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‘Tis the Season for Exaggeration and Outrageous Distortion

As a callow young Chief Executive I received some interesting guidance from members of the Worshipful Company of Chief Executives of Homelessness Charities. (No, it doesn’t exist, but perhaps it should). One piece of sage advice sticks in my mind in particular. Thames Reach had placed an advertisement in the Big Issue magazine one Christmas to try and attract donations. The image of a homeless man looking suitably uplifted by our assistance secured a single £15 return from an elderly lady in East Dulwich. A grizzled Chief Executive veteran offered this counsel: ‘Put a dog in the picture’. He went on to explain in his characteristically forthright way that ‘most people don’t like the homeless. They reckon they’ve brought it all on themselves. But they love animals’.

At the time I felt vaguely affronted on behalf of the Great British Public. Even though we did have space in some of our hostels for the person and their pet and could therefore justifiably include a cute pooch in the picture, I figured that we wouldn’t need to resort to these shenanigans as enough of the public wanted to help the homeless.

I was wrong, of course. In the battle to convert public munificence into a tangible financial return, homelessness charities can never compete with animal, children’s or health charities. If Thames Reach is shaking the tin at a tube station and collectors from an animal charity turn up and offer an alternative, probably our best bet is to head for home. I’m not whingeing. This is the way of the world and I accept there are many richly deserving causes. Public sympathy places children, animals and those afflicted by terrible illnesses and health problems first.

So I have enormous sympathy for homelessness charities making their pitch at Christmas-time. At this time of the year homelessness charities have some advantage. It jars when, pre-occupied by thoughts of presents and Christmas with the family, you pass someone lying huddled in a shop doorway, under a thin blanket. ‘Ain’t you got no home to go to?’ Actually: no. Somehow it seems worse at Christmas.

Homelessness charities need therefore to pull out all the stops at Christmas. And in December as their leaflets fall out of the colour supplement magazines, I become increasingly uneasy about the message we collectively impart.

Over the last twenty years we have been extraordinarily successful in reducing rough sleeping in this country. Over half the rough sleepers in England are to be found in London and when I was a street outreach worker in the mid-1980s, shamefully there were over 1,000 rough sleepers congregating on the streets of the capital on any single night including groups of over 100 people at certain locations. In the last ten years more than 20,000 people have been helped off of London’s streets through the co-ordinated actions of homelessness charities. Tonight there will still be around 300 people sleeping on the capital’s streets. So - more to do, but nonetheless enormous progress has been achieved. In contrast, New York had 2,328 people sleeping rough when the city authorities carried out the last city-wide street count early in 2009.

But to attract that donation we need to shock and appal. The impact is undoubtedly helped by Big Numbers. For these to be wrung from a scenario of steady progress in reducing homelessness, a certain degree of inventiveness is required.

The youth charity Centrepoint’s Big Number, for example, is 779. Centrepoint is a charity doing essential work. I have had plenty of contact with them over the years and been impressed with how they support some very chaotic and vulnerable young people. Their appeal material explains that 779 is the number of homeless young people ‘like Amy’ who need a safe haven at Christmas. She is 16 and ‘as temperatures drop and the streets empty out, people like Amy become more vulnerable than ever’. 779 does not correlate very closely with the number of under 18 year-olds met by street teams working with rough sleepers across London which input data on the individuals they help onto a central database called CHAIN. Over the course of the entire year 2008-9, a total of five under 18-year olds were found sleeping rough.

Some young people will have not been met by street outreach teams. For example, I heard of one young person who spent all night travelling around on night buses. But whatever way it cuts, this figure distorts the reality of rough sleeping in 2009. The monstrousness of young people sleeping on our streets has largely been ended and Centrepoint has played an invaluable role in achieving this.

Crisis at Christmas is an event that is looked forward to by many of Thames Reach’s homeless service users. They see it as an opportunity to renew acquaintance with old friends, get a health ‘MOT’ by talking at length to a sympathetic GP and meet committed volunteers who are genuinely interested in their lives. Crisis’ Big Number is 2,000 – according to their literature, the number of people who settled down to the Crisis Christmas dinner. Given that we know some 300 people will be sleeping rough on the streets when Crisis opens its doors this Christmas, we can predict with some certainty that fewer than one in seven of Crisis’ guests will be rough sleepers.

Creditably, Crisis’ literature makes it clear that the homeless in their terms includes isolated people living in hostels, squats, bed and breakfasts and with friends. All these people can attend their Christmas centres. Yet I remain uneasy about the picture we create about homelessness in 2009. In its most extreme form - rough sleeping - the size of the problem has diminished. But, it seems, in order to raise funds we have to pretend we are failing. At its worst it feels as if we are attempting to outbid each other in some perverse auction where the rules are, the grimmer the picture painted, the higher the bid you will receive. The most outrageous figure, currently being ‘re-tweeted’ with enthusiasm on Twitter, is that 1100 ex-military personnel will be living on London’s streets this Christmas. In fact the evidence of the CHAIN data shows that ex-services personnel currently form around 6% of the rough sleeping population in London. There will be some 20 ex-services personnel on our streets this Christmas. 20 too many maybe, but the reality is way, way short of this apocalyptic scenario doing the rounds.

It’s hard for homelessness charities. Despite the determined efforts of organisations such as New Philanthropy Capital to encourage donors to select and reward those charities that can evidence the positive difference they are making, this isn’t how it works in practice. Individuals frequently give as a visceral act of atonement. ‘You made me forget myself, I thought I was someone else, someone good’ sings Lou Reed in ‘Perfect Day’. The glow received by doing something for someone who is less fortunate than you. I’m a good person really. You can’t knock it can you? It’s just a pity that to raise funds homelessness charities leave the public with a false impression about the size of the problem and the remarkable effectiveness of our work in tackling it.

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