Opinion: Hot issue - Are there too many charities in the homelessness sector?

The St Giles Trust is withdrawing from its work with homeless people and will instead concentrate on its services for ex-offenders, arguing that too many charities are competing for the same funds and duplicating services.

YES - Jeremy Swain, chief executive, Thames Reach Bondway

There are too many,which is not the same as saying that homelessness is being defeated or is even in decline. More than 3,000 people sleep rough in London over a 12-month period, and the Government figure for people in temporary accommodation with a statutory right to housing has now reached 100,000.

However, homelessness organisations need to analyse whether they can best deliver services on their own or by combining with others. In 2001, Thames Reach and Bondway were convinced that homeless people would benefit if the two organisations merged to cut out duplication of services, provide a greater range of options and create a stronger voice for the homeless.

Furthermore, homelessness organisations must respond to changing need and be smart in the way they define their services.

Even today, basic hostel accommodation or street hand-out services are started up with little consideration as to whether they fit sensibly into the existing range of provision offered to homeless people. This is not good enough and the losers are people in housing need who deserve much more - namely, responsive, seamless services based on imaginative collaboration, commencing from clear evidence that there is an unmet need.

YES - John Bird, founder and editor-in-chief, The Big Issue

I have often said this over the years. In 1991, when I started The Big Issue, there were 501 homelessness groups in London working for homeless people. By our 10th anniversary there had been alarming growth. According to Louise Casey, then Czarina of the Rough Sleepers Unit, there were more than 2,000 organisations.

But I would have to add a caveat. There is logic in this over-abundant activity. Homeless groups grow because of a need that is not met by national or local government. They grow and, at times, spiral out of control because the problems grow.

There is a bigger issue, though. All of the organisations that I know are involved in cures. They try and sort out the problem when the problem has occurred. There is little provision for preventing the problem occurring in the first instance. We are a nation obsessed with emergency responses, with "cure chasing". What we need more of is investment in housing, neighbourhood environments, schooling and general socialisation. Only by concentrating on prevention can we stop the problem increasing.

All the cures in the world do not equal a good piece of inventive prevention.

NO - Jim Bennett, senior research fellow, IPPR

Although less visible, because of the fall in rough sleeping, the scale of the wider homelessness problem is still huge. The sector is not overrun, but it is important that the process of rationalisation and consolidation continues as a natural response to the changing nature of the problem.

The change that St Giles has made to focus on ex-offenders is simply a move upstream within the cycle of disadvantage. This kind of change is not unique to the sector and reflects the wider trend towards service interventions which can prevent social exclusion, rather than just responding to the consequences.

It is right to question and challenge services like soup runs that simply sustain homeless people rather than providing them with a way out. But the need for local community-based solutions that represent a genuine alternative to the public safety net is essential. In consolidating, the bigger charities must not lose their roots. The Social Exclusion Unit has identified homelessness as one of the key remaining challenges in its recent review of progress in tackling social exclusion. Just because there has been some rationalisation of provision in London, we should not get carried away with the notion that there is over-capacity in the sector.

YES - Jon Fitzmaurice, partner, Agents For Change & ex-Shelter board member

Front-line agencies providing a range of services for homeless single people are not properly resourced. They invariably have few assets, little secure income and limited leverage to raise money from the public. National charities like Shelter, however, raise millions of pounds from public appeals, but rarely run grant programmes to which local charities providing direct services can apply. Many rely on volunteers fuelled by compassion and are left to deal with people who have been missed by other agencies.

So what needs to be done? Yes, local charities should amalgamate where there's duplication. But to survive, they need to be properly funded.

For example, housing associations could consider offering them a place within their group structures, providing much-needed financial stability.

Shelter director Adam Sampson is on record recently as saying that Shelter has no choice but to "re-invent itself". Why not ringfence some of his own organisation's considerable income to help others to continue to provide frontline services? After all, many successful housing providers are only around today thanks to the funding they received from Shelter's grant programmes in the 1960s and 1970s.

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