Ed Vaizey has been in the first tranche of MPs undertaking the Inner City Challenge, and writing a diary of his experience for ConservativeHome.
I’ve finished my placement at the King’s Arms Project, and I’m taking the opportunity of my final post to put down some reflections on my week.
It was absolutely worth doing, that is for sure. I take the point that the whole exercise can appear patronising. For a relatively affluent MP to spend a week with the homeless – and to write about it at the same time – has more than a touch of the “polly toynbees” about it. But having done it, there is simply no better way to gain a better understanding of the problems facing the homeless, and those who seek to help them.
In fact, the first lesson is to stop talking about the “homeless”, and instead talk about Pete, Paul, Courtney, Dan, Michael, Alan, Phil, Elizabeth, Jon and the many others I met and chatted to during the week. As I think I said in an earlier blog, my prejudices were challenged from the start. I went to look at a social phenomenon and met real people instead. I had expected a hostile reception, with a lot of mistrust. Instead, I found all the residents open, honest and engaging.
The second lesson, I think, is that the homelessness is a symptom, not a cause, of the problems faced by the people I met. Quite a number obviously suffer from drug and alcohol problems. Many became homeless through the breakdown in a relationship, and did not have the normal social networks that you and I would take for granted to help them out. Many suffering from drug and alcohol problems do so because of different problems suffered much earlier in their lives. As was made clear to me during the week, even when people are rehoused, they can soon become homeless again. Sometimes they have to “go round the mountain” nine or ten times before they are able to address their underlying issues. To that extent, I do not think that you can eradicate homelessness, only mitigate its effects. Ultimately, the solution lies within the individual.
Of course, at times I felt frustrated. When you are peeling potatoes at 4 in the morning, you can’t help thinking occasionally, “why can’t these people get their act together!”. Perhaps that’s why I probably wouldn’t last long working for a homeless charity! Because the other side of the coin is the remarkable professionalism and patience of the people who work for the King’s Arms Project. Many are young, and they work for peanuts. They are motivated by their religious convictions. They – Zoe, Heather, Mike, Luke, Cherrie, Becky, Tim, Jez and others – are not working, but pursuing a vocation.
You cannot invent something like the King’s Arms Project by Whitehall diktat. It has to come from the grassroots. So the first policy lesson, if you like, is for Government to provide financial support, but as far as possible to leave well alone. Organisations like this need the space to do their work, and I suspect more “formal” organisations such as Government agencies would work a hell of a lot better if the individuals who work for them were given more freedom to pursue solutions they felt worked. This whole approach could be extended to benefits. We all know – and it is true – that people lose benefits if they get married (bonkers!) or if they do more than 16 hours of work a week. If we could find a way of transferring the benefits budget to local organisations, think how much more effective it could be. Creative solutions – such as allowing people to work and receive benefits for a short period – could have a dramatic impact.
One of the most effective aspects of KAP’s work is one-to-one support, run by the remarkable Ali Inwood. KAP receives no Government funding at all for this service, and have no supervision from any local or Government agency. This one-to-one support seems to me to be the key to moving forward in policy terms. One of the great difficulties surrounding the problem of homelessness is the number of organisations involved. For example, an ex-offender leaving prison will deal only with the Probation Service, and not with KAP or any other similar organisation. As a result, they miss out on services that may be able to offer them far more suitable support.
One way that things might change for the better is to turn the system upside down. At the moment, people are put into a category, and then the organisation that deals with that “category” deals with them. I would do it the other way around. Vulnerable people should be given a case worker, who would have complete freedom to deal with any organisation they liked, to tailor solutions that work for them specifically. So an ex-offender, for example, could get a case worker a few weeks before leaving prison. Then, instead of, say, going into a bail hostel, they could go into the hostel that the case worker thought was best suited to their needs.
The level of financial support obviously plays a crucial part in helping organisations like KAP. I do not honestly think that KAP could do more than it already does for the people it works with. I did not get the impression that there was a vital service they could provide if only they had more money. But what is needed is more money for salaries. Even with their motivation, staff turnover runs at about
25%, as workers seek higher paying jobs as they settle down.
I realise that I have only scratched the surface of this issue, but I have got much more of a “feel” for the issue than a hundred short visits to a nightshelter would have given me. There is no substitute for being there, looking, learning and listening, and I hope to do so on a regular basis.