Amid the vibrations of doom and whiff of ennui surrounding anything stamped with the politicised big society seal, a new campaign tagged in plain terms as a grassroots effort to improve a neighbourhood is a bit of an attention-grabber.
Shockingly, no one’s claiming it’s part of some shiny new renaissance in volunteering that will allow the state to retreat on the sly, but a tried and tested idea, backed by an organisation that’s been doing similar, citizen-led work for years.
Quick – Dave’s on the line – he wants his big society back!
Today’s launch of Shoreditch Citizens – part of well-established community organisers programme London Citizens – follows an audit of 200 organisations in the east London area, plus 500 meetings to identify local issues that matter and train community leaders.
The Shoreditch arm is the latest chapter for London Citizens, an alliance of 160 groups representing faith institutions universities and schools, trade unions and community groups; the founding member is The East London Communities Organisation (Telco), the UK’s largest independent community alliance launched in 1996.
Shoreditch Citizens has high hopes in aiming to join forces to impact on poverty, poor housing and gang crime – around 75% of the area’s children live below the poverty line and four in 10 adults are unemployed. The campaign, funded by the Mayor’s Fund for London and £270,000 over three years from the community investment arm of Barclays Capital, also wants an alternative to the education maintenance allowance (EMA) to encourage young people to stay in education. There is also a plan to make Shoreditch a “Living Wage” zone, where everyone who works in the area can be sure to earn a decent amount to live on. The Living Wage campaign was first launched by London Citizens in 2001, which says it has won over £40 million of Living Wages, lifting over 6,500 families out of working poverty.
By December 2012, the Shoreditch engagement programme aims to train 300 community leaders from 30 civil institutions and hopes to impact on up to 15,000 families. All this is nothing if not ambitious, but if you don’t have goals…
For those who’ve not already seen it, this powerful film presents an alternative to the government’s devastating cuts agenda. It features community groups and anti-cuts campaigners along with Bill Nighy, Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Zac Goldsmith MP. Worth watching ahead of this weekend’s demo in London against the cuts.
There is something of a gaping reality chasm between the vision of the big society and its fruition, not to mention growing accusations that the concept is a smokescreen for cuts. The chasm between vision and fruition might be narrowed by better and stronger mechanisms for civic service – or simply more hours in the day, as big society tsar Nat Wei recently demonstrated.
However, one scheme that has slowly and steadily supported and facilitated volunteers to promote an activity – in this case, adult learning – is the Community Learning Champions project. The drive, a joint partnership between NIACE (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education), WEA, lifelong learning organsiation unionlearn and education consultants Martin Yarnit Associates, involves people who become active in their community by promoting the value of learning to others.
Launched in August 2009 , the three-year £3m Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) funded scheme ends in March (but of course!) but its ripple effect has been felt at a community level by hundreds of people. More than 1,000 champions should be registered by the end of next month and, if NIACE estimates are right and each champion encourages an average 30 people into learning, 30,000 individuals should be helped into learning as a result.
Champions promote learning among their friends, neighbours, relatives, or workmates; they are trusted as they speak from experience and act as role models to encourage others to take up new skills.
Homeless charity St Mungo’s – which of course has huge concerns about funding cuts – used the Community Learning Champions scheme last year to recruit up to 30 homeless volunteers to become learning champions.
The volunteers, recruited through the charity’s client representative group Outside In which managed the project, encouraged others get involved in learning, anything from gym classes to art workshops.
In the film here, St Mungo’s service user Richard talks about his love of soaking up new knowledge and the difference you can make thanks to a non-classroom learning environment. As he says: “All the time I was homeless, on drugs, this is the sort of thing I always had in my head that when I eventually sorted my life out, it’s the sort of thing I wanted to be doing.”
I was really struck by these atmospheric, beautifully shot videos which use characters from the Wizard of Oz to expose the lives of the hidden homeless, taking the film’s iconic line ‘There’s no place like home’ as inspiration.
Produced to show during the charity Crisis’ recent Coldplay Hidden Gigs in Newcastle and Liverpool, they’ve just gone on public release. Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow face different aspects of homelessness that most people aren’t aware of.
Dorothy flees violence in a B&B, the Cowardly Lion outsays his welcome on a friend’s sofa and the Scarecrow is a lonely squatter.
If using a vintage Hollywood movie to highlight a contemporary social issue via some pleasing visuals sounds like a totally random stab for publicity, then that’s exactly what it is – and frankly, why not?
As Crisis chief executive Leslie Morphy says: “We are always looking for new ways to bring to attention the hidden crisis of homelessness. We hope these videos make people think about the issue, and hopefully help us in our mission to end homelessness by donating or campaigning for change.”
Self-help housing can help solve employment as well as housing problems – so here’s a belated nudge to a piece by Kate Murray, regular Social Issue blogger, which explores the below-the-radar world of community housing projects in Society Guardian.
With bursts of retro orange shooting through its autumnal colour palette and wooden floors framed by bright white walls, the purpose-built accommodation pictured here wouldn’t look out of place in some interiors magazines.
Beneath the well-appointed rooms lies a bistro and a health spa where you can get your hair cut and styled or enjoy a pedicure.
The building, which opened in November, has achieved code level four for sustainable homes. It is heavily insulated, rainwater is harvested for reuse and heating is sourced from photovoltaic and solar thermal technology. A combined heat and power source also produces electricity, with any surplus sold to the national grid. The entire complex is wired for super-fast broadband.
Little wonder Ewart House has just won a ‘best place to live in London’ award in the Royal Town Planning Insitute’s annual London Planning Awards.
A boutique hotel or maybe the latest urban eco-housing?
The only giveaway that Ewart House might in fact be sheltered housing is the fact the ground floor ‘spa’ also offers assisted bathing and the pedicure is really, well, more chiropody. Look more closely and you see the handrails lining the walls and the discrete pacing area for vulnerable residents. The decor and furnishings are also colour coordinated to enable residents with limited vision and dementia to recognise which part of the building they are in; no institutional signage here but subtle ways for residents to get their bearings. In a separate wing with its own entrance are seven flats let to younger people with disabilities and the building is intended to act as a community hub.
Ewart House appears to have substance as well as style; this isn’t just fashionable living for the frail. The extra care sheltered home for frail older people, including people with mild dementia, contains self-contained flats for 47 residents. Almost all flats have a private balcony and some are designed for couples whose fragile health prevents them from sharing a bedroom.The weekly rent and service charges are £135.
The project is a partnership between housing association Harrow Churches (HCHA), which manages the building and provides day time support, and the charity Creative Support, which provides specialist support staff on call 24-hours a day.
With a recent report by the Alzheimers Society suggesting that 50,000 people in the UK are being forced into care homes prematurely, Ewart House has three flats designed for people with mild dementia and the staff are trained in dementia care.
The three-storey building, designed by architects JCMT and styled by interior decorators Stanbridge Interiors, was built using a £6.3m loan from the Homes and Communities Agency, a £3m loan secured by HCHA from Santander and money raised by leasing part of the land to development partner Octavia Housing. Harrow Council pays for employing two teams of staff providing personal care and support while housing support staff are employed by HCHA.
Despite the obvious benefits and official plaudits, HCHA warns the funding climate is a massive threat to creating similar schemes. Chief execuitve Chris Holley says: ‘We’re extremely worried that funding will not be available for more schemes like this despite the substantial social and financial advantages it offers over alternatives like residential and nursing care.
According to one elderly resident, William Fordham, Ewart House is a breath of fresh air: ‘The best thing is the freedom. It’s magic – I have my own flat but carers coming in and out. I didn’t know places like this existed.’ As William’s words suggest, why should losing your youth mean losing your desire for decent décor?
Aiming to crack two of the public sector’s greatest challenges – homelessness and the Neet issue – is daunting enough. Doing so with a multi-agency partnership spanning the sectors of local government, charity, education and housing makes the task even more ambitious. Read more about the scheme in Banbury in my Guardian Public article today.
When the revolution of care in the community took place, the decision to close long stay institutions resulted in a new, big idea; normal lifestyles, in normal houses, in normal streets.
People found themselves discharged from hospitals into small group homes in virtually every town in the UK. These were shared houses registered as care homes operating effectively as shared supported housing in the days before the supported living drive but without the important security of a tenancy. For many it felt like not only a new life, but a better one.
But now, just as people are looking forward to enjoying this life, due to bureaucratic, regulatory and financial reasons, people are trapped in unwanted small registered care homes. These homes are now closing because of running costs or the need to meet national minimum standards and changes in commissioning practice which prefer supported housing over ‘care homes’.
The problem is these closures are not happening in a strategic or orderly way, so the people living there face the prospect of another move into the unknown.
Take John, for example. He has a complex disability and moved from a long stay institution in 1986 to live in the community. His funding came from the council (let’s call it council A) where his parents lived although his new home was based in a different local authority area (council B).
In 1990 John moved to a smaller house, still registered as a care home (as it was before the supported living options became available), but less rural and with more to do in the community. The new house was still based in council B’s area and the funding arrangements continued.
Over the last 15 years John and his housemates have enjoyed a settled and fairly contented life building up their local support networks. Recently, two of the other people living there have moved on, leaving behind John and a fellow housemate, Mary (she is funded by council C).
The problem is that the charity that runs the home cannot find new people to move in to fill the vacancies – it has continued to run the service at a loss for the past two years.
The inability to find people to join John and Mary has been largely due to the understandable reluctance of authorities to make referrals to registered care placements.
As a solution, the charity could de-register the accommodation so it is no longer classed as a care home, but if it does so, it will come up against two bureaucratic barriers. Firstly, local government ‘ordinary residence’ rules mean council B would have to take on the support costs for John and Mary (while councils A and C would relinquish all funding). Secondly, council B is reluctant to open up its procurement arrangements to recognise the charity as a preferred contractor so will not place people there under contract for supported living!
Unknown to John and Mary, the home is likely to close and they will be faced with a move back to authorities A and C, a part of the country they haven’t lived in for over 20 years where not many family members remain. The costs to authorities A and C are very likely to increase while authority B will lose a good resource that could meet local needs.
Our 2007 report titled No Place Like Home recommended three actions: firstly to agree the principle of a person-centred approach to funding and placement, secondly for the government to issue guidance and thirdly to put in place a framework for funding to transfer between authorities.
In October the VODG published Not in My Backyard as a follow up and found that despite the fact that new guidance had been issued there was little evidence of good practice. VODG demands the government include the concept of portability of social care entitlement in the white paper on social care due to be published next year.
We must do right by people like John and Mary; they represent a particularly wronged generation of people. Regardless of promises for future reform we need a kind of national amnesty, one that ensures funding is in the right place, providers and commissioners are working in partnership and individuals are given a proper voice. Because putting people first is not just a one off action, it is an enduring commitment.
Jane Forster is a realist. ‘Homeless people with chaotic lifestyles aren’t the most attractive tenants to private landlords,’ she says.
It’s a realism that sometimes seems to be lacking among the policy-makers planning a bigger role for the private rented sector in providing homes for those most in need. The government plans to allow councils to discharge their duty under homelessness legislation with the offer of a home in the private sector in its consultation on the reform of social housing – whether or not the applicants agree.
The move, ministers say, will prevent applicants insisting on being offered social housing and will mean would-be tenants spend far less time in temporary accommodation waiting for the offer of a home. But are we really ready for a big expansion in the use of the private sector to house homeless people?
Can tenants, who are often vulnerable, simply be placed in the private sector and left to go on with it?
The experience of people like Jane Forster suggests that we will need to see a concerted effort to make the homeless tenant/private sector match-up work.
Forster is income generation officer at Mansfield District Council. Mansfield has been running an impressive scheme which offers dedicated support to both tenants and private sector landlords and which has just been a finalist in the Guardian’s public services awards.
The Multi Agency Rented Solution scheme – or MARS – is, despite its name, a down-to-earth solution to the problem of tenancy breakdown. Applicants from the council’s waiting list are offered help in getting money from a credit union for advance rent payments and then given ongoing support to help them stay in their new home. Landlords too have access to liaison officers who help them
The results are impressive. Since it was launched, it has helped some 120 people into a new private sector home, brought 48 empty properties back into use and cut repeat homelessness by 63 per cent. The scheme has been such a success, it is now being rolled out as a social enterprise.
But it’s not an easy fix: making an initiative like this work demands commitment. As Forster puts it: ‘The X factor is tenancy support. That’s what makes it work, when people are vulnerable and don’t have all the skills to live their life, they need ongoing support.’ Mansfield is not the only housing provider doing valuable work in this area.
Look Ahead Housing and Care, for example, has been a strong advocate of the need to make good use of the private sector in housing the ex-residents of homelessness hostels in the capital. Its approach has involved preparing residents for a move into the private rented sector and offering ongoing support as they settle in.
Landlords benefit too, getting the reassurance of proper assessments of their new tenants plus ongoing help, like mediation should the landlord/tenant relationship start to break down.
When it launched its plans for councils to make greater use of the private sector to house those on their waiting lists, the government said only 7 per cent of homeless applicants currently accepted a home in the private sector, compared with 70 per cent of cases which ended with an offer of social housing. We could see a big shift in these proportions once the new rules come in.
The element of compulsion in the government’s proposals doesn’t appeal. But it’s true that with a dire shortage of social housing, the private sector can and should be seen as offering a viable option for many people who would otherwise struggle to get a home. But the approach needs to be backed by proper, ongoing support. Otherwise we risk pushing some of the most vulnerable in our society into homes they will struggle to sustain.