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Editorial Comment: There is a Crisis in the Homelessness Sector locally.

[8 January 2018]

I suggest there is a growing crisis in the homelessness sector locally, and the nature and cause of this may surprise you.
street homeless in Hull
Photograph © Jerome Whittingham, @photomoments
The photograph above shows my bed for 2 nights in December 2010. Back then the number of rough sleepers in Hull was in single figures, and the single biggest cause of homelessness was relationship breakdown. Provision for Hull’s homeless citizens came from a relatively small number of unsurprising sources - Hull City Council, charities, Housing Associations, and the city’s faith sector. The HumberHelp website and initiative, in fact, came out of the faith sector’s decision to help co-ordinate and direct the voluntary response to homelessness in the city, especially the daily delivery of soup kitchens by churches. The more we know, we said back then, about homelessness and the available support, the better we could really help people. Though never perfectly in tune, you could say we were all at least trying to sing from the same hymn sheet.

Fast forward 7 years and much has changed. Rough sleeping in the city has tripled. The single biggest cause of homelessness is now the unexpected or sudden ending of tenancies by landlords. Statutory funding for work within the sector has reduced, and even well established homelessness charities are having to do more work with fewer resources.

Compounding all these issues is the growing dominance of ‘first aid’ activity, and ill-thought-through knee-jerk activism, by a well-meaning public responding to posts on social media. That’s right, enter the Facebook effect.

Let me be clear, I recognise that there is a tremendous amount of goodwill being exercised towards our most vulnerable and destitute citizens. Indeed, in many cases the public response is overwhelming. My concern is that there is too much emphasis on making people comfortable where they are on the streets, with food and clothing and sleeping bags, and not enough effort being made to introduce people to the professional services that some really need: mental health practitioners, addiction counsellors, debt advisors, relationship guides, life coaches, training providers - and of course, appropriate housing professionals. To some degree the public’s goodwill and resources could be more usefully directed.

In 2006 I was given a job as a youth worker for a project in the east of the city. Being new to the role, a well qualified and experienced youth work manager was appointed to act as my mentor. One piece of advice she gave me has continued to reverberate throughout all my community development work since, ‘always offer the challenge.’ If I saw a child drop litter I was to challenge them to pick it up and show them the bin. If I saw a young person bullying another I was to challenge them to stop and explain why it was wrong. If I saw a young person with a talent for music or sport I was to challenge them to pursue it, to help them realise their potential. Each challenge offered was an invitation for the individual to develop, and with each challenge came also the support needed for them to succeed, or signposting to where help could be found.

In our encounters with those experiencing homelessness in the city, especially the growing number of rough sleepers, are we offering enough similar challenges? Are we asking them to tackle their complex issues, and signposting them to professional and well-qualified help? I’m not sure that we are.

Social media such as Facebook are useful tools, sharing messages that reach large audiences quickly and easily. It is perhaps social media’s immediacy that is also its main problem, some people seem to be able to type more quickly than they can think. Misunderstanding and misinformation about homelessness abounds. Individuals unwittingly filter themselves into bubbles of like-minded people, reducing their opportunities for wider debate on the issues, narrowing their understanding of homelessness, and learning little about the range and provenance of helpful services that are already available.

The traditional news media - newspapers, radio, and TV - are often of little help too. Headlines about homelessness are attention grabbing, it is great that there’s a sizeable interested audience, but the accompanying articles are often poorly researched and show little understanding of a very complex set of issues and causes. An example is articles about problem begging or professional begging, which has been an issue in Hull in recent months. Professional beggars are often homeless, but not all homeless people are professional beggars - how often do you see a news article getting that distinction right? And all these articles get shared on people’s Facebook timelines, often with people only reading the headlines before doing so.

What are we to do? Well, I’m looking again at the three mission aims of HumberHelp, which are:
  • making those caught in homelessness more aware of the services and support available to them, providing daily information of help that is immediately available.
  • helping organisations, also, to have a greater understanding of the variety and extent of services available to the people they’re supporting, enabling them to direct clients to additional support, and encouraging partnership-working to the benefit of all.
  • helping the public to have a deeper understanding of all issues around homelessness, providing opportunities for volunteering, and encouraging development of more informed responses to the issues.

In my role as Editor of HumberHelp I feel I’m failing to address the sometimes negative impact that Facebook in particular is having upon the sector’s ability to provide help where it is really needed and most effective. At a time when homeless people’s needs are greater than ever some Facebook activity is diminishing the public’s trust in both the statutory and charity sectors. Of course there are efficiencies and improvements to be made in the sector’s current provision, but current provision is not as bad and corrupt as some would have you believe. Of course too, there is plenty of opportunity for public goodwill and voluntary action in the sector, but is this goodwill being best directed to make the biggest impact for those we want to help?

In the coming weeks I’ll be inviting you to engage in meaningful dialogue about many aspects of the homelessness sector locally. Let’s kick much of the misinformation and misunderstanding we read on Facebook into the long grass, and let’s build a more cohesive movement locally, promoting and delivering a very wide range of resources that will tackle homelessness in the city. It’s a challenge offered to us all.

Jerome Whittingham

January 2018