September 20th, 2012 by Mike Barrett
Being asked “why do people become homeless?” is an occupational hazard and I tend to roll out the sound bite answers of relationship breakdown, mental health problems, drug and or alcohol dependency, abuse, leaving care, and being discharged from prison with nowhere to live.
What I really want to talk about is the routes into homeless, which are very complex and usually start at a very early age. Poverty, poor educational attainment, emotional as well sexual and financial abuse, not having any support networks and a society that is basically either too preoccupied with getting back the money it has lost or too frightened to care can all be factors.
The complexities are, as you would expect, difficult to get across in a short interview on the radio for example. These can directly relate to a person’s upbringing and state of mind at the moment of the life-changing event we call homelessness.
“To many of us, the fact that some people will spend many years on the street and sofa surfing is a real surprise.”
Let’s take a closer look. Many who find themselves rough sleeping or “housed” in unsuitable temporary accommodation (B&B, a friend’s sofa, poor quality private rents) sight family or relationship breakdown. To many of us, the fact that some people will spend many years on the street and sofa surfing is a real surprise. These people in the main are the very people Porchlight is here to help. They are discriminated against by legislation that does not recognise them as being in priority need and largely written-off by some in our society as not worth the effort or the cause of their own misfortune.
“…who is the worst parent? I would say the state.”
The most worrying trend is that the numbers of young people approaching us for help is on the increase. Why? Because it is at 16-18 years old or even younger for some, that we fall into the myriad of traps that life can spring upon us. Add to that loss of family support and you’re in real trouble. Vulnerable young people are just that, vulnerable. They are prey to people who want to exploit them for financial gain, either through prostitution, drug addiction, and drug dealing to feed a habit or through exploitation in an unregistered work place. Surely this is not how we would want to treat our children? But unfortunately we do. So in these cases homelessness is a byproduct or structural issue caused by the loss of guidance and support and, let’s not beat around the bush, love. And who is the worst parent? I would say the state. There are more homeless people that have been through the cares system in one form or another than in any other category. The same can be said for our prison population.
“My nightmare is what we do when it comes to making decisions between those we can help and those who we cannot.”
So what can be done to alleviate this immoral and societal-poisoning problem? Prevention sounds simple doesn’t it? But it takes planning, joint working, resources and a hell of a lot of energy. That’s what Porchlight and other charities like us do. However, the welfare reforms and the cuts to other budgets are making this work incredibly difficult. My nightmare is what we do when it comes to making decisions between those we can help and those who we cannot. The specter of the debate between the deserving and undeserving poor raises its head once again. The problem here of course is that I cannot choose. We have to try and help those who are willing to accept our help, that’s why as a charity we spend as little as possible on administration whilst attempting to support our frontline services to deliver the charity’s mission.
But what happens to those who choose not to accept our help? Well, we don’t give up. If we did we would be condemning people who have no support networks, families or friends to utter destitution and isolation. Not to mention shifting the cost of their health support or their imprisonment onto another government budget. Unfortunately we seem to be losing the argument that investment in our work will save much more money further down the road.
The short-term contracts on offer are no solution to the problem, but what else is there? Of course the generosity of the public and some businesses not just in terms of cash but also in relation to volunteering and work experience programs are of enormous help.
“…contrary to popular belief, that is exactly what the great majority of homeless and vulnerable people want, to be given a chance to take part and achieve their ambitions.”
The key ingredient however, is a return to joined up thinking and stability for a sector that is both a safety net and a literal lifeline to those in need of housing and support. If we act collaboratively we will see impacts such as preventing homelessness, connecting homeless people with essential support services and the provision of stable permanent housing of those in real need, so that they can become contributing dignified members of society. Because contrary to popular belief, that is exactly what the great majority of homeless and vulnerable people want, to be given a chance to take part and achieve their ambitions. To become part of mainstream society and this is the key, to give something back to a society that has given them this chance.
So the next time you see a homeless person, please remember that they did not choose the hand they have been dealt, they are simply trying to survive and to scream (as quietly as possible of course) for help. The foundations of their problems were laid years before and surely we all have a moral duty to help?
Mike joined the charity as Chief Executive in 1999. He has worked in housing and social care for nearly 30 years within local authorities, a national supported housing association and the charity sector. Mike is a professionally qualified member of the Chartered Institute of Housing, a Fellow of the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and a member of the UK Housing Panel. He is heavily involved in the supported housing and homelessness sectors regionally. Mike is also a member of Homeless Link's National Advisory Council which meets to discuss the impact of government policy on homelessness.
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