Homeless Link’s new chief executive knows how it feels to ‘desperately try to avoid homelessness’. Can his experiences steady an organisation rocked by the sudden departure of his predecessor and facing a backlash from members, asks Emily Twinch
Source: Jonathan Goldberg
Rick Henderson has a difficult job. As the new chief executive of English umbrella body Homeless Link, he is entering the usually ‘friendly’ world of homelessness charities at a time when the mood is becoming increasingly ugly.
The 500 organisations which make up Homeless Link’s membership have seen the government funding upon which they rely slashed and fundraising dwindle at a time when demand for their services is rising.
Times are tough and Mr Henderson has the responsibility of devising some solutions. For starters the 45-year-old will be divvying out £20 million of the government’s homelessness transition fund to tackle rough sleeping in England - a task that his predecessor never got a chance to get her teeth into.
On that point, his organisation has been subject to criticism over the sudden departure of popular chief executive Jenny Edwards and what some see as its failure to engage with members and act as a campaigning voice for the homelessness sector.
‘[Homeless Link] needs to reconnect with its membership because there’s a danger if it doesn’t it will become a mailing list rather than a membership organisation,’ warns Colin Glover, chief executive of The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields. He suggests there has been a problem with the organisation’s ‘positioning’, adding it needs to ensure it is ‘articulating what the members want and feed back to the government’.
So how does Mr Henderson plan to tackle the growing unrest within his organisation and the sector it represents?
The fact he is prepared to be interviewed in his second week in the job shows he plans to tackle these problems head on.
We meet just after he gives his first speech as the boss at Homeless Link’s annual conference in Warwick. He comes across as an affable man, chatting as we walk towards a Warwick University canteen about the fact it is his birthday and he has yet to speak to his two sons.
Mr Henderson says he believes his background as former chief executive and founder of Action for Advocacy - a charity helping vulnerable and disempowered people - won him the role at Homeless Link.
‘That’s my passion; involvement, inclusion and [giving people] a voice,’ he says.
He also feels his own ‘troubled’ background means he is able to empathise with his members’ clients. A Kent council estate resident until his early teens, Mr Henderson says he started to fall in with a bad crowd before his parents moved him and he was accepted into a Kent grammar school. He says his family were often on the brink of eviction, so he knows how it feels to be ‘desperately trying to avoid homelessness’.
‘It was a constant struggle for my parents to pay the rent and on a number of occasions we were facing eviction,’ he says. ‘Once when I was very young we ended up living in a caravan. There were times when we couldn’t afford to eat.’
During the course of our conversation, Mr Henderson frequently caveats his answers to questions by pointing out he has only just started in the job, so is not fully up to speed on all areas. But he has already formed some strong views. For example, he is in favour of the government’s plans to pay housing benefit directly to tenants - a move many landlords oppose because they fear it could increase rent arrears - but argues people need ‘advice to make informed decisions’.
When questions are raised about Homeless Link’s internal difficulties over the past few months he is unfazed.
At the time of Ms Edwards’ departure, the charity said she was leaving to ‘pursue new opportunities and challenges’. But it is widely understood her exit was the result of a disagreement with Homeless Link’s board. Members of the organisation called for an independent inquiry into her departure and, seven months on, there is still dissatisfaction over the lack of explanation for her disappearance.
Mr Henderson is reluctant to talk about what happened before he joined Homeless Link. ‘I wasn’t there,’ he says matter of factly. But the organisation has said it will not conduct an independent inquiry.
‘There’s been a period since December without a full time chief executive,’ Mr Henderson says. ‘I think we can bring people on board if we have lost anyone in that period.’
‘I can’t change [the past]. I am looking to the future; giving people a reason to engage with Homeless Link. We need to make people feel positive about their inclusion in Homeless Link. Homeless Link should be a unifying force for the sector.’
On this point, it seems Mr Henderson will have his work cut out.
Some Homeless Link members feel the organisation focuses too much on being a conduit for best practice and that it has become too close to the government at a time when they are suffering swingeing cuts to their sources of funding, with some councils cutting their Supporting People budgets by up to 40 per cent. Pressure on services is also rising with a 16 per cent jump in homelessness acceptances from 11,350 in the first quarter of last year to 13,130 from January to March this year, according to Communities and Local Government department figures.
For some members this dissatisfaction with Homeless Link’s performance has moved beyond mere sentiment into action.
Bob Baker, director of homelessness charity The Simon Community, has started up what he calls a ‘self-help’ group, offering a forum where members can discuss and support each other on issues affecting them, because he feels this is something Homeless Link is not offering.
In addition to Mr Baker, the group is made up of the chief executives of four other homelessness charities: Jeremy Swain from Thames Reach, Alison Gelder from Housing Justice, Mick Clarke from The Vincentians and Jon Kuhrt from West London Mission.
‘Had there been an established forum then it would have been the place of Homeless Link to do that and we would not have set up on our own,’ Mr Baker explains. Two meetings have already been held and more are planned. Mr Baker says he would like to see the group start campaigning and lobbying government on issues raised in the sessions.
‘We [in the homelessness sector] should be offering support to ourselves,’ he continues. ‘But the climate is competitive, largely to do with funding. And that leads to suspicion and lack of co-operation.’
The news of this break-away group does not perturb Mr Henderson, who argues that Homeless Link already provides a forum for sharing experiences through its regional meetings.
‘There are five [people] in that group and 15 to 20 go to our meetings. You might find they find a home in their relevant [London] regional [Homeless Link] group,’ he says.
He is still keen on Homeless Link continuing its role disseminating best practice and wants to build on this. But he also wants to keep the ear of the government.
‘It’s easy to lambast government for its failings,’ he says. ‘It’s not so easy to offer solutions that actually work. [Homeless Link’s] success is that it does that.’
One such success is Homeless Link’s research into hospitals discharging homeless people back onto the streets. It published a report in May and on its recommendations Paul Burstow, minister of state for care services, is now asking his department to ensure every hospital has a policy not to discharge people onto the streets.
The government’s forthcoming homelessness strategy will be an interesting first test of Mr Henderson’s ability to please his members. The first draft of the strategy was seen by homelessness organisations in March and received widespread criticism for lacking teeth if councils did not follow recommended actions.
Word in the sector is that the final strategy will be published next Thursday and all eyes will be on the Homeless Link chief to see how he responds if the strategy remains unchanged.
Mr Henderson may not yet have full answers about how he will reconcile the different interests and opinions of his members. But, just a few weeks into the job, he is clear on one thing.
‘It’s difficult to please everybody,’ he concedes. ‘You just do the best you can and look for consensus where you can find it.’
Certainly his pledge to strengthen links with members will endear him to the homelessness charity sector, which is, essentially, still friendly.
What the sector wants from Homeless Link
Alastair Murray, deputy director of Christian homelessness charity Housing Justice, says: ‘I hope Homeless Link will not forget its campaigning past on behalf of those who are homeless and in housing need, rather than presenting government policy.’
He adds about Ms Edwards’ departure: ‘Some sort of explanation or statement would have been helpful.’
Jeremy Swain, who is a relatively new member of Homeless Link’s board, wants the organisation to keep a close relationship with the government so it can offer larger organisations an audience with people in power.
Homeless Link needs to review what it offers organisations and that’s what it’s doing. It needs to make a different offer to larger organisations,’ he adds.