A letter to the Pavement

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Dear Editor

I’m writing to you as someone who has read your magazine since it first came out along with many homeless people – some of whom I have attempted to help over the years.

After 8 years in charities, mainly working with the homeless I’ve decided to leave after becoming so disillusioned.  Few charities speak out or appear to have concerns over issues such as hot washing the places where homeless people sleep or the attempted ban of soup runs.

I got fed up attending homeless forum meetings where whenever I raised concerns about how some councils work the room would just go quiet.  Yet at the end of meetings when no one was looking or could hear someone would always come up and say they agreed with what I’d said.

The attempted banning of free food felt like the final straw as I saw this as a blanket attempt to stop providing something that many of your readership would need to survive.  The idea that people “choose” to stand out in freezing temperatures for a cup of soup and that this created dependency was just ludicrous – yet most campaigning homeless charities I spoke to whilst initially concerned kept quiet whilst others either pretended it wasn’t happening, or perhaps maybe even agreed.  What this seemed to be was an act of desperation from those in charge who had run out of ideas.

When St Mungos are quoted by the BBC as saying how wonderful it is that there are only 69 recorded rough sleepers in Westminster and Jerry Swain from another homeless charity Thamesreach says in response to a report that most charities feel under pressure from their funders – “I think they need to shape up” – I feel like I’m listening to the government instead of charities.

The reality as I see it is that many services for the homeless are harder to access and the criteria for getting into hostels gets tougher by the day and as one day centre manager said recently: “it’s difficult to help anybody these days”.

What I would like to know is why isn’t there more of a debate about these issues?  When councils quote statistics saying how great it is that homeless applications have dropped dramatically – why aren’t we telling the world that this might be due to the increasingly aggressive gate keeping of many councils to stop people being assessed let alone housed?

Homeless Link, which apparently speaks for homeless charities, has praised the government’s vision for ending homelessness.  Yet, barring some form of miracle, I disagree when they say that “we will see rough sleeping ended in out time” without dealing with the problems that create homelessness in the first place – poverty and inequality.  We would need to improve our current housing stock; build thousands of new affordable homes; introduce a far higher minimum wage and benefits that actually cover the high cost of living to name some of the obvious problems that people who are homeless generally face along with the 13million in poverty in the UK.

There are a few such as Housing Justice and the Simon Community who still challenge things whilst Advice UK and the National Coalition for Independent Action have started a lonely battle to defend independence for charities, but unless others get behind them, as far as I am concerned, homeless charities will end up doing nothing more than helping to implement government policy and instead of helping the homeless we many more may end up as part of the growing numbers of hidden homeless who are moved out of the sight of the tourists in London.

Mark Murton

March 2009

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