From 1999-2018 I was CEO of homelessness charity Thames Reach. From 2018-20 I worked at MHCLG to deliver rough sleeping and homelessness programmes. This blog seeks to bring to life the complexities, dilemmas, set-backs and triumphs that are part of trying to help people escape homelessness. It aims to tell the stories of the inspirational people I have met in my work, many of whom have faced homelessness and from whom I have learnt a lot.
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Highway to hell: The grim journey to multiple exclusion homelessness - and the route back
There is a ‘fact’ doing the
rounds on twitter which juxtaposes the information that Madonna has, allegedly,
eight mansions in London with the number of homeless people in the capital, the
implicit proposition being that homelessness could be ended if only the
ostentatious wealth of the celebrated performer were redirected for the social
purpose of housing the homeless.
I found the image of
hundreds of homeless people living in communal nirvana in Madonna’s mansions entertainingly
surreal. This injustice ‘fact’ has been re-tweeted with gusto, so presumably
there really are people who think that solving homelessness is a matter of
matching people with accommodation, whether it be a mansion or a bedsit and
that’s it – job done.
The truth is that homeless people,
especially those living on the streets or close to it in hostels, squats and
bed and breakfast hotels, have a complex mix of needs including poor mental
health, substance misuse problems, poor literacy skills and limited, sometimes
destructive, social networks. The impact and significance of these factors were
comprehensively and convincingly demonstrated through an impressive piece of
research into multiple exclusion homelessness which deserves much greater
attention than it has so far received.
research from Heriot Watt University investigates a group of 1,286 socially
excluded people using ‘low threshold’ services such as day centres, direct
access hostels and drop-in services and then analyses in greater depth the
impact of social exclusion and homelessness on 452 individuals from this cohort.
The quantitative richness of the research is considerable and its validity
The research provides a
number of illuminating, occasionally shocking, statistics including that 39% of
the multiply excluded homeless had attempted suicide. It evidences childhood abuse
and neglect as a major determinant of the more complex forms of multiple
exclusion homelessness. Intriguingly, the researchers place in a timeline the
various events that contribute to individuals becoming socially excluded,
called a sequencing analysis. The life history of a typical chronically socially
excluded person thus follows a grim trajectory. Most leave home, or local
authority care, around the age of 17. Street drinking and dependency on alcohol
and hard drugs commences early, from around 17 to 22, and early signs of deteriorating
mental health exhibited through bouts of anxiety and depression also arrive in
the early 20s. The experience of rough sleeping homelessness occurs relatively
late along the lifeline, on average at the age of 26.
Housing problems are not therefore
the major factor triggering or shaping the journey destined to end in multiple
exclusion homelessness. However, the
researchers note that settled housing is likely to be an important factor in
providing a base from which the socially excluded can seek a pathway towards
stability and independence.
I suspect that this timeline
sequence will be of little surprise to the experienced hostel worker, well aware
that tackling homelessness is about a great deal more than resolving a housing
problem. It is certainly of no surprise to my colleague Ben, a competent,
dedicated outreach worker. Ben talks
eloquently about his life as part of his personal commitment to encouraging
others to make changes in theirs. It is a story that in its bleakness is not
easy to hear.
His early life was blighted
by his father’s violence. Ben talks
about him and his brothers cowering in fear when their father returned home, a
home they shared with an alcoholic mother. Although his actual violence was
infrequent, the threat was constant. His
older brother, learning from the father that aggression confers dominion over
weaker people, systematically and brutally bullied Ben.
At this early stage his life compass was set
towards disaster. He left school without qualifications, devoid of self-esteem and
unable to form constructive relationships.
Despite qualifying as a plasterer, his self-hatred left him exposed to
manipulation and he was introduced to heroin and became heavily dependent. His
worst moment he told me was sitting in a burned-out car, trying to find a vein
that could take a needle and knowing that around him people were passing by,
oblivious to him and his life.
Somehow this deeply
impressive man overcame these massive disadvantages. I asked how the miracle had
occurred that enabled him to deal with his traumatic past and develop the
determination, resilience and self-belief to shape a new life. Ben has sought and embraced individual and
group counselling and the insight that it has brought him has clearly been of
great benefit. He talks candidly about the journey of recovery from heroin
misuse and remains relentlessly watchful and self-questioning in order to avoid
falling back into old ways.
He has been especially
inspired by another former homeless person, a man who also suffered from
appallingly limited life chances and was forced to confront a severe alcohol problem.
It reminded me of the potent power of peer support; the strength derived from
another who has faced the same challenges and become the influential role model
who has successfully plotted a course away from addiction and self-destruction.
The multiple exclusion
homelessness research rings true, yet the extreme grimness of the life
histories it illuminates could give rise to abject despondency and a sense of
hopelessness. I needed to hear Ben’s story of redemption and escape in all its
rawness. As the final question I asked
him what he liked about himself. He laughed
ruefully; it sounded like pride mixed with remorse. ‘I like myself for having
compassion for people despite everything that I have experienced and done’. It
was a good and true answer spoken with confidence and it left me pensive and
then, suddenly and unexpectedly, just a little choked up.
A version of this blog was published in Inside Housing on April 19th 2012
 Multiple Exclusion Homelessness in the UK
(Fitzpatrick, Bramley and Johnsen – 2011)
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
Amongst the front-line staff at Thames Reach, those undertaking outreach work on the street or managing our hostels for rough sleepers, there is always a sense of relief when the Christmas period is behind them. Christmas is a time when we can expect a surge in support from the public and, concurrently, there is also an increased risk of people dying on the street. This is because so much of the public’s seasonal largesse is focused on giving to people who are visibly present on the street and, in order to be in the position to be a recipient, those who have moved away from rough sleeping will often return to the street at Christmas. In late November, a Big Issue seller I follow who is active on Twitter tweeted that he had been forced to move from his usual pitch outside a supermarket because an intimidating former rough sleeper, now housed, had requisitioned it for the lucrative Christmas period. Outreach workers meanwhile pay special attention to the vulnera
From the seventh floor of the multi-storey car-park at this late hour the view is rather magnificent, but a cruel wind is whipping up the rubbish and there is not a soul around. I’m a Thames Reach London Street Rescue team volunteer tonight searching for rough sleepers with my colleague Rob and we have received a self-referral from a man sleeping rough in the car-park. It’s been a frustrating night. In Hounslow we discovered plenty of cardboard bedding but not the group of Lithuanians we feared could be sleeping rough. Under Kew Bridge and in a park in Putney the lone rough sleepers we have been tasked with contacting were not in their usual places. I ruminate on the unsettling paradox of being grievously disappointed not to find someone sleeping rough in sub-zero temperature. But here on the stairwell we find our man, a 21-year old Pole called Karol. His is a story which is virtually a generic tale of youth homelessness. He came to this country as a fourteen year old u