Low-key support can be the most effective way to help homeless people. But would-be sponsors often want to see some drama, says Jeremy Swain
Scott lives in an ordinary house in an unmemorable road in Catford, south London. He shares it with Suleiman and Seyi. The house is immaculately clean and Scott is proud of this as he has special responsibilities within the household. Over tea he explains to me and another visitor accompanying me that as the ‘peer landlord’ he organises the house, ensuring it is kept tidy, bills are paid and good relations are maintained with the neighbours.
This is an active, purposeful household. Scott has been unemployed for a couple of weeks but is confident he will soon find work in the motor industry where he has been employed for most of his life. Seyi works long hours in a West End hotel; Suleiman is a student.
The house has been purchased by Commonweal, a groundbreaking charity supporting housing solutions that tackle social injustice. The house is leased to Thames Reach and the partnership scheme, Peer Landlord London, primarily targets people in low-income jobs.
The peer landlord role is allocated to a tenant with the maturity to take a practical lead in managing the house and providing guidance to the other tenants. The reward is the best room in the house and a financial contribution towards future housing costs, triggered at the point they move on. The relationship between the three men seems quietly respectful. They each get on with their own lives, acknowledging Scott’s special role and unostentatiously supporting each other. Midway through Scott’s explanation Suleiman appears, shyly introduces himself and silently hangs up Scott’s washing lying damp in a basket allowing Scott to continue the conversation, a small act of camaraderie that speaks volumes.
I watch my companion with trepidation, anxious because the very ordinariness of this house poses a problem. She is a potential supporter of Thames Reach and I want her to understand why the commonplace is special.
Fortunately Scott is prepared to speak about the time before he moved into the house, a desperately traumatic period which saw his relationship break up, the loss of his job and home, and a period sleeping rough and staying in shelters. She is genuinely inspired by him and gets it, understanding the benefits of the low-key support that he provides to the other tenants, the positive mutuality of the relationships and the correspondingly limited assistance that Thames Reach is required to provide.
Ah, the dilemma of presentation faced by charities working with the vulnerable and disadvantaged. Invariably, if I want to make an impact on politicians or potential supporters I take them on a visit where need and complexity is obvious and managed drama can intrude to make an impact. I’d take them to one of our hostels perhaps, or on a shift with one of our street outreach teams. The group is led self-consciously around the hostel, meeting residents who very evidently have substance misuse and mental health issues. Then they sit at a table in the dining area and speak at first nervously, then with increasing confidence to people who they seek to avoid when they see them on the street. The exchanges are liberating for both sides. At the end the visitors feel that they have learned something about homelessness in an edgy environment through an exchange described to me by one person as ‘a genuinely authentic experience’.
I accept that this prioritisation is necessary, though it means, regrettably, that some of our most effective services, where the ambience is far more low-key, receive little external recognition. Occasionally I reflect on the public penchant for wanting to support the grim and rudimentary in preference to the merely effective and wonder what impact this has overall on service provision. In my experience the corporate sector similarly has a tendency for having its head turned by a bit of shock and awfulness.
I remember two very clever people from global management consultancy McKinsey asking to meet me as the company wanted to help a homelessness charity. I travelled to their offices in fervent expectation with a list of ways in which their professional skills might help us explore new ways to address unmet need. Alas, the offer they wanted to make was to paint a shelter. I explained that we had replaced our last shelter five years earlier because we wanted to offer homeless people something better but they were implacable in their intent. With regret, I referred them on to a charity still in the business of providing basic dormitory accommodation.
Inextricably linked with the question of what services we provide to a group variously labelled complex, vulnerable or socially excluded is the issue of independence, choice and control. Directly delivering more services to people with needs through the employment of experienced staff is the default approach of provider organisations. And in every one of the 30 years I have worked in the social care field the considered, unchallenged view has been that the level of need has increased further.
But with growing insistence the question has been asked, how can we help people develop their own forms of non-institutional support or, as the admirable John Hamblin from the Shekinah Mission challengingly puts it, how can individuals benefit from services without having to become ‘service users’? Should we seek to actually reduce the services we directly manage, to adopt a shrink strategy perhaps? Dear reader, I can see that sceptical look on your face, ‘yeah, right’ you are thinking, ‘meanwhile back on planet Earth…’
Jeremy Swain is chief executive of Thames Reach