Wednesday 25 February 2009

Living Arrangements

Now, when most people hear the term Day Centre for young homeless people, they automatically picture a building with lots of dishevelled young people ensconced in tattered and frayed sleeping bags, shivering from exposure to the elements with elderly Christian ladies bringing them cups of tea and sandwiches. In this image, kindly, altruistic people give the poor wretches a minimum and basic level of sustenance before they are flung out into the vagaries of the night. Our day centre is nothing like this.

In fact, since Labour came to power there are very few homeless people sleeping rough each night in England. According to government statistics, in the twelve month period up to June 2007, there were under five hundred people sleeping rough throughout England on any given night. These statistics are roughly reliable in that each local council as well as local homeless charities keep count of the rough sleepers in their districts. So far, of all the young people I’ve been working with, only two are actually without any form of secured accommodation. So, if we are a centre for young homeless people, but there are very few homeless people in the city, then just whom do we work with you may ask?

Our service users living arrangements can be broken down in to several categories. There are those who live in homeless hostels run by the council and in which they have a Project worker or key worker who apparently helps and assists them in improving their lives. I’ve seen little of evidence of that so far.

Then there are those who live in supported housing*, funded by the government and where again they have a keyworker. These keyworkers will assist the young person in filling in his benefit forms and informing him or her of their benefit entitlements. They will also create “action plans” in order to try to motivate the young person in to work or education and in many cases away from crime.

In either a council run hostel or a supported housing unit the young person will have his own room and bathroom and will have to share a kitchen with at the most three or four others. All of the young people tell me that they have spacious, heated rooms and that they think their accommodation is more than comfortable. They basically live in complexes or buildings that consist of many large bed sits. The majority of our young people that live in supported housing or hostels do not work and so the council pay their rent in the form of housing benefit.

Then there are the unfortunates who bed down each night in one of the local night shelters where they get a bed in a dormitory full of many unsavoury and disturbed characters. Very few of our service users fall into this category and those who do usually end up in supported housing before too long.

Next are those who have council flats or are living in B&Bs until the council house them. This category of our service users are all being accommodated by the local council under the Homelessness Act (Priority need order 2002 for England). In order to be considered as a “priority need” by the council, you must be considered vulnerable under the criteria of the aforementioned order. The council will automatically deem you to be vulnerable if you are 16-17 and/or pregnant with no fixed abode. Other groups who may be deemed as vulnerable and given “priority need” status are people with physical or mental health issues and this can include alcoholics and drug addicts.

After ascertaining that the vast majority of our service users are more than satisfactorily accommodated in living quarters by the state, I am somewhat confused as to our ostensible aim of helping and supporting the homeless. Common sense informs me that only those who are crashing in a night shelter or living on the streets should really qualify for our service. I decide to have a chat with my manager about this.

As usual, Agnes is hiding in the small and cramped office where she whittles away the days chain smoking and avoiding any meaningful contact with the service users, members of staff or reality. In fact, when any of the young people ask her questions she tells them that they must ask one of the volunteers or me as it isn’t her job. I enter the office and interrupt her rolling up a cigarette and surfing the Internet.

“Agnes, I was just wondering are you aware that most of our service users are, in fact, not homeless?”

She frowns at me with a mixture of curiosity and confusion. So, I explain to her all the different types of accommodation in which our service users now reside.

“Basically, only those in the night shelter or the two rough sleepers who come here could be considered homeless.”

“ Well Winston, technically they are all homeless in that none of them are in permanent accommodation (see government report 2003, More Than A Roof to see where this idea emanates from) And also the majority of them have to endure supported housing and so they will have to abide by rules and their freedoms will be curtailed, so technically that’s nothing like your own home.”

“Hmmm, I actually completely disagree Agnes with your definition of homelessness. So what if they don’t own their accommodation. Plenty of people rent property, they aren’t homeless. Actually, you rent, are you homeless? Agnes everyone has to abide by rules and everyone’s freedoms are curtailed to some extent. Supported housing is free and they have to have rules in those places as they accommodate lots of young people. The fact of the matter as far as I can see is that we are allowing able bodied young people who have somewhere to live paid for by the state to sit around all day and not be expected to do something to get off benefits. What we are doing is enabling them to stay stuck in the situations they are in by giving them somewhere to hide from reality. Anyway, some of them even have their own council flats surely you can’t argue they are homeless?”

“ Well, those who have their own flats use here as they have a tenancy support worker or keyworker** as they may be vulnerable to not being able to maintain their tenancy. Now Winston, you need to remember that we offer a compassionate, non judgemental and client centred service. All this anger is about you and your value systems not being able to cope with their dysfunctional lifestyles. It might help if you realise that these are very sick people who have had hard lives. Most important of all, you need to remember that people change only when they are ready and not when you think they should. They are all on their own journeys.”

Huh? I don’t know what the hell she’s on about so I let her have the last word. Who am I to argue with the wisdom of Agnes this modern day Confucius? After all she has honed this philosophy about our service users from years of experience of avoiding contact with them. The truth of the matter is that without this centre existing for all these young people her £25,000 a year job would be gone. If she agreed with me her own job would become obsolete, as we would be sitting in a centre with more staff than service users. It’s in her own interest to view people who have free bed-sits and flats as homeless deprived victims.

*Supported Housing: a bedsit or flat in a complex where all your bills and rent are paid from Housing Benefit and a small supplement from your other benefits. A place where you have a personal assistant to sort out your benefits for you. A condition of living there (one that’s not enforced) is that you make an effort to seek work or train. Placing a dosshouse, I mean charity, five minutes from the local Supported Housing project undermines their goal of getting young people in to work/college/training.

**Tenancy support workers/Keyworkers/Project Workers are employed by the local councils, housing associations, charities and branches of government. I will soon be working as one in the public sector. They assist people to maintain their tenancies. They do this in a variety of ways. They introduce young people to the concept of paying for something i.e. rent. They then inform them that the council will pay this if they have no job. None of our regulars do. In many cases the tenancy support worker will have to fill in the housing benefit forms for the young person as otherwise they wont bother or they will just forget to submit it. Why would they take responsibility for themselves when there is some other mug to do it? A tenancy support worker’s role is very similar to that of a housing officer or a keyworker in a housing association. Many of these jobs are interchangeable and they are helping to perpetuate the dependency culture that is pervasive in modern Britain, as this blog will reveal.


Boy on a bike said...

Please keep up the blogging - this is great.

OK, maybe the situation is not great, but you writing about it is great.

Jahbish said...

Are there really under 500 people sleeping rough in britain on any one night? It's nearly 10 years since I lived in England but I find this figure hard to believe.

Winston you appear to hold strong views around the 'taxpayers' position in the apparent mess that is social/community support services. I am just wondering if your main bone of contention is taxpayers money being wasted on ineffective services per se or that the supports paid for by the taxpayer act as a disincentive for people to try to improve their lives / change their circumstances and are actually exacerbating or at least playing some role in the social malaise you rightly refer to? I am curious because I feel the taxpayer dimension in general is often presented in far too simplistic terms in these types of debates.

Also I presume the homeless services sector in Engalnd (if I can call it that) is now driven by the "at risk of homelessness" approach which in my view is a dangerously broad approach and is probably why so many people who are no more homeless than I am are accessing homeless-related services.

Anne said...

You're making this up aren't you? Agnes can't have been smoking at work.

WinstonSmith33 said...

Hi Jahbish,

The 500 figure was gotten from government statistics. Its probably a a bit more than that but thats the number they have come up with and I would say its more or less right. The government under Labour have done a lot to help roughsleepers.

Yes my gripe is with the the waste of taxpayers money and not the spending of it per say. And yes there are a lot of people who are in no way homeless accessing services they dont need and often dont wanrt. The entire social and welfare system in Britain encourages dependency on the state. Hopwever, inequality also has a part to play.

cartermagna said...

I don't like this blog at all.

It's not the style of writing or the points you make, both of which are top drawer. It's not that I don't believe you either, I am fully aware that it goes on and I'm on first name, if not civil terms with a number of 'clients' in my home town.

It's the subject matter. Classic case of the road to hell being paved with good intentions etc.

I shall be back to read more when my blood temperature has reached safe levels.

Keep up the good work.

fleck said...

Sofa surfers - who you haven't covered and who, as I understand it aren't covered within "homeless" counts are of particular concern though. They don't have a safe home, they've enough friends (for now) not to sleep on the streets and they dip under the radar. I wonder if you have encountered this since you first entered this sector and started blogging it?