Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Solving homelessness; novelty gestures, manipulation or housing activism

Novelty gestures

Special vending machines, reverse advent calendars, so called 'tiny houses' and attempts to squat and set up encampments for homeless people on derelict land, coats tied onto lampposts etc. These are examples of the 'novelty gesture' approach to solving homelessness. In some ways they're a bit like the old soup runs/ soup kitchens but they're way more fun and they generate much better social media content.

Image result for coats tied to lampposts for homeless people
Homelessness in the UK is at critical level and continuing to worsen. It's an acknowledged fact that there is a very serious housing crisis and that the entire housing market is broken from the perspective of millions of working class people, especially younger people. Real people are dying and real families are being torn apart. So does this model have what it takes?

Image result for tiny houses homelessAbsolutely not. This response continues in the tired old tradition of charity designed to make dire poverty feel slightly more tolerable but lacking any ambition to change the fundamental situation. At it's worst practitioners of the 'novelty gesture' approach limit their involvement to one off random outings where homeless people are not even consulted on what they want or need in any way.

The first vending machine for the homeless, set up by the charity Action Hunger in the Broad Marsh Shopping Centre, Nottingham. The real goals of this approach are to: get rid of waste food and old clothing, make givers feel better about themselves and provide them with the experience of a little adventure. Whether the practice is illegal - such a squat or handing out food against the wishes of local authorities or whether it's all permitted and above board makes no difference, it's simply not effective, doesn't really set out to change anything and only succeeds in treating homeless people like pet projects and receptacles for waste.

Image result for food not bombsThrowing spare change into a hat was never going to solve the housing crisis, neither was setting homeless people to work selling magazines or getting them to eat copious amounts of soup. And that's because, if we're all honest, they're not even vaguely intending to.


What about manipulating people into changing their behaviour so they make correct life decisions? Could this solve homelessness? This is the basis of most of the professional work done with homeless people in the UK. Again, no. However it's dressed up it's a way of blaming individuals for being the victims of systematic problems and cajoling them into doing things that commissioners of services find acceptable.

Maybe if homeless people would take more responsibility, maybe if homeless people would learn to be more independent, maybe if homeless people would stop drinking alcohol or taking drugs? Maybe it would turn out that there wasn't really a housing crisis after all, it was just a growing number of lazy stupid people who couldn't get their shit together all along and they could have had somewhere to live if they'd just put the effort in.

No. That's not the one. It's not setting out to solve homelessness. It does nothing to make housing more accessible, or affordable or to win more security for tenants... it just sets up hoops for people to jump through in order to help ration what little housing is available for the very poor.

Housing Activism

Housing activism is different:

  • Treat the crisis of homelessness as a housing issue - soup can't fix it. 
  • Treat housing as a right - stop trying to work out who deserves it. 
1. First of all you can't have the people you're trying to help dying on you. Homeless people's average age of death in the UK is around 47. You also need to beat that crappy idea that people need to hit some kind of 'rock bottom' before they'll accept help. Rock bottom is often death, even if it's not it's just letting people fall further into the abyss making the journey out that much harder and longer. People who are traumatised and suffering from extreme depression or anxiety or other issues are not some how magically going to say - "okay I guess the only way is up from here!". It just hurts people so you do need to start with meeting some immediate needs - food, clothing, basic shelter, safety. But's it's got to be well organised and reliable and involve the homeless people in planning and operationally.

(If you feel I've slated your good work above under the 'novelty gesture approach' try thinking about what you're doing as 'step 1 housing activism' instead. You may need to think about how you can make some tweaks to make it more reliable and include the intended recipients in what you're doing but that's achievable right? - I encourage you not to stop there though, could you go on to step 2 below or link up with others who are attempting it?)

2. Step 2 is case work. Even under the existing system people do have some rights. Some people have a right to housing from their local authority, some evictions are illegal but does everyone who is a victim of this housing crisis know exactly where they stand? No. You can learn the ins and outs of homelessness and housing law. You can find out what help people are owed, you can understand the codes of guidance that local authorities work from, how case law has impacted on the way the system works. You can find out what landlords can and can't do, you can advise tenants getting into difficulties how to avoid being chucked out. You can offer to go along to court with people, you can even start calling yourself a 'legal advisor' if you get confident enough (since it's not a protected term like 'solicitor'. 

3. Finally, you've got to campaign to change the system. You know how to maximise people's ability to get what they need out of the current system but is it enough? No it is not. We need:
  • A mass social housing building programme - now.
  • Unions of tenants beating back landlord tyranny.
  • Legislation that recognises the fundamental right to suitable, safe, affordable accommodation for all. 
This is the answer to homelessness.