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Passion and outrage are essential but not enough - In memory of Chris Holmes

This blog was originally published in December 2015 as one of a series of essays to commemorate
 the life of Chris Holmes who made an extraordinary contribution to tackling homelessness. The complete set of essays can be found at http://bit.ly/1O1TFxT



The speaker is in full flow and has the audience at the homelessness conference in his grip. He is a powerful speaker and his controlled anger is palpable as he jabs the air with his forefinger. It is a familiar litany of observations about how the poor are under attack and the homeless are in the firing line, their lives blighted by a series of brutal government policies and incomprehensible funding decisions taken by local authorities. Welfare benefit cuts are castigated, unimaginative local commissioning of homelessness services ridiculed and the inadequacy of the housing safety net laid bare. 

The congregation of homelessness sector representatives have heard this type of denunciation before. It is well articulated and impassioned, ending with a call to action to resist at all costs the stripping back of services to the homeless and vulnerable. We cannot forever go on papering over the cracks he concludes and, in truth, who could disagree with the substance of his speech? The applause is loud and sustained.

Yet as I file out of the auditorium with my uplifted colleagues my mood is pensively downbeat. It is an unexpected feeling, which I explore on the train journey home. What is certain is that there is no shortage of passion within the homelessness sector. The recent Conservative election victory has not blunted the outrage provoked by what many colleagues regard as a calculated onslaught on society’s poorest who are expected to bear a disproportionate share of the burden of austerity. There is a fervent commitment to protect services and defend the homeless. The rhetoric is of the broadly oppositional, unspecific and authentic. Phrases that littered the conference included “we must stand shoulder to shoulder”, “draw a line in the sand to prevent the commissioning of services on the cheap” and “fight tooth and nail against any more benefit cuts”.

I’m old. The language of determined opposition takes me back to the 1980s and 1990s. There are perturbing similarities with our own times; a triumphant Conservative government determined to reduce spending and roll back the state, a Labour opposition weakened by defeat and disunity and, of course, an inexorable rise in the numbers of people sleeping rough on the streets.

As a young outreach worker in my 20s walking the streets of streets of central London, the relentless growth in the rough sleeping population was monstrously debilitating.  For each person for whom we were able to find a hostel bed, a far greater number came on to the street for the first time. Benefit restrictions imposed on young people had a direct and rapid impact on the numbers under the age of 25 sleeping rough, which, when it struck, was a new and disheartening phenomenon.

And then there was Lincolns Inn Fields, a park in central London inhabited by a vast population of rough sleepers, incongruously encircled by barristers’ chambers. Every night we visited this cardboard city of the homeless, trying to find a way out for the inhabitants, some of whom had lived there for months, even years. Living in Lincolns Inn Fields was a dangerous and unpleasant experience. Assaults on rough sleepers by members of the public were a regular occurrence, as were fights between those sleeping there. The common view was that the rat population of Lincolns Inn Fields probably exceeded the human.

Apart from my sense of despair, I was aware too of another competing feeling. It was one of moral superiority and righteousness in the face of the deteriorating situation for the homeless in London. We were the foot soldiers, out at night doing what we could to pick up the pieces in response to government wickedness and incompetence. A peculiar sustenance could be acquired from glory in defeat. Oddly we, like the other services working with the homeless, operated largely in an organisational bubble. Occasionally we would meet another outreach team on the streets and there would be a courteous exchange, a nod to indicate camaraderie, and then we would walk on and away.

Visible rough sleeping creates a potent picture. Images of bodies huddled on the street leave an indelible impression suggesting that all is not well in a country and with a society. Eventually the imperative for a Conservative government to seek help to quell the increase in rough sleeping, hounded for its failures by a homelessness sector that, in time, sought to collectively and pragmatically campaign to address the remorseless rise in numbers, led to change. The result was a progressive and effective programme, the Rough Sleepers Initiative, which funded outreach work and the building of some 3,800 units of accommodation, mostly self-contained, for rough sleepers.  Numbers sleeping rough peaked and then gradually fell.

Homelessness organisations were embracing pragmatism in other ways. The sense of passionate rightness was being blended with a grim determination to reduce rough sleeping, not just around the edges but comprehensively. The unremitting cull of people sleeping rough, with many found dead in circumstances that we studiously avoided passing on to families and friends when attending their funerals, imbued us with cold-eyed resolution.

Above all we wanted to dismantle the cardboard cities, the squalid encampments where rough sleepers lived in appalling conditions. At Lincolns Inn Fields a dilemma arose for the outreach teams. The council had decided to call time on the park as a place for rough sleepers to congregate. It proposed the introduction of a by-law to ban rough sleeping and there was a deal to be struck. The council was prepared to offer permanent accommodation for each person sleeping in the park to enable them to escape rough sleeping for good in return for support from the outreach teams to rehouse Lincoln Inn’s Field's inhabitants.  

There was an additional element to the offer that we couldn’t ignore. The initiator of this approach was the Director of Housing at Camden, Chris Holmes. Chris had formerly been the Director of CHAR, the campaigning organisation for the homeless. This made it difficult to view our engagement as a case of ‘supping with the devil’. As one of my colleagues delicately articulated it at the time, “he’s not one to shaft the homeless”. There was some opposition to the forced closure and an article was published about how the homeless ‘community’ at Lincoln’s Inn Fields was going to be transplanted elsewhere against their will. This had the unintended impact of hardening our support for the proposed by-law. We had spent too many nights at Lincolns’ Inn Fields witnessing the mayhem and hearing stories of assaults and robbery. What we saw was not a mutually supportive community but a disparate and wretched group of people forced together through circumstance, in need of a better life.

Over the next three months individual needs were assessed and offers of accommodation made. I accompanied numerous rough sleepers to view bedsits and flats. Their astonishment at the chance to have a place of their own will forever remain with me. In time, other cardboard cities were tackled at the South Bank, Waterloo (the notorious Bullring) and elsewhere with the same broad offer of accommodation or, where required, access to support for an alcohol, drug or mental health problem. Each closure included an element of compulsion in that there was not, ultimately, an option to remain sleeping rough at the site.  By the end of the century, the cardboard city was no longer part of the London landscape.

In 2015 rough sleeping is a very different phenomenon. Today outreach workers spend more time seeking out rough sleepers in isolated areas including parks, derelict buildings, riverbanks and multi-storey car parks. A ‘hotspot’, the term used for a congregation of rough sleepers, can comprise three individuals.  Despite the continuous increase in rough sleeping numbers over the last ten years, cardboard cities with the permanence of yesteryear have not returned.  But there are new challenges.  Remarkably, the latest annual figures for London show that of the 7,581 rough sleepers met over the year by outreach workers operating in the capital, 57 per cent are non-UK nationals including 36 per cent from Central and Eastern Europe; men and women who have come to London as economic migrants seeking work. With limited rights to claim welfare benefits that would enable them to access accommodation, the options available to non-UK nationals are very limited and the levels of destitution amongst rough sleepers now being witnessed are as extreme as those seen in the 1980s.

In the face of the steady rise in rough sleeping numbers we remain resolute but disconcertedly hidebound. Again, echoes of the challenges of 30 years ago resonate. There appears to be no difficulty in people expressing outrage about the situation of rough sleepers. Twenty-first century communication in the form of Twitter and Facebook can lead to the dramatic multiplication of indignation as witnessed during 2015 in response to some businesses and landlords placing ‘spikes’ outside their buildings to dissuade rough sleepers bedding down. Some outreach workers on the frontline expressed disappointment that distress about spikes did not transfer to a similar collective concern and call for action on behalf of actual people sleeping in shop doorways.

But the numbers sleeping rough continue to rise and my gloom stems from a belief that there will be no respite whilst solutions are piece-meal, responses lack focus and, above all, we lack ambition driven by an icy determination to end rough sleeping, once and for all. We seem incapable of making the substantial step that was achieved in previous years which brought to an end the cardboard cities.

Let me return to Chris Holmes, Director of Housing at Camden and later Chief Executive of Shelter. I was privileged to have known Chris in his days at CHAR, Camden Council and Shelter. Indisputably Chris was passionate about ending homelessness and his working life exemplifies a furious commitment to achieving this goal. Most importantly, so do his accomplishments, the ending of the use of bed and breakfast accommodation for homeless families whilst at Camden and the extension of a statutory right to housing for more people through the Homelessness Act during his spell at Shelter.

But the special alchemy that defined Chris Holmes was based on a pragmatic approach to securing outcomes as well as the need for the fervent call to arms. Here was a man who sought to understand the different motivations of apparently competing interests in order to close a deal. In the case of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, he recognised that it was unreasonable for a public space to be blighted by a sprawling cardboard city of the homeless and that the third world conditions experienced by those living there were also unacceptable. He believed its inhabitants deserved the chance of something better. To achieve this Chris was prepared to face unpopularity, including from within his own ‘tribal’ group; the left of centre activists who comprise the great bulk of people working in the field of homelessness and housing. 

Are we brave and imaginative enough to collectively find a solution to a similar 21st century rough sleeping phenomenon?  In parks in central and outer London mass rough sleeping could conceivably emerge again. Today we are witnessing significant numbers of central and eastern Europeans sleeping rough in tents and encampments, taking this step so they can undertake below minimum wage work, primarily car wash, building site and gardening jobs. Chillingly, in the last two months we have lost two rough sleepers on our streets, both Polish, men who suffered ignominious deaths many miles away from their families. We have to do better than this.

Expressing outrage is easy and directing it at the full range of potential wrongdoers – government, rogue employers, landowners and local authorities – can be especially cathartic, if ultimately futile. We must seek a new approach, which means working with a range of partners including local authorities, the police, landowners, the immigration authorities, local businesses and employers. We have to understand the motivations and aspirations of those who have come to this country to secure work and a better life and address the reasonable concerns of local communities who experience public spaces becoming, for them, out of bounds. It will require compromise, imagination, negotiation, persistence, planned co-ordination and hard-nosed delivery.  We will need solutions that are currently far from obvious and will certainly be contentious, imperfect and unpopular. We must be driven by an uncompromising belief that homelessness, especially in the most extreme forms that we are now witnessing, is an obscenity.

 The story of our achievements over the last 30 years and the examples of the exceptional people that delivered remarkable outcomes for the homeless is that passion and outrage are, by themselves, not enough.   

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