Enabling people to take more control of their lives, by Steve Wyler

Last year I joined the Board of a small charity called Groundswell. The way it works is simple.  Volunteers act as health ‘advocates’ for homeless people. They accompany them to their appointments with GPs, dentists, and hospitals. And they provide encouragement along the way. 

If things get difficult, if for example a homeless person is anxious or angry, or if receptionists or health professionals are less helpful than they should be, the advocate is at hand and can help put things back on track.

This is good for everyone. Homeless people get the medical care they need, and they get it early enough, before things get really bad. It is also good for the NHS, which saves money on ambulance and A&E services and on expensive preventable treatments. More and more Clinical Commissioning Groups are seeing the light and commissioning the service, and that has to be a hopeful sign.

But to my mind the most important thing is that the volunteer ‘advocates’ are all people who have themselves been homeless. They’ve been there. They know what it is like. They needed help themselves in the past. And now that their lives are a bit more stable, they have the opportunity to give something back. And obviously, that is good for them too.

Now, I am not saying that Groundswell is the perfect organisation, or has all the answers. That would be nonsense. But what it does is so simple, so effective, and feels so obviously right, that it has made me think, why is this kind of opportunity for homeless people so rare? Is it because few homeless people would want to ‘give something back’, given the right encouragement?  Not at all, in my experience. So what is getting in the way?

Is it something about the behaviour of the homeless charities themselves? Have they, despite their best intentions, become a barrier?

In the early 1990s I was working with charities tackling rough sleeping on the streets of London. The numbers were rising sharply, and there were hundreds of people living (and in some cases dying) in appalling conditions in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in the ‘bull-ring’ at Waterloo, along the Strand, and in other places.

As the numbers of people living on the streets grew, so too did the homelessness industry. Charities and housing associations lobbied successfully for public funds for emergency shelters, for day centres, for specialist care hostels, for ‘move-on’ housing, for ‘resettlement’ workers, for advice centres, for skills and employment programmes. I know, I was part of that lobbying effort.

Of course, much good was done. Many thousands of people were helped to survive, to put their lives back on track, more or less, or to end them with dignity.

And yes, there has been progress. The brutal large-scale hostels which dominated the scene in the 1970s and 1980s are long gone. The advances in co-ordination among street outreach agencies, including data sharing, have been impressive, and ‘no second night out’ for those new to the streets has become the norm rather than the exception. And when, in recent years, large numbers of destitute migrant workers from Eastern Europe ended up living rough, the charities proved adaptable, helping many to return safely to their own countries.

But still the flow of people onto the streets continues. And once someone acquires the label ‘homeless’ it seems as hard as ever to shake it off. Many who previously experienced life in institutions (care homes for young people, psychiatric wards, the armed forces, prison) now find themselves in institutional settings once again. Unwell, impoverished, caught in the benefits trap, treated as dependent, demoralised, written off again and again, thousands of ‘homeless people’ are simply stuck in the system. 

And many of the leading charities, despite their fine mission statements, and despite the commitment and compassion of so many of their staff and volunteers, have allowed this state of affairs to continue.   

Why? Because they put organisational survival first. They went all out for contracts, regardless of the consequences: an imposed regime of unit costs, performance targets, payment by results. And so ended up dancing to the tune of funding bodies, and limiting the truly productive work they could do.

At the same time, organisational survival required higher and higher levels of demand to justify the scale of their operations, and so preventative work, never a strong theme, dropped right down the agenda.

‘Campaigning’ in recent years seems to mean less and less about changing the system, and more and more about marketing and fundraising. Selling images of hopelessness, employing agencies to do pretty well whatever it takes to keep the donations rolling in.

Of course there are always people, many working at the front line, who will do the right thing, even breaking the rules if necessary. But organisational self-interest makes doing the right thing much harder than it should be. 

In many charities, the idea that, despite all the difficulties they face in their lives, ‘clients’ themselves have capabilities, possess aptitude, can be resourceful, can acquire skills, all of which they can draw on to help themselves, and also to help others, is too often given no more than lip-service.

Why is this? Is it because ultimately it serves the interests of some charities to maintain people within the system, rather than helping them move out of it?  And therefore to continue to label people as ‘a homeless person’, a ‘client’, a ‘service user’, with all that implies?

The alternative, helping people discover ways to live a life where none of these labels would be relevant any more, is never easy, especially when people have been damaged by their past experiences. But it is possible, as the example Groundswell so clearly demonstrates.

And I know that there are many charities, in the homeless sector and beyond, who like Groundswell, really do believe in helping people to ‘take more control of their lives’, and are trying hard to make this a reality in their everyday work. 

Does that feel like a ‘Better Way’? It does to me.

Steve Wyler is co-founder of A Better Way and an independent consultant and writer in the social sector. From 2000 to 2014 Steve was Chief Executive of Locality (previously the Development Trusts Association), bringing together local organisations dedicated to community enterprise, community ownership, and social change. In the early 1990s, he ran Homeless Network, co-ordinated the Rough Sleepers Initiative in London, and set up Off the Streets and into Work.