"I never knew the meaning of social exclusion until I was resettled in a flat of my own."
These words, spoken by a formerly homeless man at a seminar two years ago, sum up the limitations of the Government's policy towards homelessness, a problem that is likely to worsen under the impact of the Supporting People programme, which is due to come into effect in 2003.
The issue of homelessness is still largely the responsibility of the various housing authorities – the new Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the housing departments of local authorities. However, the bricks and mortar that housing authorities specialise in are only part of the solution. The man who spoke at the seminar had bricks and mortar – but he didn't have a home. In many parts of the country there is no lack of bricks and mortar. Unlike the period of Cathy Come Home, when many of the homelessness charities and initiatives were born, housing is now in abundant supply in much of the country.
"People weren't meant to live on their own" was the way another homeless person put it. And this is confirmed by research that we recently carried out with young people in the Foyer Federation. All young people need a home, support and a springboard into independent living, learning and work. Some don't get it. The Foyer Federation fills the gap. The young people we spoke to emphasised above all that for them the Foyer Federation provided a home – sometimes more like a home than anything they had experienced for years. It was like a home because they were living with other young people.
In such a community there are often tensions, and rules are essential. But if the supportive atmosphere can be maintained, the Foyer creates a place where newcomers are welcomed; where friends look out for each other; and where the positive enthusiasm that some feel for going to college or for going to work rubs off on others.
Society provides this as a matter of course for young people entering higher education. But for many Foyer residents, unlike most students, this is the closest thing to home that they have. It becomes the place they come back to when times are good – to show off the baby or the college diploma – or when times are hard – coming out of prison, or losing a job.
Unfortunately, the need that people have to live in communities – for a few months in some cases, for the rest of their lives for some older homeless people – is hard to quantify. On paper, it looks so much more cost-effective to put a young person leaving care into a local authority flat with a visit once or twice a week. But imagine the parent of a teenager having this conversation in normal circumstances: "So how's Maggie getting on with A-levels?" "Well I think she's still going to school, but I'm not sure because I only see her on Fridays and then we're mainly trying to sort out her money." "Oh, she's not living at home then?" "No we thought at 16 she was old enough to look after herself, we thought she'd enjoy the independence..."
What goes for young people leaving care goes for many other homeless or rootless people.
The Government's Rough Sleepers Unit is coy about the amount of money spent on resettling each rough sleeper into independent accommodation, and about how many stay put. Supporting People, which will take over from the Rough Sleepers Unit, looks set to continue the emphasis on independent living rather than communal provision.
But bricks and mortar, and the provision of periodic support by professionals, cannot take the place of feeling that you belong somewhere and that you can give as well as take. Without that feeling, people will gravitate back to places where they did feel that they belonged – and, in many cases, that's the street.Reuse content