HOMES NOT BOMBS – Reflections on BHCC Homeless Summit

By ANN NARKEH

It would be too easy to just slag off Brighton & Hove City Council’s (BHCC) recent homeless summit and consultation, so I’m going to do my best to resist that natural impulse, but I’m not going to hold back my criticisms of it. The summit was hosted by BHCC last Friday 4th December, as part of their homelessness strategy consultation. The council’s stated ambition is “To make sure no-one has the need to sleep rough in Brighton & Hove by 2020”. All attendees we spoke to agreed that this seemed to be an arbitrary, unrealistic deadline, not based on any feasible strategy to accomplish the objective.

I attended the event with Ree Melody, of Love Activists Brighton. We were there to share our insight and experience with the street community, while lobbying for a series of solution based proposals which the Love Activists have put together for the council’s consideration. The proposals were developed in consultation with the local community, prioritising feedback from rough sleepers at the group’s weekly Love Kitchen.

You can read the proposals and the rationale for them on the 38 Degrees petition, here.

Councillor Claire Moonan, lead member for rough sleeping welcomed everybody and opened the summit with a candid admission that the official count of rough sleepers in Brighton & Hove is inaccurate. She said that a realistic count would more likely be well over 100 people and called for everybody to work together, to innovate, to think outside of the box. Some estimates suggest the true number is well over 200.

According to the council’s own documentation, as of the 14th October 2015 the city has 272 hostel beds and 25 mental health hostel beds which are all full and a waiting list of 126 clients for these beds, 68 of which are considered a high priority (27 women and 41 men).

We heard from a number of speakers, including Andy Winter of Brighton Housing Trust, who was at pains to stress the severity of the unfolding crisis, particularly for young people. He said that without intervention, Central Government’s plans risked at least a further 300-400 under-35s becoming street homeless in Brighton by April 2016.

After hearing all the speakers, there was unfortunately scant opportunity for any meaningful discussion. The event was compartmentalised into 8 tables, each discussing one of the council’s seven different priorities with an eighth table for ‘anything else’.

You could choose 3 tables, with 20 minutes discussion at each. We chose ‘preventing homelessness’ – ‘working with the city’ and ‘managing the street community’, we missed ‘Street Triage’, ‘Improving Health’, ‘Pathways to Independence’, and ‘Safe Reconnection’. At the end of the summit, each facilitator had just a few minutes or so to feedback on one aspect of the discussions they had hosted.

Brighton has a reputation for providing excellent service and care for rough sleepers and the street community, however the scale of welfare cuts, evictions and repossessions have had a significant, detrimental impact on services in recent years. It’s already well beyond crisis point, but the projections for the coming weeks, months and years are catastrophic.

Solutions?

One of the Love Activists’ most interesting, simple and insightful proposals, is that no single local authority is capable of ‘ending homelessness’ unilaterally. If one authority were able to end homelessness, that local authority would risk being overwhelmed by demand from around the country, by what business people call ‘first mover loses’. To actually accomplish the ambition of ending homelessness, we need effective change nationally. This isn’t going to come from central Government so it’s necessary for all local authorities to work together, to agree on and implement practical solutions together.

Everybody we discussed this proposal with agreed that we were absolutely right. In fact, most of the Love Activists’ Solution Based Proposals were popular, but all the attendees deferred responsibility for doing anything about them to central Government. The only really proactive responses came from the ‘preventing homelessness’ table, where we heard how “Brighton & Hove has done some great work with Worthing”. They suggested that looking at regional networks might be the first step towards a national campaign.

 

Poverty Developers

 

In the council’s documentation, distributed prior to the summit, there is an acknowledgement that “Relationships with specialist private landlords need improving”…noting that “Private landlords also need help and support”…One of the Love Activists’ proposals is to impose social rents on private landlords and property developers. “Where are they?” One brave soul asked. Private landlords, evictions and repossessions are the lion’s share of the problem, so really, they would need to be involved in any solution for it to be effective.

Somebody mentioned how most of the homes recently built on Brighton Marina have already been sold to ‘foreign investors’. (This turn of phrase has been forced into the collective consciousness by the 1% media. Substituting the word ‘wealthy’ with the word ‘foreign’ is a snide way of tricking us into blaming foreigners rather than 1%ers).

In the absence of any focus on the poverty developers; central Government, austerity, welfare cuts, private landlords, the bankers, their housing crisis – the council’s strategy seems to focus on how to persuade homeless people to take ‘responsibility for their own lifestyle choices’. The homeless themselves being the problem, rather than their homelessness.

Such is the power of this propaganda, more than one person at the summit expressed a belief that people become homeless intentionally, or even because street life is ‘fun’. The council’s literature describes reports of ‘lucrative’ begging spots.

 

Street Link

At the ‘working with the city’ table, there was excited talk about Homeless Link’s new ‘Street Link’ app. Homeless Link say Street Link is a way to ‘help’ rough sleepers, by reporting them.

David Steele, who was representing the faith community was interested in what happened once such a report was made. “It gets added to the database”. Is there any contact made with the individual, do they get any actual help? “they send someone out from St Mungo’s to ‘confirm’ the report and then we add them to the database”.

Ree had street tested the ‘service’ before the summit and found it to be distinctly lacklustre. The rough sleeper who she called the ‘service’ on behalf of was eventually contacted around 30 hours later. “You’ve got to understand, it’s not an emergency service”. Well, shouldn’t it be? Personally, I’d call having to sleep rough an emergency.

Matt Harrison, CEO of Homeless Link has said that once a report is made about a rough sleeper, Homeless Link’s Street Link app would “put them in touch with their local authority and see what can be done to help them”. Unfortunately, this means that street link is little more than a signpost pointing nowhere – to services which don’t exist, or possibly to an arrest, an ASBO, PSPO and/or a court date to be prosecuted and fined. Begging is not a prisonable offence, so beggars don’t get representation in court. Central Government have stumped up £250, 000 towards the street link app, which invites you to help ‘end homelessness’ by shopping every beggar you see to an Orwellian database for processing.

I asked whether homeless link, (being a national charity representing 500 other homeless charities) might be able to help with connecting local authorities up, or with lobbying Central Government for more meaningful action on the crisis. After a brief acknowledgement that they probably didn’t really want to ‘rock the boat’, and some uncomfortable silence, the conversation quickly returned to the virtues of the app. “We can get a bespoke ‘Brighton’ version” and “it’s got a donate button”.

Ree asked, “Where does that money go”? Silence, blank expressions followed by stuttering noises which meant; “We don’t know”. It bears noting that thirdsector.co.uk recently conducted research into escalating pay for the UK’s leading charities’ senior executives. The overall average pay across the top 100 charities was £208,000 to £217,000. The median pay level for all UK charities’ top brass was £165,000. http://www.thirdsector.co.uk/charity-pay-study-highest-earners/management/article/1335060

 

Oh dearism

It quickly became clear that our proposals were going to be well received, but thwarted by what Adam Curtis has described as “oh dearism”. Curtis proposes that “oh dearism” is a socially transmitted disease. We wring our hands at injustice, but resign ourselves to it. Rather than take action, we describe our resignation as ‘being realistic, or practical’ and so fall into the trap of believing that the point is simply to agree or disagree with things. When we relate to the world in this state of resignation, we inevitably repeat the same patterns, excluding the possibility of creating new realities or changing our circumstances. We ‘like’ things on social media to agree with them and troll things we disagree with, precluding any action to meaningfully change anything.

The summit was mostly focused on discovering whether people agreed or disagreed with ‘the 2020 ambition’ and with the seven priorities that the council had put forward.

Oh dear. I feel at this point that I should reiterate, I am doing my level best not to slag anybody off. I honestly believe that the vast majority of people who were in that room are sincere, good people, with the very best of intentions. However, they also seemed to be suffering from a corporate state induced pandemic of ‘oh dearism’, combined with the effects of 21st Century McCarthyism. Despite this, most of these human beings do amazing work under impossible conditions and they all deserve our respect for their service thus far. The frontline staff in particular, receive a pittance or have volunteered for no remuneration, yet they are the ones who consistently innovate under the radar to stretch non-existent budgets and perform miracles.

The literature produced by Brighton & Hove City Council for the 2020 plan does not do these people or their work justice. It is neither innovative, nor ambitious. It retreads the same tracks that have been tread since before anybody reading this was born. Some of the euphemisms might have changed, but the core message remains the same. Blame, shame and vilify the victims, cosy up with their abusers. Get the tramps ‘moving on’ to somewhere else to ‘reconnect’. The rhetoric says ‘blue sky, out of the box thinking’, but when faced with genuine innovation, like all bureaucrats, they flinch.

Politicians and councillors flinch because they have a healthy fear of central Government and neighbouring local authorities. Public sector management flinch because they’re told that they are under the thumb of central Government. Corporate management flinch because they know that effective solutions might hit their balance sheets. Frontline public and corporate service workers flinch, simply because they don’t want to risk their salaries and careers by ‘rocking the boat’.

It’s a curious metaphor in this instance, because the homeless sector’s ‘boat’ has become a massive industry, providing employment and subsistence to so many people, wasting so much money, while the people it was originally built to help drown in a rising tide of corporate tenders and oh dearism.

From the boat, those captains of industry charged with rescuing them sympathise with the landlords who threw them overboard while worrying about damage to the boat’s reputation. Spinning the investment in a national database of homeless people under the auspices of empowering the community to ‘help’ rough sleepers. By shopping homeless people to an Orwellian database for processing.

 

Homes Not Bombs

One of the final comments at the summit came from a brave doctor who explained how he has treated at least 50 rough sleepers who have died in the last three years in Brighton. The situation is the same or worse all over the country. It should be a national scandal, but the national media are preoccupied with party political pantomime and xenophobic warmongering.

The scale of the crisis requires immediate action, but local authorities defer responsibility to Westmonster, who are too busy flogging off public services to fund mass slaughter in the middle east to worry about the 9,000 ex servicemen and the hundred thousand children and the hundreds of thousands of people with no permanent home, struggling and dying on the streets of the UK.

In the shadows of COP21 and the rise of ISIS/Daesh, what used to be our homes have become ‘investments’ for the 1% to gamble with on the world’s financial markets. These same markets enable industrial scale pollution, bombs and guns.

The bombs and guns kill people in faraway countries while the streets kill people in the UK.

The resulting pollution, both material, intellectual and spiritual is killing the whole planet.

 

What Next?

 

The council’s strategy to end homelessness by 2020 thus far is led by seven ‘priorities’ which most people present at the summit agreed are not adequate for the scale of the crisis we face. Love Activists have seven solution based proposals which most people seem to agree would be quite a good start.

The council are consulting until the end of December. If you live in this city and care about the issue of homelessness, I urge you to participate in their consultation and share your thoughts and ideas with them: http://consult.brighton-hove.gov.uk/portal

Love Activists hope to gather 1250 signatures to force the council to debate their progressive proposals to end homelessness at a full council meeting.

The 38 Degrees petition to support the Solution Based Proposals is here.

You can find out more about the Love Activists’ Solution Based Proposals by visiting their fedbook page: facebook.com/loveactivistsbrighton

(This article was originally published as a note on Love Activists Brighton’s fedbook page on Thursday, December 10th, 2015)

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