The homelessness sector needs to take stock to tackle the challenges ahead, says Rick Henderson
News headlines when it comes to homelessness make grim reading. With the recession, demand for help has rocketed. The number of people accepted by councils as homeless rose by 14% in 2011, while official rough sleeping estimates increased by a fifth. At a time when many homeless charities are running at full capacity, six out of every ten projects also reported having their public funding cut last year.
Given this, it might seem like a strange time for the umbrella body for homeless charities to launch a debate to review how, as a sector, we can help prevent and tackle homelessness.
Having recently joined the sector as the new chief executive of Homeless Link, I may have thought this too, if I had not already witnessed the amazing work of homeless services and lively discussions amongst our members and service users about the need to stand back and take stock.
Services that support homeless people share a common ambition – that whenever possible the right help should be in place to prevent someone from becoming homeless. No one should live on our streets and anyone who has been homeless should get the support they need to take control of their future.
In 2010, we set out the steps we believed society needed to take to realise this ambition. But a lot has changed in two years, which the grim headlines reflect. As well as fuelling a rise in homelessness, the recession and accompanying ‘Deficit Reduction Programme’ has diminished the help available.
If this was not enough, there’s a very real potential for things to get worse in 2013. Many areas face an accommodation crisis, which means that hostels are filling up with nowhere for clients to move onto and less help available for people who find themselves homeless.
The government has also embarked on one of the biggest reforms of welfare in a generation. No one is certain about the full impact this will have but it could conceivably add further to homeless numbers.
The next comprehensive spending review is also imminent. The government is unlikely to abandon austerity anytime soon and the homelessness sector will have to compete with many other causes calling for continued investment.
However, while it is likely that homeless services will continue having to do more with less, it is also likely that we will come up with new ways to have an even greater impact.
And here’s why. Since joining the sector I have been impressed by what many services already achieve and the real thirst for continued innovation.
Homeless charities don’t just provide many of society’s most vulnerable with a roof. They also deliver a host of other services that support individuals to regain their independence but for which they are often unrecognised.
What has also stood out is the strong evidence base that exists for the causes of homelessness - mental ill-health, early childhood trauma, alcohol and drug dependency and experience of institutions such as prison to name but a few. As well as the many opportunities that could prevent homelessness but which are often missed.
If the homeless sector is to continue to do so much in the face of so many threats then we have to take stock. How do we make sure that services are targeted at individuals who are most at risk and most in need? How can we make preventing homelessness everyone’s business, engaging health, criminal justice and other professional groups? What is the best way of helping people to rebuild a life away from homelessness? How can we ensure that funding for homeless people is safeguarded and delivers choice and control to clients? What are the policies that government needs in place nationally and locally?
With a general election due in 2015 this debate is timely and I urge you to take part. With a refreshed plan we’ll be better placed to make the case for investment in the right services and right policies to help prevent and tackle homelessness.
Rick Henderson is the chief executive of homelessness organisations’ membership body Homeless Link.