Government policy needs to recognise where the most effective remedies
lie, argues Fr Mark Elvins, OFM Cap T11E LATE Cardinal Hume had a concern for the homeless perhaps equalled among leaders of the Catholic church in England only by his predecessor St Thomas Becket.
Becket is described as serving the homeless in Canterbury morning and evening, dressing their wounds and waiting at table, and (not an example that would be endorsed by the Government's "homelessness Czar") would also give them newly minted coins before sending them on their way.
Cardinal Hume did much to help the Church recognise its responsibilities in caring for the homeless, a ministry that typified the pre-Reformation Church. Today, so often, a Christian initiative, through lack of support, can become completely secularised: the Cardinal Hume Centre and the De Paul Trust remain prime examples of the benefits of a sustained Christian involvement.
Given the record of the Church, it should be in a better position than it is to advise the Government on the problem of homelessness. Unlike the Church in the Middle Ages, today it has no real network of cooperation in this matter. Each diocese should have a means of liaising with other dioceses so that benefits could be shared and lessons learned from the various projects — for, ahnost every major town today in England has a homelessness problem.
In the early Church bishops were known as "Fathers of the Poor" . By mediaeval times, every diocese had houses of hospitality for the poor for which the bishop was responsible. Today, projects for the homelessderive more from lay initiative and some representatives of these meet at regular intervals as members of the Urban Poverty Issues Round Table of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, which could become the basis for some kind of network of cooperation.
At present, as fast as projects multiply, the problem of homelessness seems to increase; for instance, at the end of 1998 there were 6,070 officially homeless families, a rise of 1,500 on the previous year. It is true that over the past two years the number actually sleeping rough has fallen by a third; but this has been largely due to the Rough Sleepers Initiative headed by Louise Casey.
The statistics submitted by them to the Prime Minster show that only approximately 1,180 are still sleeping rough which is Ll :etion of 36 per cent on the previous statistics of 1998. The condition of homelessness broadly has three categories, the single homeless (who are the rough sleepers), those in bed and breakfast or hostel accommodation and those with "priority needs". These latter include families with children, especially single mothers and those made vulnerable through ill health or domestic violence: these, the local councils are bound to house.
If the street homeless have been reduced by one third, one has to ask where have they gone. Certainly, there are still hundreds to be seen begging as before. However, many of the beggars are not street homeless. and, as we know, giving them money may go towards subsidizing drug or alcohol addiction.
As Victor Adebowale, chief executive of Centrepoint, has said, "We need to get a debate going on why people beg". A good number are housed and fed in hostels, or have their own or council acconunodalion. A recent survey carried out in Nottingham revealed that 80 per cent of those begging were in council accommodation. Research done by the charity Crisis has disclosed that most beg to obtain money to buy drugs or alcohol.
To return to the question of where the 36 per cent of the street homeless have gone: the answer is that they are, inevitably, in hostels or council accommodation. The reduction of street homelessness by a third can surely only be temporary, for of that number many will have a drug or alcohol problem and unless it is addressed will be back on the street before long.
SOME BECOME homeless through drugs or alcohol; others take to addiction to dull the trauma of homelessness. Councils have been known to house known alcoholics and suffer the expense of refurbishing the property after it has been turned into a drinking parlour, or even give money to known drug addicts who blow it on drugs and, having been housed in council property, proceed to sell furnishings to pay for the drug habit. In all these cases, after great expense of public money, the residents are evicted back onto the streets.
One problem which is beginning to emerge is that some charities may be unwittingly promoting homelessness. The root problem, which seems to be the cause or the sustaining element of most homelessness, is drugs or alcohol. Firstly, many councils seeking to reduce street homelessness neglect to appreciate this root cause by simply housing those with an addiction problem instead of addressing the problem at the same time.
It has been proved that intensive primary treatment in a well-ordered rehabilitative residential care programme can lay the foundations of recovery. Moreover, a second and third stage with increased levels of independence — which can take up to twelve months — can lead to a control of such addiction. One such programme, which has Church foundation, now sustains a 90 per cent recovery, that is 46 out of 51. leaving the programme drug and alcohol free and therefore no longer homeless.
In the face of so much wasted money, this introduces an element of cost effectiveness by employing a sure and tried remedy. This is an expensive treatment: nevertheless, it is more effective than many of the policies followed at present, such as buying more and more properties to house the homeless without necessarily addressing the causes of their homelessness.
The difference between the two approaches is that one merely contains homelessness, the other reverses it. And in practical terms, the problem is impossible to contain except by implementing a massively extravagant programme of housing provision with no guarantee of the tenant's stability. hi contrast, an intensive rehabilitative programme, even with little available housing to offer, can restore the client back into society and so reverse the trend with less expense.
In November, the Rough Sleepers Unit launched a campaign to stop people giving money to beggars and instead to give the money to charities working for the homeless. But how many of these charities are successful in sustaining recovery, how many can produce statistics of the benefits of their organisations, how many can show cost effectiveness?
Is there an element of empire building (for, clearly if they were really successful they would be out of business)? The charities say they need more and more money to deal with the problem and yet hundreds of millions of pounds of public money is being pumped into this work.
How is it being spent, how effective is such expenditure and should there be a charities "watchdog" to monitor the expenditure? Meanwhile. with the move away from residential projects to home rehabilitation there is obviously still a need for both, but rather than penalise such residential projects Government policy needs to recognise where the most effective remedies lie and support them.
Some big national charities, who could have been taking the lion's share of funding, may need some questions as to their cost effectiveness and to what extent they are seeking to eradicate homelessness rather than contain it. Giving to beggars may indeed be subsidising an addiction habit, but relocating the money to a charity should also invite questions as to how the money might be spent and the effectiveness of the programme in tackling homelessness.
Perhaps in this the Church should seek to find a voice, in not just criticising the Government's policies but in suggesting innovative measures to make work for the homeless truly effective.
Fr Mark has been working among the homeless since 1962. He initiated the Simon House in Word, the St Thomas Fund for the Homeless (a residential programme for those seeking a drug and alcohol free l(e) and the Becket homes in Canterbury. He is the author of The Church's response to the homeless and Drugs — how the Church can help.