At last, a good way to help the homeless

Published in The Daily Telegraph (November 15th, 2010)

Simon had been using drugs and sleeping rough for nearly two decades, resisting endless demands to come in from the cold and stop destroying himself. He spent long days shuffling around the City of London in a haze of heroin, and long nights huddled in stairwells around the Square Mile.

But no longer. Today he is, in his own words, as happy as Larry. He has his own room, washes and shaves regularly, is dealing with his drug problem and starts each day with a sense of possibility. He is even planning to return home to the two children he abandoned.

It is a stunning success story, especially when you consider that the average life expectancy of someone living on the streets and abusing drugs is 37 – the same as on the blighted streets of Harare, Zimbabwe. And it is not just good news for Simon, but good news for the rest of us, because such people cost the state more than £26,000 a year in police, health and prison bills.

So what was the magic formula? Simple: instead of hectoring him, a charity asked what he would like to change in his lifestyle. It was part of a courageous pilot scheme in which the hardest-core homeless were offered up to £3,000 to spend as they saw fit. As the Coalition struggles to reform public services, it underlines the importance of handing power to the users of services, even in the most unlikely circumstances.

How to deal with the long-term homeless has long vexed those trying to help them. These are people who take misguided pride in their outsider status and resist even the best offers to abandon the streets. Many have severe drug, drink and mental health problems. So the idea of handing them substantial sums of public money to bring them back into society was, to put it mildly, a brave move.

But it worked. The results exceeded all the expectations of those involved, said the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in an important new report that offers wider lessons for improving our sclerotic public services. “If you have positive expectations of people they respond positively,” said Howard Sinclair, chief executive of Broadway, the charity that oversaw the project.

Broadway targeted the most recalcitrant rough sleepers, people who had spent up to 45 years on the streets. Remarkably, 13 of the 15 targets agreed to take part, albeit after some persuasion, and 11 have moved into accommodation and are rebuilding their shattered lives. Just one, a drug addict, fell back into his old ways.

Organisers were surprised how little it took to get some people off the streets once they were engaged with the project. One man only wanted new trainers and a television. Spending averaged just £794 per person and none asked to spend money on drink, drugs or gambling. The key was putting the power and responsibility on people themselves to control their own lives.

The dramatic results, supported by three other similar trials, underline the importance of innovation and risk-taking in public services. This is perhaps the most dramatic use yet of personalised budgets in social care and underlines the transformative powers of these policies, increasingly common for people with profound disabilities and chronic health problems.

As the parent of a severely disabled child, I have seen at first hand how such policies pay off for both users and providers of public services. To give one example, five years ago a family I know spent weeks fighting to be allowed to use their own car to take their disabled child to school instead of using a taxi service and escort. The local council resisted, despite savings of several hundred pounds a week, because it went against their policies. Today, the same authority is discussing buying a car for the family, which will save about £20,000 a year and deliver a far better service for everyone involved.

The harsh truth is that our public services have failed many of the most vulnerable people in Britain. They failed those self-destructive rough sleepers just as they failed families with disabled children endlessly fighting bureaucracy, children from impoverished backgrounds with lives ruined by third-rate schools and even prisoners unable to escape the cycle of crime.

My experiences of struggling with bureaucracy led me to advocate the devolution of power in public services, but so often the idea is met with the patronising response that it will only work for the middle classes. There is this snobbish belief, especially on the Left, that other people are not equipped to run their own lives. We have seen it again with the debate over free schools.

This study into the homeless punctures such myths. It shows that we can have more efficient and more effective public services if we encourage a culture of innovation and hand power to their users, whoever they are. And it proves that it is possible to improve services even at a time of drastic spending cuts.


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