Season’s greetings from The Social Issue – to mark the jollities, here’s a snapshot of some of the upbeat posts and pictures about people, projects and places featured over the last 12 months. This festive pick is by no means the best of the bunch – the inspiring stories below are included as they’re accompanied by some interestin and images and almost fit with a festive carol, if you allow for a little the poetic and numerical licence…
Very huge thanks to the Social Issue’s small band of regular and guest bloggers, all contributors, supporters, readers and everyone who’s got in touch with story ideas and feedback. See you in January.
On the first day of Christmas, the blogosphere brought to me:
“Homelessness doesn’t have a face,” says Janet Marsh, “it can happen to anyone, anywhere.” Marsh, 65, from east London, lost her privately rented home in her 50s after her marriage ended, then became ill with epilepsy and arthritis. “People think homelessness is something you’ve done to yourself, there’s stigma and misconception,” she says.
Though Marsh is now living in temporary accommodation in Newham, her housing situation could not contrast more with the popular image of a tenure defined by shoddy, unregulated properties and unscrupulous private landlords. Marsh is a tenant of Local Space, an innovative housing association that uses private finance to buy homes on the open market, refurbishes the properties and leases them back to the council as temporary accommodation. Read the rest of my piece on the Guardian’s housing network.
This film should stop you in your tracks. Its power to move puts it almost on a par, as Channel Four’s Jon Snow said at its launch today, with the seminal Cathy Come Home.
The short film by the charity the Private Equity Foundation (PEF) features 11-year-old Luke, one of the 1.6m children living in poverty today. As Luke explains his hopes for the future (or rather, his lack of hope) the film also focuses on the issue of NEETs (young people not in education, employment or training).
The film is part of the Luke’s World campaign to draw attention to the lack of opportunity facing children and young people and explain how their lives can be improved by creating better links between education and employment. As PEF chief executive Shaks Ghosh writes over on the campaign blog, Luke lets us briefly into his world and “gives us a glimpse of a national scandal: what life is like for the 1.6 million children still growing up in poverty in the UK today.”
He may only be 11, but already he knows that his dream to become a vet might never be fulfilled. The poverty he suffers, as Ghosh stresses, isn’t simply “the damp and peeling paint, the depressing tower blocks, the absent father, the 16-year-old sister who has left school to look after her baby and the mother who hasn’t worked for four years”. No, what Luke lacks is life chances and consistent support which will help him stay on the path from school into work.
The PEF has launched ThinkForward, a scheme to plug the gap between school and work. The aim is to support young people hand from 14 to 19, allocate them a personal ‘coach’ to support them with an action plan that encourages them to access local projects and work opportunities.
The launch of the campaign featuring Luke coincides with a report published today by The Work Foundation and the PEF that has uncovered 10 blackspots for youth disengagement – cities where between one in five and one in four young people are not in education, employment or training. The recession exacerbated this problem, with the largest increases in neet rates in those cities which already had high levels. Read more about it here.
As Ghosh has argued on this blog before, early intervention is vital unless today’s Lukes become tomorrow’s neets.
Seven years ago, no one could have imagined Martin* living anywhere but in residential care. The then 24-year-old, who is autistic and has a moderate learning disability, was exploited by ‘friends’ who dealt drugs from his housing association flat in London, leading him to lose his tenancy. Head to the Guardian Social Care Network for the rest of my piece on the importance of transition services when supporting the vulnerable to move from residential care towards more independent living.
Any mention of “the games” and all eyes look to east London and this week, in particular, towards the newly-opened retail mecca and gateway to the games – Westfield.
But last week, the home of “the games” was the north west, as Liverpool hosted the second annual Homeless Games, a unique event that involved more than 400 people and has been dubbed locally as the Homeless Olympics.
Compared to next year’s sporting extravaganza, last week’s event might be short on history, size, razamatazz, budget and wholescale regenenerative impact, but it has heart and drive and the potential to support people towards a more stable life. It also boasts some native Liverpudlians and Olympic athletes as patrons (gymnast Beth Tweddle, boxer David Price and former high jumper Steve Smith).
Over two days last week, more than 400 people – those over 18-years-old who are homeless, or have been homeless in the last two years – participated in swimming, football, cycling, badminton. Alternative sporting events like chess, pool and tiddlywinks were also held at the competition at Wavertree Sports Park.
Eric Houghton, 46, from Anfield, began the Homeless Games after taking part in the 2002 Homeless World Cup. The father-of-two, now a support worker for homeless people, became homeless after family bereavements led him to spiral out of control and downward into alcohol abuse. When he got involved with the Homeless World Cup in 2002, the sporting and empowering event was the pivotal spark he needed to regain stability in his life.
Wanting to use the same approach on a more regional level, Houghton used a start-up grant from Cosmopolitan Housing Association to put together the first games last year. Competitors were given the opportunity to benefit from health services such as sexual health advice, diabetes screening and help with stopping smoking or tackling substance abuse.
Houghton says: “Getting involved in something positive like sport can give homeless people the sense of self-worth and community that they need. Although the Games only lasted for two days, we hope the effects will last a lot longer, and show people how much they can achieve.”
Local organisations including housing associations, police, health and the city council helped support the event and there’s a short film here, made last year:
Big society in action is how civil society minister Nick Hurd described the award-winning Paddington Development Trust (PDT) which he chose for his first ministerial visit in May 2010. “Residents have real sense of ownership and power,” he enthused on Twitter about the west London regeneration organisation that supports residents to volunteer a total of 5,000 hours through 350 different volunteering opportunities.
But shortly after Hurd’s praise, the organisation was among the first victims of public spending cuts when £350,000 was axed as the government scrapped its neighbourhood programmes. The trust’s chief executive, Neil Johnston, has spent the last year figuring out how to continue its groundbreaking work. Read the rest of my piece for the Guardian’s Society pageshere.
It’s summer festival season, and the scene above will be a familiar sight to music lovers and festival organisers around the country. But what do you do the morning after the night before – apart from chuck thousands of abandoned tents and other camping debris into landfull? Well if you work in housing in North Wales, you launch an innovative little scheme to re-distribute tents and other camping kit like clothing and sleeping bags to hostels and drop in centres across the region.
Staff and service users from North Wales Housing’s homeless hostel in Bangor, St Mary’s, have made good use of a stash of abandoned camping equipment after the Wakestock festival in Cardigan Bay, North Wales, earlier this month.
The equipment by the housing association staff and hostel users includes some 79 pop up tents, 38 normal tents, 47 sleeping bags, 54 inflatable beds, 51 camping chairs, 45 roll mats including thermo rests, 17 pairs of wellies and eight new pillows. All items will be redistributed to rough sleepers and at other local hostels and day centres.
Kerry Jones of St Mary’s Hostel says: “As the months get colder, the need for shelter, warm clothing and blankets escalates and we struggle to be able to provide everyone with the support that they need. This collection will help not only our service users but many other nearby homeless facilities.”
Some of us count the calories when it comes to food, but how many of us count the kilowatts too? Watch the quirky video above – there’s animation and a jolly opening piano melody too – and check out how Brighton-based Rob Smith, a resident of housing association Affinity Sutton, has developed a carbon calculator for the home.
For seven years, Smith has used an online programme to work out the carbon footprint of everything he uses in the home, so that he can find ways to keep reducing it. Beans on toast, he says, comes in at an energy efficient 95w to prepare, while oven-baked fish and chips come in at 200w. Watch Rob work out why the Champions League takes up less energy than the Europa, and how he’s developing his own, open-source programme, which anyone can use to help them make informed decisions about their carbon lifestyle.
Smith’s story will grace the big screen tomorrow evening at a special screening at the Shortwave Cinema, Bermondsey Square, London. He is among five finalists in a national competition run by Affinity Sutton to encourage residents to share their experiences of how they make a positive contribution to the environment.
The five finalists worked with a specialist social enterprise company to create the films which are being put to the public vote on Twitter and via the Affinity Sutton website. The winner will receive an all expenses paid trip to The Eden Project.
Smith adds: “Over the last few years I have been measuring my energy use and then trying to reduce it. But I found that the calculators online were mostly based on estimates. I wanted to develop one to measure absolutely everything you buy, eat and use. I think a lot of people will find it interesting because it provides a more accurate way of measuring your carbon footprint.”
Other green residents include Jeannie and Eddie, from East Grinstead. After approching their housing officer to see if they could plant some bulbs in some disused space, they launched the Salad Project. Over the last year the residents have planted potatoes, runner beans, French beans, and some herbs. An old dustbin was turned into a water butt by a resident, and there is now a composter for food waste.
Then there’s Phil, from Manchester, who uses a “smart plug” to monitor how much energy appliances are using and Tony, Steph and Brian, from Middlesbrough, who launched a recycling facility on their estate. Christine, Ian and Tom, from Stoke, meanwhile, turned a derelict piece of land into a community garden with wildlife area and community classroom facility.
As councils tighten eligibility criteria for housing at the same time as benefit cuts hit, charities warn of an increase in homelessness. With the trend growing for councils to overhaul their allocation policies, there are fresh concerns about people being forced into the unaffordable private rented sector or pushed out into cheaper suburbs. Read my Guardian piece here.
Above, Ian Harvey, from heroin and rough sleeping to charity volunteer, gardening enthusiast and Chelsea Flower Show winner.
The big society concept might be a touch nebulous – as its creator Philip Blond effectively admitted this week – but one transparent element is the fact that volunteers are its backbone.
The drive is a potentially all-inclusive one as the big society dream is of a volunteering renaissance that unites the young (nothing else paid on offer), the more mature (nothing else to do in well-heeled retirement) and the professional (nothing as good as a bit of CSR in the city to justify that fat salary and boost the CV).
But any official messages about big society bypass a huge swath of society; the homeless.
The vulnerable are excluded from the big society agenda and a potential volunteering resource remains untapped, as new research published this week by homelessness charity St Mungo’s argues. The organisation suggests that volunteering can help the homeless move from social exclusion to being active in their community.
Its figures show that only 14% of around 200 St Mungo’s clients and staff surveyed (84 of the 200 were clients) think homeless people are included in society. The report from St Mungo’s, Enough Room: is society big enough for homeless people?, has been released to coincide with the charity’s action week to raise awareness about the social exclusion of the homeless. According to the latest figures, 3,975 people were seen rough sleeping in 2010/11 on the streets of London – a rise of eight per cent from the previous year.
The charity says there’s a real wish among those it supports to give something back. Of the homeless clients surveyed, 70% wanted to volunteer to “give something back to their local community” or to “help other people.”
Investing time in supporting vulnerable people to volunteer can bring long-term benefits – stability, greater self-esteem and social integration and the chance to develop new skills.
I recently came across the Crown Centre in the deprived area of Stonehouse, Plymouth, for example. The centre supports vulnerable people through projects such as the Plymouth Foodbank, ensuring those in crisis do not go hungry. Every week, the centre relies on its 47 regular volunteers to run coffee and lunch clubs supporting 120 service users. Half the volunteers have health or dependency issues and are “supported volunteers”, needing more guidance and supervision than their peers donating time for free.
Back in London, St Mungo’s client turned volunteer Ian Harvey (scroll up to the video above), is the kind of volunteer we could have more of. Ian, a former rough sleeper and ex-heroin addict, has been supported by St Mungo’s to work with the charity’s community gardening scheme, Putting Down Roots. Ian has tuned his life around with specialist support and from involvement in the volunteering scheme; not so long ago he was self-harming and sleeping on the streets, now he’s the proud owner of a silver award from the Chelsea Flower Show and is looking forward to winning gold next time.
Roger is another St Mungo volunteer, a former drug-user who slept rough, he volunteers for the charity’s employment team and encourages clients to improve their basic computer literacy skills. He explains: “I realised that the key to me moving on with my life was training and qualifying. It also became very clear that I would get nowhere without knowing my way around a computer …Since November last year, I have been volunteering for St Mungos’ employment team and have been helping more clients get online with weekly drop in sessions and support with basic computing courses.”
Lorette, a volunteer peer advisor with St Mungo’s resettlement service, explains the strength of the ex-homeless supporting those who still need support: “I think the client feels they can relate to you more if you have been through what they have. You can swap stories and experiences, which I think enables them to open up to you more…Volunteering is great for your self esteem and confidence, especially if you have been out of work for a long time, there’s new skills to learn, great people to meet and a great feeling of self worth that you really are helping people and doing something really worthwhile.”
Yet so far the big society drive has largely failed to include or capture the attention of the vulnerable. As the St Mungo’s research demonstrates, the neediest in society neither feel part of the campaign nor understand what it stands for (although frankly they’re not alone in that latter complaint). A big society, but one that’s currently too small for the vulnerable.