Housing

John Bird: To tackle homelessness we need to start a revolution

We've tried projects, pilots and initiatives. It's time for a holistic approach that starts from scratch

The revolution beckons. But it may not look like the French, Russian or Industrial revolutions. Rather, it may be a revolution of thought; an incredible leap in our understanding which will allow us to start solving problems across different societies and countries.

Such a revolution may allow us to use childhood education as a tool for bettering the lives of all children – without leaving 37 per cent behind as we currently do. A revolution in thinking may enable us to tackle drug problems, drunkenness, obesity and crime – as well as the problem of the deep-seated need of expressing ourselves through competitive purchasing: consumerism.

Perhaps this revolution in thought will enable governments and political leaders to realise that if the box is not thinking correctly then ‘thinking outside the box’ is simply another demonstration of how clever human beings are and how inventive they can be in all circumstances.

To change the thinking inside the box there must be a major shift in the way government departments function, how they allocate their budgets, and how they co-ordinate across departments. If that happened, any problem – whether it be homelessness, crime or child abuse – would not be seen in an isolated way. Whereas today, we see issues and deal with issues as distinct and isolated; we don’t see issues in health for instance as reflecting and being part of the failures in other areas like crime and education.

I have rarely met a homeless person whose sole problem was that they didn’t have anywhere to live

The melding of governmental activity into a multi-agency, multi-disciplinary response to a problem is still in its infancy; but hey, we may still have this leap in understanding which would allow us to dismantle a problem from all angles.

I have rarely met a homeless person whose sole problem was that they didn’t have anywhere to live – it is usually just the most obvious sign of some other crisis. When you delve deeper you find educational underachievement, an insecure or difficult family life, drink or drug problems; and of course, the great equaliser – mental health problems.

Yet, so often, the response to homelessness is to give people a bed for the night, followed by a room for themselves, followed by a flat in a house. But the demons that have eaten away at their self-resolve will mean that they will continue to be stuck outside of society in a kind of limbo of dependency.

The best way of sorting out a troubled person who has fallen into homelessness is to build up their ability to move away from dependency. This requires working on their mental wellbeing, building up their sense of self-worth, buying into their creativity, and finding their best qualities – which are often buried below the presentation of their needs.

None of this is new and rocket science. I have seen projects which are doing just that. The problem is that it is in some small, perfectly formed initiative. And until the ‘box’ embraces this ‘out-of-the-box thinking’ and makes it standard ‘inside-the-box thinking’ then it’s just another bit of cleverness; another exception to the rule.

I sat with a now former minister last year and told him that we had to embrace a holistic approach to the problems our society faces. He protested loudly and aggressively that they were doing just that in his department. He then proceeded to itemise different projects, pilots and other perfectly formed initiatives. I said, “So what’s the problem then?” And he looked sheepishly and said, “We can’t scale it up and take it mainstream.”

So, it was a system. And the minister was part of that system: you have to trial these pilots and create these initiatives. But you know damn well that they will never be taken into the mainstream. Hence the need, presumably, to start another bloody pilot, project, or initiative.

So where does the revolution come from? First we need to recognise that we need a revolution

But the revolution beckons, because we cannot simply be on this treadmill of doing more of the same – of going through the increasingly silly churn of pilot after pilot without bringing the demonstrated changes into the mainstream. I hazard a guess that 70 per cent of government departments’ time and budgets are spent on the problems thrown up by poverty – the failures in health, education and justice – so you could say it’s not a problem of money. Because billions are being spent on not even treading water; because these problems are getting worse.

Of course, ministers from all governments over the last 20 years have put their faith in innovations such as opening the public purse for use by private businesses – Virgin’s dependency on the public health purse, and G4S’s dependency on the public justice purse are two cases in point. This is seen, and has been written about over the years, as ‘revolutionary’. But it’s probably not as revolutionary as we would like.

We have also been led to believe that the revolution may come in the digital world by connecting everyone to everything which will spread prosperity around. But so far it has shown enormous signs of what the late Ian Dury sang about in his song, There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bar-stewards (I paraphrase). We have seen inordinate numbers of inspiring demonstrations of the power of humans to think and invent – yet we have failed to improve the lot of society’s most vulnerable.

But we live in this mucky world. Where incredible innovation and wealth can live in the same world where poor or no schooling and homelessness is the norm. Where children go to school undernourished so that they have no hope of having their brains nourished by knowledge. And that child will be well prepared to fail and drop-out and to become the homeless of tomorrow.

So where does the revolution come from? I know where it will come from: first we need to recognise that we need a revolution. And that all the stopgaps and clever footwork and pilots and best practices are an avoidance of getting the revolution going.

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