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We are not powerless

Last week I attended a ‘round table’ discussion with the Employment Minister Esther McVey. Around the inconveniently long rectangular table were familiar faces - other chief executives and civil servants from the Department for Work and Pensions. The minister responded thoughtfully to proposals about how job centres and agencies could work together more effectively. From some colleagues in the room there was unrestrained frustration that we had been here before and little had changed.  I left the meeting in a pensive mood, unconvinced that we had got our messages home. There was a depressing familiarity about the construction of our case and the tone in which it was delivered. Despite some constructive suggestions, our stance centred on the dual assertions that things are as dreadful as they have ever been and that much of what is happening is beyond our capacity to affect.

There are times when it feels that acknowledging a government policy is working effectively is an unforgivable apostasy. I remember a meeting with the shadow Housing Minister when we were each in turn asked to comment on whether we considered there to be a homelessness crisis. Each participant dutifully corroborated the view that the homeless had never had it so bad and that the lack of affordable housing meant that we hadn’t seen the half of it. One contributor chose to break rank, claiming that it was a mixed picture and spoke positively about some of the approaches to tackling rough sleeping and improved support for the most vulnerable. An uncomfortable shifting of chairs followed and looks were exchanged.

As I departed I heard one of the invited academics making their views plain to the deviant. The message was, keep to the hell in a handcart narrative or don’t bother showing up. The year when this meeting took place was 2004. Rough sleeping figures were stable and in the previous year the national Supporting People budget had, to the consternation of the Treasury, been established at £1.8 billion. These days of the early noughties are now viewed as a golden age to which, according to sages of the present time, we will never return.

This is not to dispute that there is much to be despondent about, or that homeless people require staunch advocates who, on their behalf, are prepared to hold the government to account. But an approach that doggedly refuses to acknowledge successes or isn’t sophisticated enough to reflect on shades and variations lacks credibility and will fail to convince opinion-formers and the public. Some will see it as self-serving; an attempt by the ‘homelessness industry’ to protect its role and status.  Even more disturbingly, making it an article of faith that these are the worst of times may even lead us into unquestioningly believing this to be true. Consciously or unconsciously, we avoid objectively considering information that challenges this assumption.

The impact of the recession plays perfectly into the hands of the pessimistic fatalists. Who can deny that the last few years have been brutally difficult for homeless people and – damn it – the havoc is being wreaked by a tidal wave of economic forces outside our control.  Yet is it really this simple?

Firstly, the statistics paint a more complex picture than we might assume. Here is one that gives pause for thought. The statutory homelessness statistics show that in the period July to September 2008, before the recession had really hit, there were 72,130 households in temporary accommodation. In comparison, recently released figures covering October to December 2013 show just 59,930 households in temporary accommodation. There have been twists and turns over the five years that separate them, but it remains the case that when I bring statistics such as these to the attention of colleagues they are incredulous as they so starkly challenge the established narrative.

Secondly, blaming an event over which we feel we have little control unintentionally permits the avoidance of individual culpability by decision-makers and plays directly into the hands of our politicians who create the impression that the particular measures they are taking are not optional and unquestionably necessary.

One set of commentators who have resolutely refused to succumb to a simplistic approach are the researchers who produce the excellent Homelessness Monitor funded by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which remorselessly tracks the impact on homelessness of economic and policy developments. The picture they paint of the impact of economic pressures and government responses is grim but nuanced and their conclusions measured and verifiable. 

Most importantly, they refute the notion that the devastating impact of recession on homeless people is inevitable, noting that ‘policy factors have a more direct bearing on levels of homelessness than the recession in and of itself’.  Thus, there are choices to be made about how to respond to homelessness and specific implications associated with the policies pursued.      

After the meeting with the Employment Minister one participant, new to such gatherings and more optimistic that most e-mailed me to ask whether, in my opinion, anything ever happens after an event like this. My response was cautiously positive. I am encouraged that we and some others who were around the table are intent on continuing the dialogue with the minister and her officials, yet I suspect we will be working against the grain for there remains a tribal obligation to project gloom and powerlessness and, in the land of the pessimist, it is the doom merchant who is king.

A version of this blog was published in Inside Housing on April 4th 2014


I suppose doom is a natural reaction to deceitful ministers.......

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