with comments from those who had had contact with the man or woman. Flowers and tributes are often left at the person's "pitch". The fact that the expectation of life for rough sleepers is around 45 years comes as a shock to the public and affects their perception of the issue.

3. The issues
My comments on the issues will inevitably demonstrate my lack of knowledge of the situation and of current provisions. I'm sure that, apart from a handful of local and national politicians, I am typical of most politicians and am keen to receive comments. It is very much about how the issues get on to the current agenda and are promoted.

3.1 Prevention: I would have thought that preventing individuals becoming rough sleepers is a priority otherwise they may well become accustomed to coping with the hardships and thus more difficult to help. Marital breakdown, domestic circumstances and finance are all triggers and it ought to be possible to publicise help points akin to the Samaritans which a person can contact when suddenly becoming homeless, with short-term emergency accommodation to enable the individual to receive help on how to re-start his or her life. Even on cost-benefit analysis, I would have thought that this would prove less expensive than the eventual task of having to rehabilitate someone who has sunk further into the pit.

3.2 Motivation: there needs to be publicity on the different psychological motivations of rough sleepers. The conditions set out by hostels in regards to pets and on drinking and drug use inhibit many individuals in need from seeking such accommodation. Some rough sleepers do not want any restrictions on how they live and therefore will continue on the street rather than accepting accommodation. The fact that there is a place of some sort for every rough sleeper in Leeds does not mean that all of them will accept it. Christian writers in the 1930s, such as Hugh Redwood and William Smart, wrote unpatronisingly on the camaraderie that exists among groups of rough sleepers. At the same time, in 1930, Don Robins set up St George's crypt as a shelter for the homeless in Leeds and it has improved and continued up to today. It is a well-respected charity in Leeds.

3.3 Changing attitudes: Projects such as the Big Issue have done a great deal to help homeless men and women to change from begging to selling. It gives the sellers a point of contact and conversation with their regular customers. Occasionally this regular contact has led to a seller being offered work. In many cases this has changed the perceptions of the individuals and the other services provided by the Big Issue can help to continue rehabilitation. There are other practical ways of achieving a similar change in mentality. For instance, HSBC has devised a method of making it possible for rough sleepers to open bank accounts, with the participation of a social worker or agency, and this opens other doors to financial assistance. It is also legally possible for homeless people to register and to vote, providing that they have a recognised "pitch" to which literature can be posted. Not only does it give the individual a little more civic status but it also opens the door to them going to an elected MP or Councillor for their help.

3.4 Liaison: different agencies provide different direct services, with the key necessity being liaison between them. Detached workers on the streets with a knowledge of the range of services available and the organisations capable of delivering them are a key front line service. Where they have succeeded in building ongoing links with the individual man or woman they may well be the ongoing link with that individual rather than them being shunted around from one agency to another with a resulting increase in anonymity. These workers may well, together with social workers, develop informal advocacy roles with the authorities on behalf of those known to them. If the individual is amenable to it, they might well seek to identify family members, particularly if the homeless individual is a "missing person." With the co-operation of statutory services, voluntary bodies, such as TLA, have developed a range of facilities for a wide variety of "special" needs, not least drug addiction, alcoholism and prostitution. Help is given in progressing from serviced accommodation and then into supported accommodation and hopefully progressing to independent living. Consistency and continuity is vital in gaining and retaining the confidence of the men and women involved. If, as is often the case with individuals who have fallen out of "normal" living, they have literacy difficulties - which are themselves a hindrance to coping independently - these can be addressed in the kind of accommodation TLA provides.

3.5 Esteem: all too often at the back of the problems a homeless person presents there is a lack of esteem. Our society tends only value skills which can earn money. Human skills such as sport, music, writing, painting and drama, are by no means confined to those with high IQs and an individual's discovery that they have ability in these areas can transform that individual's feeling of self-worth and open other channels to achievement and enable them to climb out of difficult circumstances.

4. Public response
4.1 There is a widespread ignorance on the part of the public as to how best to help "the homeless" and individual rough sleepers on the street, even as to whether it is helpful to give money to them. More public information is needed for the public to inform them as to what they can do individually and collectively. Publicity should be given to the vouchers that can be purchased from St George's Crypt and given to rough sleepers who can exchange them for food and drink.

4.2 Rough sleepers' basic needs can bring tensions with other organisations. The door to the Leeds Library on Commercial Street is set back from the road and therefore has an open area which partially sheltered. Rough sleepers have from time to time occupied the space at night and this has produced problems for the library. Understandably lone female members of staff have been very uncomfortable at being confronted by one or more unkempt rough sleepers on this entrance path when arriving to open up in the morning. The problem is exacerbated by urine deposits and, occasionally, by vomit in the doorway. Library trustees are sympathetic to the plight of rough sleepers but, eventually, felt that they had a duty to members of staff and are in the process of installing a screen which can be rolled down when the building is closed. Are they right? Is there no other solution?

4.3 Is there a way of mobilising individual members of the public who would be prepared to identify themselves as supporters of help being provided to rough sleepers and who could be briefed so as to be better informed, as well as potentially being prepared to offer practical help?

5. Conclusion
5.1 Much of the above can, I am sure, be regarded as naïve and parts of it are no doubt being addressed by existing organisations and services. I am conscious, for instance, that I have conflated "homeless" with "rough sleeper" throughout even though there are key distinctions. Even so, I have endeavoured to set out some of the aspects of homelessness on which I am ill-informed. The question is how best to get the answers across to the movers and shakers. It is one thing to work closely with local and national civil servants and to foster the best and most productive mutual relationships but we need to go beyond that to develop contact with the elected politicians, both Councillors and MPs. We could well start by providing them with a single sheet of practical information on what they can do and what organisations there are [a] to assist with individual casework help for rough sleepers in their ward or constituency, and [b] what policy changes are needed for them to act collectively to alter the law or the Council or Government policy. This latter could well involve TLA and other agencies offering to work with party policy groups developing ideas. We should certainly be offering a contact point for their queries on behalf of constituents.

5.2 There is a key need for developing a holistic briefing on the issue of homelessness and on the ways and means of redressing the inherent problems, in ways which can lead to public debate and discussion. It is certainly not happening at the moment. It will not be easy but I believe that it is important to tackle the prejudices and misconceptions around the issue. Essentially the electors do not vote for their own prejudices but rather for what they are persuaded is the "right thinking" view.

4 February 2020