Tag Archives: housing

How back office benchmarking can improve efficiency

When social housing provider One Vision Housing (OVH) reduced its total management costs by £2.8m in five years, it was partly due to the fact it had been benchmarking its back office functions.

The Merseyside-based group spends less now on what it terms its regularly recurring front and back office management than it did in 2006, when it was formed after a housing stock transfer from Sefton council. As a large transfer organisation with a very tight business plan, benchmarking to encourage efficiency was key, says operational director of finance Gaynor Robinson. However, Robinson emphasises that “it’s not just about identifying savings, it is about improving business processes and prioritising your resources … it’s about quality and governance”. Read the rest of my piece on the Guardian’s voluntary sector network pages.

Sticking plasters, surgery and spending reviews

A damp squib of a sticking plaster, or what health secretary Andrew Lansley has said is the “most comprehensive overhaul [of social care] since 1948” and an end to the care lottery?

Most early reaction to today’s long awaited care and support white paper and its associated draft bill is firmly on the side of the former view.

I’ve yet to read all the detail, but while there’s a much-needed focus on elderly care, there’s not enough of a recognition for other sections of society needing care and support, and nothing to plug the funding gap.

As Merrick Cockell, chairman of the Local Government Association, told Radio 4’s Today programme this morning: “We haven’t got time to tinker around…We’ve got to look at radical change.” The LGA has said there is a £1.4bn gap this year between the money available and the cost of maintaining social care services. There’s a good run down of the council perspective on the LGC website and while this post from Ermintrude2 was written before the publication of the white paper, it’s a really good explanation of the issues.

While today’s announcement picks up some from the Dilnot report (Dilnot suggested a system for the elderly where the total cost of care would be capped to £35,000 and support to old people should be extended to those with assets of £100,000), any “victory” for common sense and civil society is bittersweet because it fails to lacks the cash to make real far-sighted change a reality. The proposals might well show good will, but there’s no financial way (this communitycare.co.uk piece relates to the vision for social work, which could be undermined by the lack of cash).

It is, as shadow health secretary is quoted in the Guardian’s politics live blog as saying, “a pick and mix approach to the Dilnot package”. So the government hasn’t taken up the “once in a lifetime opportunity” that Dilnot mentioned when he launched his vision of how to fix the social care system.

Among today’s main points are plans for an optional social insurance scheme under which people pay the government premiums to ensure that their costs for care and accommodation are capped, and a “universal deferred payments” system where councils lend money to those needing care, then recover the cash when the house is sold after death. Sound sensible – perhaps even familiar? That’s because it’s already in use – around 9,000 people already used deferred payments.

Today’s government press statement suggests we watch this space: “The government will continue to work with stakeholders to consider in more detail variants under the principles of the Dilnot commission’s model, before coming to a final view in the next spending review.”

Having already waited with bated breath for today’s long overdue white paper and draft bill, it’s unlikely that many will hold it much longer.

Here’s a flavour (by no means a comprehensive round up) of reaction on Twitter and the web to today’s social care white paper:

Richard Humphries, senior fellow at the King’s Fund: “There is a financial vacuum at the heart of these proposals which undermines the bold and ambitious vision for a reformed system set out in the White Paper.”

Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: “Successive governments have failed to act. Without a sense of urgency more of us face insecurity and uncertainty as we age. The failure to address social care properly will only mean more pressure on the NHS thereby destroying all hopes of a sustainable and functioning health system in the future.”

Clare Pelham, chief executive of disability charity Leonard Cheshire Disability: “It is a question of fundamental decency that disabled and older people should be able to live their lives with dignity in Britain in the 21st century. We hear a great deal about the need to support older people through dignified social care, but it is important that the needs of younger disabled people are not overlooked.”

Mark Goldring, chief executive of Mencap:”The social care system is in crisis. Years of underinvestment and cuts to services have left one in four adults with a learning disability literally stuck in the home, isolated and at risk, with family carers at breaking point and scared about the future…We are reassured to see that the Government has committed to fund immediate reforms, but this promising blue print will never get off the ground if it fails to address the chronic underfunding in social care. The Government cannot delay any longer, and must now outline an urgent plan of how it intends to fund social care reform in the long term.”

Carers UK chief executive Heléna Herklots: “The measures set out in the draft Care and Support Bill would move from piecemeal carers’ rights legislation to the establishment of carers’ rights in government legislation and, for the first time, equalise carers’ rights with disabled people rights…But to make these rights a reality, what carers also need is a social care system with the resources to overcome years of chronic underfunding and rapidly growing demand. Those who face soaring care bills, service cuts and a daily struggle to access even basic support from the social care system, may see new rights in legislation as empty promises without the funding to back them up.”

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation: “We’re pleased the White Paper recognises that housing is crucial to the integration of health and social care, and welcome the investment to build more supported housing for older people and younger disabled adults…We need a health service that invests in services that keep people out of hospital, not one that simply treats them when they get there….the Department of Health needs to encourage local government and the NHS to pool budgets, focus on housing-based preventative services and set out its full proposals for the funding of social care – for today and for tomorrow.”

Nick Young, chief executive of the British Red Cross: “That the Government is accused of failing to address the social care crisis is no surprise. The scale of the funding problem is enormous and growing. It will take courage, creativity and tremendous degree of political will to solve. That isn’t going to happen overnight.”

Reaction on Twitter using hashtags #carewhitepaper, #ukcare and #carecantwait (also check out ‏@sim89 Storify‬ compilation of early responses):

@ageuklondon Though it contains some good ideas, the #carewhitepaper doesn’t go far enough. The problem of care will not go away and is getting worse!
‏@Sensetweets Deafblind people continue to be abandoned, as funding fails to materialise – our response to the #carewhitepaper
‏@TonyButcher #carewhitepaper – like excitedly looking forward to your birthday but then only getting a cheap pair of Primark socks – disappointing
‏@gary_rae If this is a “watershed moment” for #ukcare then we’re clearly drowning. #carecantwait #dilnot
‏@Marc_Bush Care crisis demanded decisive action. Today we got a holding statement…’ @scope rspnd 2 @DHgovuk ‪#carewhitepaper‬ http://tiny.cc/scopetocare
‏@WoodClaudia focus on deferred payments in ‪#carewhitepaper‬ due to absence of other funding ideas. It is option for some, not THE solution being proposed
@Ermintrude2 Disappointed that headlines about #carewhitepaper all seem to concentrate on selling houses to pay for care. System about so much more.

I never imagined I’d be selling my body for drugs

Vulnerable women are the focus of charity St Mungo's new campaign

“I never imagined in a million years I’d be selling my body for drugs…I’m still doing it now… I’ve nearly been killed three times doing [prostitution]. I’ve been raped doing it.. as a result of that I got HIV doing it. But it’s easy money.”

These words belong to Angela (not her real name), 38, speaking to homelessness charity St Mungo’s (you can hear more from her on the St Mungo’s website here).

Her story highlights some of the particular issues homeless women are known to face more than their vulnerable male counterparts – prostitution and domestic violence, for example – which the charity is focusing on during its action week this week.

The week kick starts St Mungo’s new campaign, Rebuilding Shattered Lives, the aim of which is to give a platform to best practice and innovation relating to supporting homeless and vulnerable women.

Traditionally, homelessness services were designed with men in mind but in England over half of those living in temporary accommodation are women and a quarter of St Mungo’s 1,700 residents are women. Until just three years ago, women fleeing an abusive relationship were deemed intentionally homeless (and so didn’t have housing rights) and encouraged to return home.

Housing and homelessness campaigners have long argued for more attention to be paid to women and homelessness (a 2006 report from housing charity Crisis still makes for stark reading) given there can be additional factors in their lives which might push them into homelessness – domestic violence and abuse, for example. The true nature of women’s housing need can also be hidden as they opt to stay with friends or sofa surf between spells of rough sleeping. While they can access mixed housing, as opposed to female-only hostels, for example, there is an argument to say that that more widespread female-specifc, housing-related support would make recovery easier.

St Mungo’s 18 month-long campaign invites organisations, frontline staff and female service users themselves to contribute ideas on preventing women’s homelessness and supporting recovery. Campaign themes including childhood trauma and domestic violence, as well as educational and employment opportunities, and restoring links with families and children.

A recent survey of St Mungo’s female residents concluded that more than a third who slept rough say their experience of domestic violence directly led to their homelessness while almost half are mothers. More than one in 10 have a history of being in care.

It’s worth noting that, as well as the stories like Angela, there are other examples in the St Mungo’s campaign of how, with the right support, women have started to turn their lives around.

“Mel”, for example, was living and working on the streets for two and a half years before coming in. She told St Mungo’s staff: “I’ve never had any stability. I don’t get on with my family, I’ve always been around drugs and getting clean when you are around other users is difficult. But I’m getting there, slowly…When I moved in here a year and a half ago I was a mess and I just slept, catching up you know. Then I turned things around, turned daytime into time for ‘doing stuff’ and nighttimes for sleeping.”

She added: “To get your benefits and all that you need to get to appointments, you have to get out of bed and you need the right help. That’s what I got here, though it took me a while to adjust, to get my head stable. What you need is people taking you seriously, people listening to what you want. What people need to understand is that just because you don’t comply with their ‘rules’, don’t turn up or whatever doesn’t mean ‘give up on them’.”

As the campaign develops, it will be interesting to see what ideas and services for women like Angela and Mel are showcased and what changes, if any, the charity’s follow up surveys reveal about an issue that has only comparatively recently been given a specific focus.

Cuts: do the right maths

I had to share the infographic below from learning disability charity United Response which, if you’ve not already seen it, lays bare the impact of cuts to disability living allowance (DLA), the benefit that helps people with care and mobility costs.

Compare these stark sums to Ian Duncan Smith’s much-criticised claims that the number of people claiming DLA had risen by 30% in recent years and its cost will soon soar to around £13bn a year.

Not that a war of figures is the thing here; as shocking as the total numbers below are, the persuasive argument against the cuts is the individual stories of the difference this vital benefit makes to people’s lives and what will happen if it is cut. It’s easy for politicians to bat percentages and pound signs back and forth (and fudge the facts and stats, as the Spartacus report suggested earlier this year); it is harder to ignore the personal stories of how reform will make life even more difficult for those who are already vulnerable.

As Rob, a wheelchair-user who has multiple sclerosis, commented in a blogpost on the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group (VODG) website (I manage the group’s blog), DLA allows him to be more independent: “Whilst it isn’t always easy, I think you have to make the most of life. The DLA enables that life to be a better one.”

Take a look at the figures:

How the cuts to Disability Living Allowance will affect disabled people

Youth film reveals the hidden gems of black theatre

The term black theatre might conjure up images of a niche and very 20th century concept, but from Ira Aldridge playing Othello in Covent Garden in the 1830s to the 1990 production of Amani Napthali’s Ragamuffin and to grime star Bashy in a rap opera a couple of years ago, the genre is historical and diverse – if lesser known than its mainstream counterpart.

A youth-led film being premiered at London’s Royal Court theatre today, Margins to Mainstream, seeks to demystify and tell the story of black theatre in Britain. Made by young people in west London and Birmingham, in a partnership between London’s Octavia Foundation and Nu Century Arts in Birmingham, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, its visual treasures include forgotten plays and landmark performances.

Those who appear in the film include playwright and broadcaster Kwame Kwei-Armah and Pat Cumper, director of the Talawa Arts Centre. The film was shot at locations including Theatre Royal East, London Southbank Centre, Royal Court Theatre, Old Vic and The Tabernacle.

The cross-city project allowed young people in London and Birmingham to learn and develop skills in media, research and film-making and is the latest in a series of innovative community filmmaking initiatives from the charity.

Zakiya, 18, a sixth form student studying photography, media and sociology and a tenant of Octavia Housing, adds that working on the project has inspired her to see more theatre and be more creative: “I didn’t really know anything about black theatre before, or theatre in general but it was really great and we saw some good productions…this project has helped build my experience in the field – I’m studying media, sociology and photography and want to be a photographer when I’m older. Seeing the finished film and knowing I’ve been a part of it is incredible.”

After the premiere in London the film will be screened at venues throughout London, Birmingham and the rest of the country and made available to theatres, arts and community groups and other interested groups later on this year. You can find out more about the screenings here.

How your old jacket might be just the job

Beneficiaries of last year's Suit Amnesty

Ever considered what someone who’s homeless wears to a job interview?

If you’re trying to get back on your feet and into work or training, whether you’re homeless, long-term unemployed or disadvantaged, what you need is smart clothes, but what you make do with is mis-matched separates in the wrong size or style.

Charities, night shelters and hostels receive donations – from food to clothing and practical kit like sleeping bags – and there are plenty of great schemes that support people into volunteering, training or work (that’s if there are jobs to come by and employers willing to hire). But while someone might have the skills and experience for employment, what’s often missing is the confidence-boosting garb to help them look and feel the part.

So I was interested to hear that the second annual Suit Amnesty launches next month and lasts throughout May. The aim is to help homeless jobseekers back into work by encouraging people to gift their unwanted suits.

More than 2,000 suits were collected in last year’s campaign, going to 22 different charities. Sian Thomas, marketing officer at Newcastle charity The Cyrenians describes last year’s donated suits as “perfect for our back-to-work projects which are all about getting people off the streets and preparing them for working life”. She adds: “Owning a suit makes a massive difference and will help our service users achieve their full potential.”

The scheme works with charities like The Cyrenians and Manchester’s Booth Centre that run back to work schemes.

Businesses can take part, acting as drop off points, and boosting their social responsibility profile in the process (apparently some of the firms that took part last year reported up to 14% increase in web hits during the campaign).

Accessible drop-off points include a variety of businesses including The Marketers’ Forum in London, the Malmaison hotel in Newcastle,retailer T.M. Lewin in London and various health clubs, hotels, bars and banks. More information on the Suit Amnesty website.

By coincidence, as I was reading about the project, I also came across a great scheme, Undergarments for Everyone, started by University of the West of England student Ed Tolkien to distribute new underwear and socks to homeless people in the Bristol area.

Last December, Tolkien collected and redistributed hats, scarves and gloves to local people on the streets, but he says many told him the hardest thing to come by was underwear.

Cash donated via collection boxes at the university and at two Salvation Army charity shops in Bristol, will be spent on new pants and socks and given to two Bristol homelessness charities, St Mungo’s and the Julian Trust night shelter.

Sometimes the simplest of ideas can have a big impact.

Writing about wrongs: can social affairs journalism make a difference?

Louis Tickle, freelance journalist
As a journalist writing on social affairs I often wonder if my articles make any difference or whether this kind of journalism is essentially exploitative. The dilemma isn’t original. Journalists and photographers struggle with it all the time. Mostly I ignore it. But it niggles.

So, I’m commissioned by a children’s charity to interview a single mum it’s been working with. She’s got five kids; black mould spreads thickly across her kitchen ceiling and down the back wall. One of her daughters, a little girl with asthma, sleeps in a pink bedroom so icily cold I feel my skin shrink when we look in. A single photograph of a baby lost to cot death is unobtrusively placed among the many pictures of her other children displayed in the front room.

There’s a housing association building site at the end of the terraced row, but this woman can’t get hold of the £400 she needs to secure one of the warm, dry family houses that will soon be available.

I write my piece feeling angry and hopeless. My fee is more than the money she needs for that deposit. I wrestle with the thought that I should give it to her. I don’t.

A year on, I still wonder if I should have done. This is hardly war reporting, but these are people living on a front line. They’re who I write about. And then I disappear off, my notebook full, my deadline pressing. I rarely see them again.

Does this kind of journalism change anything? I don’t know. It’s what I do, what I can do, what I have time to do. I know it’s not enough.

Though what’s playing out in the Leveson enquiry means that rotten practices are being dragged through the mire, the level of underlying suspicion about journalism saddens me, because it’s based on a misunderstanding of what any kind of serious journalism is about.

I don’t do this job because I want to stiff as many people as possible in the name of selling papers. I do it because stuff goes badly wrong in certain bits of public life, and in the small way that writing articles allows, I want to ask why – then persuade, cajole, flatter or embarrass people into giving me the answer.

The judgements I make in writing a piece may be taken fast, but they aren’t taken lightly. For instance…

I’m constantly examining the ethics of how I go about writing a piece. Particularly if an interviewee is vulnerable or not media savvy, I know that I can’t get across their tone of voice, or give every bit of background about their situation, so which quote I pick really matters.

I’ve written a fair bit about young single mothers. Asked why they got pregnant, why they chose to keep the baby, how they manage. And sometimes you’ll get a teenager replying along the lines of: ‘Some girls do get pregnant to get a council house, yeah, absolutely.’

What do I do with that? I know those words will make a strong headline. But if I use them rather than the less instantly “good value” comments, I don’t do this young mother’s entire situation justice. So I will think very, very hard about how to treat that kind of quote, and whether to include it at all.

Occasionally, I do stuff I know an editor wouldn’t like. National news organisations do not give interviewees the chance to see or approve copy before publication. There are practical reasons for this – deadlines, for example – but mostly, it’s about retaining editorial independence. Otherwise people ring up and say, “actually, I’d prefer it if you didn’t write about such-and-such a thing I told you about, it’ll make life really awkward.”

That, I’m afraid, is tough. If you don’t want me to write something, then don’t tell me, or alternatively, negotiate when you want to go off the record carefully and in advance.

But when a charity puts me in touch with someone struggling to rebuild their life, and they talk frankly about the hell they’ve been through, I’m aware a clumsily phrased comment about their situation could knock their confidence at best and make life even more difficult for them at worst. So sometimes I will read back quotes to an interviewee to make sure I have accurately reflected their views and they’re happy to go public with them.

On one occasion, I spent an afternoon with a young recovering drug addict who had spent four years on the game to fund her and her former boyfriend’s habit. She’d had her eldest daughter taken from her by social services: now pregnant again and with a new partner, she was on track to being allowed to keep her baby.

Given what she told me about the horrors of her previous lifestyle and job, I don’t know how she’d found the strength to kick her habit, but I was damned sure that nothing I wrote was going to set her back. The finished piece was written entirely in the first person; the risk of misrepresenting someone when you do this is real, no matter how good your intentions.

So I sent her the finished piece to look at. In this specific situation, editorial independence wasn’t going to trump her right to have her life described accurately and in a way that wasn’t going to put her recovery at risk.
Unlike many ‘important’ people who cavil at tiny bits of phrasing, this woman didn’t ask for a single change. And when my editor told me to go back and ask her a question – how much did she charge for each particular “service”? – (something I regard as the low point of my journalistic career) she didn’t get offended or slam the phone down. She told me. And, as I was finishing the call, she said thank you.

I loved doing that piece of work. The access and insight journalists get is central to why I am still entranced by this job.

But returning to my original question, does this kind of journalism change anything?

Well, that piece was published in The Times. A lot of people would have read it. The charity that supported her would have got some publicity.

What they really needed though was money to support more girls as they tried to get off the game. Maybe the piece helped them twist a few funders’ arms. Whatever it did, it’s nothing in comparison to the work done by dedicated experts at the coalface of disadvantage, poverty, suffering and violence.

When I try to answer the ‘does it make a difference’ question, I feel a bit like when you donate to charity online. Do you pick £2, £10, £25 or a bigger sum that means you won’t be able to buy that dress you had your eye on? Whatever you put is something, but it’s probably not as much as you could have given, and it’s certainly never enough.

Housing ambitions: 30-year plan for London’s biggest council landlord

It is the biggest council housing landlord in London and the fourth largest in the country. With 39,000 rented and 16,700 leasehold homes, a 19,000-strong waiting list and almost 15,000 properties needing repair ( “non-decent”, 2010 figures) the scale of Southwark council’s housing challenge demands a radical response. Housing barrister Jan Luba is to chair a pioneering study into housing need and policy – but will the council listen to it? Read my the rest of my piece on the Guardian website here.

The truth about rough sleeping

The Truth About Stanley trailer from www.thetruthaboutstanley.com on Vimeo.

Think homelessness and film and you can’t fail but think of Cathy Come Home. While the social action that followed Ken Loach’s cinematic call to arms was a one-off, the film project The Truth About Stanley could be a modern take on that artistic tradition; a visually striking and thought-provoking piece of social realism that seeks to raise not only awareness about homelessness, but funding.

Just today the government’s new homelessness figures showed 48,510 households were classed as homeless in 2011, a 14% rise on 2010. The situation has led one charity chief executive, Leslie Morphy, of Crisis, to demand action from the government amid the “perfect storm” – a combination of economic downturn, joblessness, soaring demand for affordable housing, housing benefit reform and cuts to homelessness services.

This is the dire social and economic backdrop to the forthcoming film shot by award-winning director Lucy Tcherniak. The Truth About Stanley tells the story of two rough sleepers who make unlikely friends; Stanley, an elderly Congelese man, and Sam, 10.

Still from The Truth About Stanley
Stanley (Oliver Litondo) in The Truth About Stanley

The non-linear narrative is intriguing, opening as it does with the death of Stanley and developing into questions about Stanley’s past and the reasons for Sam being on the streets.

Sam (Raif Clarke), The Truth About Stanley
Sam, The Truth About Stanley

The lines between reality and fiction are blurred as the pair’s friendship develops and Stanley regales his young runaway companion with stories from his past. Or, as the website neatly puts it: “No home, no belongings, plenty of baggage. A short film about a man, his stories and the boy who listened.”

The project, a twist on more traditional donation campaigns, aims to raise money for two homelessness organisations, social enterprise The Big Issue Foundation and charity Anchor House.

The film offers a much-needed focus on the twin issues of older and younger rough sleepers. Entrenched rough sleeping is common among older rough sleepers but accurate figures on the issue and that of homelessness among older people are hard to come by, partly because of the hidden homelessness and the lack of age breakdown in head counts.

According to Homeless Link, however, the 2010 total of street counts in authorities with a known or suspected rough sleeping problem was 440 and generally around 18% are over 50-years-old.

As for children sleeping rough, again the figures lack accuracy, but according to the charity Railway Children, at least 100,000 children runaway in the UK every year and many are not reported as missing by their parents or carers. According to youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, 80,000 young people experience homeless in the UK each year.

The 20-minute film is being produced in association with Oscar-winning Trademark Films and features songs by Radiohead and Mumford and Sons. Stanley is played by renowened Kenyan actor Oliver Litondo, the lead from the international feature film The First Grader and Sam by 12-year-old Raif Clarke. This Guardian piece from last year tells you a bit more.

The trailer and shots here (photographs by Ben Millar Cole) have been released ahead of the premiere on April 2 at the Rich Mix cinema in Shoreditch. The film will be and released online on April 4th.

*To donate text STANLEY2, 3 or 6 to 70300 to give £2, £3 OR £6 to The Truth About Stanley fund or visit the project’s
Just Giving page.
100% of the donation will go to homeless charities Anchor House and The Big Issue Foundation. Follow the film on Twitter.

Stephen Greenhalgh: localism hero or demolition man?

Stephen Greenhalgh is hated and feted. To Labour, he is a tyrant for keeping council tax low at the expense of frontline services in the west London borough he has led since 2006. To the Conservatives, he is a town hall trailblazer, praised by the communities and local government secretary, Eric Pickles, who describes Hammersmith & Fulham council as “the apple of my eye”.

Greenhalgh has perhaps baffled both parties by announcing he is to quit the leadership for the council backbenches in order to help steer a pilot community budget in White City, a deprived area of the borough. Rumour had him in line for a peerage. Read the rest of my interview with Stephen Greenhalgh in the Guardian’s Society pages.