NEWS IN FOCUS: Will a single funding pot push out the homeless?

JOHN PLUMMER

Statutory funding next year will come from one cashpot. John Plummer looks at how small "unsexy

charities could be left out in the cold

Homelessness charities face the unnerving prospect next year of having to compete for local funding not only with each other but also with more appealing causes in the voluntary sector.

The Supporting People programme, which will be implemented in April 2003, creates a single pool of statutory funding for the socially excluded under the control of local authorities.

The programme is designed to make services more accountable to local people, but it raises the spectre of charities having to compete for money from councils wary of courting unpopularity by supporting difficult causes.

Some welcome Supporting People in the belief that it will lead to better standards of service; others predict chaos and a cull of the small and unglamorous.

Perhaps the only certainty is that the relationship between charities operating in the field of support services and local authorities is about to intensify dramatically.

Kevin Ireland, executive director of London Housing Foundation, is concerned councils could be swayed to support more politically appealing groups such as the elderly than some sectors of homelessness when it comes to distributing grants.

"Supporting People will have a very significant impact,

he says. "Local authorities are going to have to take a long-term view on who needs support.

"Inevitably there will be pressure on them because of inadequate money and the big question then is does it respond by giving to people in greatest need or people that are politically more important and vote catching?

Homeless people who have come out of prison or have mental health issues are not the most attractive to politicians.

"You cannot argue with the philosophy and rationale behind it. But it places a great burden on local authorities to be aware of our needs and to work with agencies to develop strategy plans.

"Some local authorities are very good and will deliver these plans in a rational and effective way. Unfortunately, others won't and there will be considerable problems where that doesn't happen. I am concerned the Government has developed a wonderful vehicle but its wheels are rather square,

says Ireland.

Elisha Evans, a researcher at the Future Foundation, says Supporting People has turned the local authority-charity relationship into that of purchaser-provider and fears that could be bad news for voluntary organisations offering specialist services.

"Charities are going to have to be quite vocal and show local authorities how effective they are,

she says. "They are now going to have to tender at both central and local government level which is difficult if you are a small charity.

"There is a view that Supporting People will phase out more specific homeless services, and charities offering a more holistic service will survive. Certainly mergers could be one outcome."

Broadway is one homelessness charity that knows all about mergers. It began life on 1 April from the fusion of two London-based organisations, Riverpoint and Housing Services Agency, and helps 2,000 single homeless people in 14 London boroughs.

David Fisher, head of outreach and community services, says: "One of the reasons we merged was to make sure we had the infrastructure to compete.

"It will make funding far more transparent, but we're going to have to put a lot of energy into establishing a constructive relationship with local authorities."

While Fisher acknowledged the inherent risk of competing with more appealing causes, he thinks Broadway is well placed to succeed. "We believe we offer quality services,

he says.

Money from traditional revenue streams such as Transitional Housing Benefit, Supported Housing Management Grant and Probation Accommodation Grants Scheme will be diverted into the Supporting People pot.

One undoubted advantage of the new system is that funding will be guaranteed and paid in advance. Delays in housing benefit payments have long been the scourge of both the homeless and organisations working on their behalf.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which is introducing the programme, says the system is hampered by overlapping and complex funding streams.

"It does not meet the support needs of vulnerable people,

says a spokesperson.

"There is no focus on the quality of service provided nor a structure to ensure money is spent on individual needs.

"Currently services are more easily available to people in certain types of housing. We want support to be available for people whether they live in a housing and support scheme, in a hostel, or in general housing and whether they are owner-occupiers or tenants."

Andrew van Doorn, national policy and research officer for Homeless Link, the membership body for frontline homelessness agencies, agrees that, in theory, Supporting People will help charities fulfil their mission.

"The aim is to improve the quality of services being delivered and from what we've seen so far it looks like it could do that."

Nevertheless he too has reservations, not least the relationship between county councils, which will be responsible for delivering Supporting People, and district councils, which have the task of developing anti-homelessness strategies under the new Homelessness Act.

"The big concern is it is a cash-limited pot and the question is whether there will be enough growth in the pot to deliver services,

says van Doorn.

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