Podium: We're all to blame for social exclusion

CHRIS HOLMES From a speech by the director of Shelter to a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference in Blackpool
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THIS EVENING I want to be very frank and critical. It is my belief that charities and the voluntary sector have in fact contributed to the growth of social exclusion and colluded in the growth of benefit dependency. We, too, are part of the problem and we must recognise that now if we want be part of finding the solutions.

Can I give a few examples? Over the last few years, many housing associations have provided homes at unaffordably high rents. We know that this is the result of previous government policies that have reduced subsidies for investment in new homes, but associations cannot evade a share of responsibility for the consequences - more barriers to getting a job and greater dependency on benefits.

Another example is the response to street homelessness. Charities and voluntary agencies have put a huge amount of energy into trying to make it bearable for people to survive on the streets - from soup runs to hand- outs of almost every kind. One result has been the growth of a street culture, more people begging and drinking on the streets - many of whom are not sleeping on the streets at night. We have failed to be open about the difference between street homelessness and other forms of street living. The truth is that being on the streets is damaging and dangerous, and should not be condoned or encouraged. All our efforts should be directed to getting people off the streets, day and night.

And an issue at the core of Shelter's own work - pressing the claims for rehousing of homeless families and single people: I believe we are right to campaign strongly for the rights of people with nowhere to live. But I also think we must admit that too often we have focused on only the immediate crisis, and been blind to what happens when the people whom we help to get rehoused end up living in communities occupied only by the most disadvantaged.

What I have said includes some sweeping generalisations. There are people and agencies who should be exempt from those charges, but for many of us the criticism is fair. It is not a comfortable message. But if we are honest about the problem, we are more likely to be successful in finding the solutions. My purpose in saying it is to clear away the evasions, so we can work together to tackle the really difficult challenges.

We need a proactive, empowering and inclusive approach.

Shelter is trying to develop our own services in this way. Already we are approached by more than 100,000 people a year, providing many of them with the help they need to prevent or cope with being homeless. In December, we will be launching our new Shelterline service, open 24 hours a day, every day of the year, covering the whole of Britain and offering a gateway to advice, information and advocacy for people facing homelessness or with any kind of housing problem. We are aiming to provide this service so that, as far as possible, it offers callers the knowledge and support to solve their problems, as they need it and when they need it.

This approach is critical to a whole range of difficult social problems. It is essential to tackle the problems of a daytime street culture. We need to understand what makes being on the streets a way of life some people choose, and develop strategies that enable them to develop a different lifestyle - using day centres where they can meet friends and ex-street users and gain help in coping with addictions and settling into permanent homes. Instead of "hand-outs", we must offer "hand-ups".

Another difficult issue is how to deal with antisocial tenants. If tenants on deprived housing estates have no protection from neighbours who abuse and attack them or destroy the peace of the neighbourhood by uncontrolled all-night parties, or deal in drugs, their lives become a living hell. Estates with that kind of reputation can fall remorselessly into the stigma of the "sink estate", abandoned by everyone except those with no other choice.

It is also essential that the real problem of antisocial behaviour is not used as an excuse for a sweeping and discriminatory use of "exclusions" for people who social landlords may see as "undesirable" tenants. Recent Shelter research estimated that 200,000 households are being denied the chance of a council or housing association home.

When historians finally come to assess the record of this government, the achievements of the attack on social exclusion will be one key test. Will its epitaph be just yet one more "initiative", or will it change decisively the prospects of the poorest and most alienated in our society?