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London Tries a Different Way of Giving

El ViejoIn Britain, the homeless are known as “rough sleepers,” and like any metropolis, London has its share of rough sleepers who are, for whatever reason, uncooperative with efforts to get them indoors. It happens for a variety of reasons. A married couple might flat-out refuse to go to a shelter where they will be separated into male and female dormitories. A veteran with PTSD might be phobic about any enclosed space and only comfortable outside.

A very small minority of rough sleepers live in the midst of society but are so disconnected from it, they seem to have reached a point of no return. Their presence on city streets creates problems for law enforcement personnel, frustration for agencies that want to help, and a big public relations problem for the much larger majority of people experiencing homelessness. It only takes a few individuals perceived as “bums” to make a whole lot of people look bad.

Most of the people experiencing homelessness want help, and even more than help, they want jobs so they don’t need help. But this isn’t about them. This is about one organization’s decision to work with a handful of seemingly intractable hard-core, long-term holdouts.

Juliette Hough and Becky Rice write on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website,

This group often perceived themselves as different from people who went into hostel accommodation. There was strong resistance and even antagonism towards outreach workers, who were viewed as part of the establishment, aiming to force rough sleepers into accommodation they did not want to go into.

A charity organization called Broadway recently tried out a pilot project directed at helping this particularly problematic sub-group whose reclamation would not have been expected by anyone, least of all themselves. It started with a radical notion that departs from the traditional wisdom regarding rough sleepers: give them money and let them exercise control, rather than telling them what to do.

The “personalized budget” is only one part of a coordinated plan, according to Hough and Rice. The authors write,

Fifteen long-term rough sleepers were offered a personalised budget plus flexible, personal support from the project co-ordinator; 13 accepted. These 15 were targeted because they were the hardest to reach using standard methods. They had been sleeping rough for between four and 45 years.

Eleven individuals eventually moved into accommodations; four went back to the streets or to prison. Of the seven successfully transplanted people, at the time of the report, they had been housed for periods ranging from four months to nearly a year. Of that number, six adjusted to such an extent that they were making plans for long-term future accommodation. Given that these people had previously been pretty much written off as hopeless cases, even this success rate far exceeded the expectations of some supporters.

The basic elements of the pilot project were coordinator and a budget allotment of £3,000 per person (currency rates change, but call it around $5,000). Each participant was asked what it would take to encourage them to get off the streets, and told that funds were available to help accomplish this. The difference here was that the assessment of needs was made by the person concerned, rather than by a social worker. With the help of the coordinator, each participant made a plan of action, subject to approval by the local authority.

Handing over control of the process was accomplished in a number of different ways, such as letting the rough sleeper choose where to meet with the coordinator. Apparently, social workers usually work in pairs, which is off-putting to the individuals they are trying to help. Under the Broadway project’s plan, the coordinator usually worked one-on-one with the rough sleeper, and devoted a lot more time than state-sponsored outreach workers were able to. And rather than being hurried or pushed, each participant was brought along at his or her own pace.

In one case, all the person needed in order to stay off the streets was a place with a working television. Some of the participants went so far as to sign up for courses, and some used the opportunity to learn skills that had always eluded them, such as how to pay bills or cook simple meals. Some took steps to address their mental health or substance abuse problems. Four people signed up for welfare, which British society would much rather pay than see people living like feral creatures. Some got back in touch with the long-forgotten family members.

Broadway found that for such a program to succeed, continuity of personal contact is essential. Because of deep-seated trust issues, the rough sleeper coming in from the cold really needs to bond with one particular coordinator, and the contact needs to be intense and continuing. Still, it was clear to both the participants and the professionals that such an approach has a chance of working when other avenues have failed.

The report says,

This suggests that even long-term rough sleepers who say that they do not want to go into accommodation can choose to do so when they are in control of the conditions for making such a move. Throughout the interviews, many people used the phrases ‘I chose’ or ‘I made the decision’ when discussing their accommodation and the use of their personalised budget, emphasising their sense of choice and control.

Interestingly, the participants were not told how much their personalized budget amounted to. The report says,

Instead, they were asked what they wanted in order to help them. Total spending in the first year averaged £794 per person, compared with the £3,000 allowed.

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Source: “Providing personalised support to rough sleepers,” JRF.org, 10/28/10
Image by garryknight (Garry Knight), used under its Creative Commons license.