The ongoing struggle of homelessness in the UK has been something that’s troubled me for some time. In 2018 housing charity Shelter declared that at least 320,000 people were homeless in Britain – a figure made up of rough sleepers and those in temporary accommodation; a figure that can only have increased, given the continual rise in previous years (294,000 in 2016; 307,000 in 2017).
Ever since my move to Manchester, where homelessness is devastatingly prominent, I’ve become more and more guilt ridden every time I don’t offer a helping hand in some way. The amount of times I’ve daydreamed about walking up to a rough sleeper and offering to buy them a room at a nearby hotel for the night is painful to think about. Painful only because it’s entirely within my power to do so, yet I refrain. Why? Well, because one night under a roof isn’t going to change the world. It isn’t going to suppress the issue. And would my money on one night in a Holiday Inn for one person not be better spent elsewhere where people can be helped more widespread?
And so I am at odds with what I should do with the money I’m lucky enough to have. Where is it best spent? Who out there is providing the best support that I can contribute to? These are the questions that brought me to this debate of where money is better spent for those experiencing homelessness: the arts or government initiatives.
Let’s start with the arts. There are so many arts organisations providing support through boots on the ground programmes, designed to improve lives through mental wellbeing, integration into communities, a sense of belonging as well as access to education.
From my own research, one key example – The Edge – a theatre based in Chorlton, Manchester, a place wherein homelessness is particularly prominent, provides people who are homeless the chance to take part in different arts activities, using high quality theatre to transform their lives. They run regular drama and singing workshops at the Booth Centre for people who are, or are at risk of, being homeless. This partnership also consists of two in-house productions each year at The Edge, wherein they create exciting new theatre – written and composed by Director Janine Waters and Musical Director Simon Waters. The Edge don’t create issue based theatre, as they don’t condone advocating poverty porn in the arts – a pitfall that many artists can be privy to falling into when creating issue based work. Plus, taking part in their programmes is supposed to be an escape from the everyday struggles their participants experience. One participant said “The sessions with Janine from The Edge gave me the chance to forget my problems for a few hours, concentrate on something I’m good at, and the chance to be someone else.”
Janine writes the shows based on the abilities of the participants, largely incorporating a pantomime style format and sing-along songs; great ways to approach theatre making for typically non-theatre makers as it allows them, in performance, to rule the audience. They orchestrate audience participation, and when audiences respond in positive ways, this boosts the confidence and sense of agency in participants in the fact they’re being cheered on, and are providing entertainment for others.
I’ve seen these shows first hand, in 2018 attending two – ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ and ‘It’s Behind You’. Guess which one was the panto! Having spoken with some of the participants prior to the shows in rehearsal, it was inspiring to see how far the show had come, and you could tell just how much fun they were having in performing this work to the public for the first time. Of ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, Matthew Dougall of Reviewer Number 9 said “This show was giving these citizens a meaning and a reason to stay alive perhaps sounds a little melodramatic and exaggerated; but after speaking with some of them after the show, that was really the case.”
Taking part in these shows, and the regular workshops at the Booth Centre, have proven to give participants a sense of belonging in their lives. These sessions are a space wherein they can really contribute to the creation of something, and everyone is treated like a professional, increasing self esteem. One finding I felt was particularly poignant, was how even entering the room for the first time, that initial first step to changing their lives, is such an important one, and sometimes the most challenging of them all.
Janine conducted an evaluation on participating in the arts as part of the Comic Relief funded project ‘Safe Homes’, supported by the Booth Centre. In this evaluation, based on interviews from eight people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness, one of the conclusions identified was the importance of the sense of achievement in someone just turning up and taking part. Even if this takes time, we’re talking long-term, finally taking that step is a huge success in itself; and it’s not one that goes unnoticed at The Edge.
These micro journeys are seen as macro achievements at The Edge, and they will make sure to congratulate where it is due, another way in which a sense of belonging can be obtained within these workshops. When I sat in on a rehearsal, I saw how Janine dedicates a section of the session to positive peer and self reflection. This moment in the process has become compulsory, not by force, but naturally, and people are always keen to take part and congratulate one another for things that come out of sessions, even if it’s as simple as making someone laugh.
Janine’s evaluation also concluded how The Edge and the Booth Centre’s drama, singing and creative writing sessions vastly improved literacy skills as, unlike within the education system, they’re not learning for learning’s sake. There’s an end goal, whether that be reading a script, singing a song or writing a poem. And the fact that these final products are shared with their peers, and in some cases the public, only amplifies their incentive to want to learn: As part of the evaluation, one of the eight fed back: “I managed to remember all my lines, and loved seeing the audience’s reaction. I never thought I’d enjoy it so much but it has really helped improve my confidence and I am now volunteering at The Booth Centre as a peer mentor and I am in permanent accommodation.”
Speaking with Janine, I learnt how some participants actively went out of their way to bring new learning into the room off the back of what they had been taught in rehearsals. For a previous production, ‘A Spanish Adventure’, a show based on actual historical events, The Edge brought people in to teach participants about the subject of the play, to which some of the participants came into the next session with costume collage’s based on what they’d learned. It’s this kind of initiative that only comes off the back of their enjoyment of the sessions, and their dedication to the process, the people and the show.
People working in the arts to improve the lives of homeless people aren’t alone though. Manchester’s own Mayor Andy Burnham has been putting into practice key initiatives to tackle rough sleeping since his election in May 2017. Soon after, he launched his A Bed Every Night scheme, which provides beds and tailored support for anyone who is sleeping rough or at imminent risk of sleeping rough in Greater Manchester. At the time of writing (Jun 2020) since its launch in November 2018 A Bed Every Night has supported 1,131 people move into secure, long-term accommodation, having supported a total of 3,179 rough sleepers overall. Currently, on average, 470 people are supported through this scheme every night.
Also working to provide secure homes for the homeless is Greater Manchester Housing First, a three year pilot which uses independent, stable housing as a platform to enable individuals to begin recovery and move away from homelessness. One major difference this scheme has over other government funded efforts is the word ‘stable’. The accommodation offered as part of this scheme is done so without the time pressures of a limited offering e.g. six months to a year. By allowing those who take up residence the time and space to live, it allows them to make positive changes in their own lives, which leads to improvements in health and wellbeing and the ability to find permanent housing, which in turn reduces ineffective contact with costly public services.
This scheme is one of three government funded pilots – the other two being in West Midlands and Liverpool – and is borne off the back of similar schemes in countries like Finland and Canada where statistically they’ve had widespread positive effects. Andy Burnham took a trip to Helsinki, Finland in 2019 to see for himself and said this, “Following the financial crash, it feels as though homelessness has begun to be viewed by many in a defeatist way – as an inevitable fact of modern city life which can’t be solved. The big news from Helsinki is that it can – as long it is prioritised at a national level and people who are homeless are seen and helped as individual people, not “others” or outsiders. Or, to put it another way, it can be solved by doing the exact opposite of what the UK has done.”
As Andy says, one of the main issues with these government efforts is the small scale nature of them. Unlike in countries like Finland who adopted these methods nationally, we continue to pilot such schemes in isolated regions, whilst more nationally recognised approaches like the Universal Credit benefits system are practised far and wide; much to the detriment of those who use them, many of which teeter on the edge of being at risk of homelessness, and are pushed even further towards that tipping point by not being able to pay bills as a result of the flaws in the system.
The proof is in the pudding with this, the pudding being a Conservative fallback in 2019 wherein Work & Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd decided against rolling the controversial benefits scheme to 3 million claimants, instead opting for a trial of just 10,000 in order to evaluate its success and avoid further damage to those in need. “The government seems finally to have woken up to the human catastrophe that was waiting to happen under its ill-formed plans for moving people onto Universal Credit.” said Frank Field, Commons Work & Pensions Committee chair. “As a next step, and in keeping with this new approach, it is essential for the government to proceed with ‘mass migration’ of people to Universal Credit only once it has proved to parliament that it will not push more vulnerable people to the brink of destitution.”
Going back to the question of whether money is better spent on government initiatives or arts programmes, it feels easier to trust a charity like The Edge. They’re a charity after all. As the government is responsible for so much in this country, sometimes you can’t help but wonder where all the money goes and how decisions are made as to where they spend what. As I’ve said, initiatives like Housing First are isolated efforts, and it does beg the question as to why. Is there simply not enough money to go round?
I was interested in finding out more about the wider financial landscape of the government and, after a browse on Google, quickly uncovered articles relating to the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal, which I hadn’t heard of before. The results, as I’m sure many of you will be aware, were quite shocking. Whether it be claiming for duck houses or moat cleanings, examples are endless. And it isn’t an issue that’s been resolved either. Despite the introduction of IPSA (Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority) to regulate MP expenses, the claims made are still of a ridiculous standard. In 2015, Lord Speaker at the time Baroness D'Souza claimed for £230 after requesting her chauffeur-driven car waited for four hours for her whilst she watched an opera a mile away from Parliament. Admittedly, this was a step in the right direction when compared to the £738 she spent on a Mercedes that waited for 10 hours during an event at Windsor Castle in 2012. Looking more widely, expenses claimed for renting second homes rose from £6.2m in 2010/11 to £9.3m in 2014/15. And in 2016 MP’s had more than £26,000 in misclaimed expenses written off by the IPSA.
These figures are miserable to read. And so, for me, they sour the credibility of government initiatives, as opposed to the passions and not-for-profit nature of arts organisations who are upfront and honest with their spending. That’s not to say these expense claims should represent the government as whole. Andy Burnham, during his election campaign for Mayor of Manchester, pledged to donate 15% of his mayoral salary to charities tackling homelessness if elected, and has proven true to his word. This is a step in the right direction for MP’s, but sadly, like the pilot schemes that exist to tackle homelessness, his efforts are a needle in a haystack.
So where is money better spent for those experiencing homelessness? The arts or government initiatives? The answer is certainly both. But one cannot work without the other. Whilst the government uses their more extensive connections and resources to fund initiatives that give these people homes, arts programmes support them to cope with their current situations, igniting changes in perceptions and steering people to make positive changes in their own lives. We can only hope that, in time, national government efforts will be made to bring about widespread positive change.
I feel the conclusion above is best kept in the context in which it was researched and incepted, before the Coronavirus pandemic swept the world off its feet and the UK went into lockdown. As such, I haven’t made mention of the impact of COVID-19 on the issue of homelessness in the UK. However I feel it’s important to reflect on my argument above at the time of writing (June 2020), in light of the impacts COVID-19 has had, and the steps taken by the government in response to it.
On 17 March 2020, days before lockdown was implemented nationwide, the government announced emergency funding of £3.2 million as part of an ‘Everyone In’ scheme to help rough sleepers to self isolate. What ensued was thousands of previously homeless people being given temporary accommodation in the now empty hotels and hostels across the UK. Not long after there were claims being made that 90% of rough sleepers were in safe accommodation. These claims remain claims however, with officials refusing to publish the data to back them up. Accurate or not, it was clear that this scheme was having extraordinary effects on the homelessness issue across the UK.
Sadly, this initiative is due to end. On 4 June it was reported that the government funding will have been spent, thus ending contracts between local councils and hotels and forcing the previously homeless tenants to become homeless once again. The government’s response to this pulling of the plug was pointing to another £3.2 billion of funding given to local authorities to deal with the fallout of the pandemic. But it's uncertain how much of this funding will be allocated to protecting rough sleepers.
My reason for explaining the current situation as part of this argument is to highlight a world in which ending homelessness is much closer than we may have thought. The ‘Everyone In’ scheme feels familiar in that it almost sounds like the Housing First initiative I mention earlier in this investigation, successfully adopted in Finland and currently in pilot stage across the UK. The positive effects ‘Everyone In’ has had on the issue of homelessness are clear, one woman, Amanda, describing the help she received “like something out of a storybook”. The kind of help she described includes not only access to showers, clean sheets and TVs, but services that were set up in these hotels to provide help with benefits applications and medical prescriptions. In other words, help that seems a million miles away if you’re fending for yourself on the streets.
UK homeless charity Crisis estimates it would cost £282 million to provide the people in emergency accommodation with permanent housing and support in these hotels and hostels for the next 12 months. A large sum of money for anyone. But bearing in mind the expenses issue I touched on earlier, it feels disingenuous of the government to not look at that figure and see a tangible pathway to ending homelessness. Heading in that direction would require some harsh scrutiny of their own spending, but unfortunately I don’t see that looking like a favourable option for them. Let’s not forget the £26,000 that was written off in 2016.
Ending homelessness will never be a straightforward road, but it’s clear to me that the positive effects time and space to live can have on individuals, like Amanda, feel achievable if the ‘Everyone In’ scheme were to continue. Of course, it was never meant to last as hotels and hostels won’t remain empty forever. But if the scheme has shown us one thing, it’s that initiatives like Housing First, with the right kind of immediate and widespread attention, can work just as well here as they do in Finland, and once we’re no longer living in a pandemic we should look to expanding Housing First from pilots to nationwide efforts.