NEWS IN FOCUS: Things have changed in the homlessness sector

PATRICK MCCURRY

A fall in the number of rough sleepers and new legislation has led many organisations in the sector to rethink their focus, says Patrick McCurry.

A wave of change is rippling through the work of homelessness charities in the wake of developments such as the Homelessness Act and the reduction in numbers of rough sleepers.

Charities are having to rethink their role, with some shifting focus to a more preventive agenda or increased activity at local level.

One of the challenges facing organisations is that, while the number of street homeless has been cut, this has in part led to a rise in the number living in temporary accommodation, such as hostels and bed and breakfasts.

According to charity Crisis, there are 400,000 "hidden homeless" in accommodation like hostels, squats or staying with friends.

Crisis announced in August that it was broadening its agenda from a focus on rough sleepers to a wider remit looking at the causes of homelessness and the plight of the "hidden homeless".

"The challenge is not simply putting a roof over someone's head but helping people gain the skills they need to overcome isolation and engage with society," says a spokeswoman.

She points to new Crisis initiatives such as Changing Lives, a project to give homeless people financial help in accessing training or starting their own business.

Similarly, at St Mungo's there has been a rethink. Head of services David Devoy says: "We still have a focus on rough sleepers but we're now moving more into prevention." He cites new projects such as one that provides tenancy support to newly rehoused people in order to prevent them from returning to the streets.

In August, Shelter launched its Things Have Changed campaign to inform homeless people about their rights following the introduction of the Act in July. Ben Jackson, head of external affairs at Shelter, says: "It's important for us to acknowledge the changing landscape of homelessness."

He points to the success of the government's rough sleepers unit in cutting the numbers of people sleeping in the streets. By the end of last year, the unit, in partnership with voluntary organisations, had cut the number of rough sleepers by two-thirds.

Meanwhile, the Homelessness Act presages a shake-up in the way the issue is dealt with by the statutory sector and puts greater requirements on local authorities to tackle homelessness.

"We campaigned for this legislation and it's a real step forward," says Jackson, adding that Shelter is investing heavily in recruiting staff to assist local councils.

He says that local government will become increasingly important to organisations such as Shelter because new legislation will result in more decisions being made at local level.

So does this growing trend of working with the statutory sector mean charities such as Shelter are losing their campaigning edge?

Jackson dismisses recent claims by Shelter founder Des Wilson that the charity's campaigning role has been weakened. "Our core mission of helping the homeless and badly housed has not changed," he says.

Lis Pritchard, chief executive of Homeless Link, says that charities are repositioning in the light of the changing profile of homeless people and the growing focus on prevention. "Many charities started with a focus on single homeless people because that group had no statutory right to housing but now single people have more rights and so some charities are shifting their work to look more at families and single parents as well," she says.

Although there is a growing emphasis on prevention, she adds that many agencies have always been involved in this or in supporting people once they are rehoused but this was often low profile. Her concern, however, is the motives for such repositioning. "If agencies are changing their role in response to new service needs that they have identified that's fine but if they are repositioning simply to maintain their position in the market I'd be worried," she says.

There is also the danger that by changing its work too dramatically a charity can end up blurring its focus. "If an organisation has been built on its expertise with a particular group there's a risk that they will lose what made them successful if they try and change their focus too much," says Pritchard.

Another development in the sector is the growing emphasis on partnership or multi-agency working, illustrated by Shelter's work with local councils on the Homelessness Act or its Millennium Plus joint project with Crisis.

Jackson says: "We've been involved in successful pilot projects in which a single key worker liaises with rehoused homeless people, rather than them having to deal with lot of different statutory and voluntary agencies."

While Pritchard welcomes a partnership approach with the statutory sector, she is concerned that some in central government could regard charities as simply sub-contractors that can deliver ministers' agenda.

Despite the repositioning of many homelessness charities, the issue of mergers appears to be still on the backburner and could even have been set back by the failed talks between Shelter and Crisis.

Pritchard argues that despite the large number of homelessness charities, both national and local, duplication of services is not the main issue.

"Most agencies are responding to need. After all, how many empty day centres for homeless people do you see?"

For her, one of the main challenges is capacity building at local level.

She says: "It's essential the locally based agencies improve their capacity, given that much more will be done locally under the Homelessness Act."

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