In the UK today the poor are a commodity and poverty is big business. That’s why the homelessness industry can afford conferences in luxury hotels, with slap up meals and drinks receptions. It’s why charity chief executives earn such eye-watering sums, or business empires like the Big Issue can be built beneath a charity facade. And these are the fuckers who are supposed to be helping. Alongside them lie the vultures of the welfare-to-work companies like Serco and G4S – a £20 billion industry designed to punish the poor with benefit sanctions and forced work schemes.
At no point in this elaborate system of so-called support, incentives and sanctions will the people who are poor be given what they need – which is more money. In fact much of the help is designed to do the opposite as it attempts to create behavior change by inflicting more poverty. Benfits are cut to ‘incentivise’ people to find a job whilst charities run advertising campains further stigmatising beggars to encourage them not to be homeless. Other anti-poverty organisations demand that the price of cheap alcohol is raised to stop people being alcoholics and call for bans on handing out free food to make life difficult for those on the streets. As these demands grow ever more shrill, the number of genuinely affordable homes and jobs that pay an adequate income shrink, alongside already meagre benefit payments. Yet because of the wonderful support the poor are offered – and all that money being spent – when people keep getting poorer then frankly, even most charity bosses think, it’s probably their own fault.
It is fucking grotesque. What poor people need is more money and what homeless people need is homes. As well as being glaringly obvious, this is also what the evidence shows. A study was featured in the Washington Post this week which tracked the personalities of 1,420 low income children in North Carolina over a period of 20 years. By pure chance during this period about a quarter of the children’s families received a windfall due to being part of a Native American tribe whose land had been used to host a casino. This led to the families receiving annual payments of around $4000 and meant that the researchers could measure the impact of this small rise in income on the children’s personalities. The results were clear – according to the researchers “there are large beneficial effects of improved household financial wellbeing on children’s emotional and behavioral health and positive personality trait development.”
The study also found that relationships between parents improved, family arguments decreased, and siginifcantly parents who had more money tended to use drugs and alcohol less.
Back in the UK, in 2010 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an anti-poverty think tank, carried out an experiment with some of the ‘hardest to help’ rough sleepers. What they did was simple; they identified 15 people who had been sleeping on the streets for a minimum of fours years, they asked them what they needed and then they bought it for them. Seven of the original fifteen had moved into stable accommodation when the project was evaluated with two more making plans to pove off the streets. Some participants reported improved mental and physical health, and several said their drinking had reduced. Three people started educational courses whilst the one individual involved who had a serious drug problem had begun treatment and was on a methadone programme. Despite the success of this approach it has not been adopted by the UK’s homelessness industry.
Something else which remains largely ignored in UK housing policy is the success of the Housing First scheme at reducing homelessness in the US. This model simply acknowledges that homeless people need to be given a home before other issues such as substance misuse, unemployment or mental health are addressed. This approach has been successful in cutting homelessness amongst US army veterans by 30%. A small pilot project is now being carried out along these lines in the UK, but don’t expect significant change yet. Much of the homelessness industry still believes that homeless people need to be somehow ‘fixed’ with an approach that dangles the possibility of secure housing at some distant point in the future as a reward for good behavior whilst arresting people in the present if they sleep rough in city centres.
This weekend World Homeless Action Day will feature two events in the UK aiming to promote the Housing First model and protest against the growing criminalisation of homeless people. In Manchester campaigners are organising a sleep out on Saturday night (10 October) to raise awareness of the problems facing homeless people in the city. In London there will be speakers and music outside Euston Station on the same night before activists head out on mass into the city to distribute food and supplies to the homeless. Other events are also planned, please share the facebook page, spread the word and come if you can.
This blog has no sources of funding so here’s a quick reminder that you can help ensure it continues by making a donation.