Skip to main content

The quietly effective must trump shock and awfulness

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 that as the ‘peer landlord’ he organises the house, making sure that it is kept tidy, bills are paid and good relations maintained with the neighbours.

This is an active, purposeful household. Scott has been unemployed for a couple of weeks but is confident that 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, is targeted primarily at 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 who can provide 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 spoke volumes.

I watch our visitor with trepidation, anxious because the very ordinariness of this house poses a problem. She is a potential supporter 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 breaking 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 deliver.

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. To one of our hostels perhaps, or on a shift with one of our street outreach teams. The group of supporters 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 then on the street. The exchanges are liberating for both sides. At the end the visitors feel that they have learnt 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. And 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 with 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 thirty years that I have worked in the social care field the considered, unchallenged view has been that the level of need has increased yet 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….’

This blog was published in Inside Housing 27th July 2012


Jeremy Swain said…
Thanks for your kind words Muthusamy. Will try to keep them coming - but I've got the day job!

Popular posts from this blog

Super-strength lager is a beer for sipping, possibly from a wine glass - and other delusions

Steve was telling me about the delusional behaviour of the drink dependent person – the alcoholic, as he refers to himself. Not, he was quick to point out, a recovered alcoholic. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. In his view, you can’t risk relaxing and then relapsing. You need to be on constant guard. At various times Steve had convinced himself that he could be a normal drinker. He would venture into his local pub and have a pint, then sit there all night trying not to think about a second pint. Having successfully reached last orders, he’d go home satisfied that his consumption of alcohol was under control.  But on the second night he would be the last to leave the pub having drank steadily all evening. By the end of the week, raging at the bar staff for refusing to serve him, his final ignominious departure was often assisted by the police. By now, out of control, he would buy six-packs of super-strength lager to drink at home. He preferred Tennent’s Super altho

Killing with kindness

Much has been written about the psychology of giving, the reasons why we donate to charity and the different triggers that spark acts of generosity, some rational, others visceral. I am particularly fascinated by the impulses that lead us to give money to people begging on the street. In fact, to be candid, I am frequently left incredulous at the justification given for dropping money into that cap next to the sign that says ‘hungry and homeless’. Research indicates that for 90 per cent of people who give, compassion is the motivating factor. So I should not have been surprised that when speaking on BBC radio last week on the subject of begging, the first question was ‘isn’t it counter-intuitive that a homelessness charity is urging us not to give to beggars’? There he is, the homeless man cross-legged beside the cash point, beseeching, grimy, desperate. Do the right thing. A few years ago, one such man attracted the attention of Grant Shapps, then the shadow housing minister,

The Bullshit Detector: Investigating a report into homelessness amongst former armed forces personnel

The Bullshit Detector The Bullshit Detector being an occasional investigation into stories associated with homelessness and social exclusion, with a view to establishing their accuracy and veracity The July 2013 Bullshit Detector ‘Up to 9,000 British heroes who served Queen and country are homeless after leaving the military’ What’s the story? On 21 st July 2013 the Sunday Mirror ran a two-page campaign ‘exclusive’ on the plight of British services personnel leaving the armed forces. The piece was highly critical of the government, claiming the situation has got much worst under the Coalition and, in an accompanying leader, comparing the UK situation unfavourably with that in the United States .   The article centred on two key statistics. Firstly that 1 in 10 rough sleepers ‘across the UK’ had been in the armed forces, with the clear implication being that these are British ex-services personnel who ‘fought on the frontline but now sleep in doorways