Becky Elton, Director of Housing Services at Changing Lives, discusses the impact of austerity on our services to help people who are homeless and those with complex needs. In a time when we have to do more with less, how do we ensure that lives are still changed for the better?

Woman in red coat sitting outside

Changing Lives supports people to break cycles of homelessness, addiction, exploitation and abuse. We started out as a homelessness charity in the early ‘70s and our other services have developed in response to the needs of the people we saw coming through our homelessness services. The majority of our clients have a range of needs linked to homelessness, which means that housing alone is not the solution.

The late ‘90s through to 2010 saw a massive shift in the way we work with people who are homeless: rough-sleeping numbers dropped sharply; our buildings improved beyond recognition; investment in services was at a level where most people were able to get the support they needed to exit homelessness for good. It wasn’t perfect, but improvements were steady.

“I think the one positive to have come out of the austerity agenda is that we talk about jobs much more – and getting people into secure jobs has moved up the list of priorities for our services.”

Since 2010, the combination of the recession, public sector cuts, and welfare cuts, have seen life becoming much more difficult for people who face homelessness. Rough-sleeping is up across the country, though not hugely in Newcastle, and I’m sure that this is because investment in services has been maintained to a large extent. Tough benefit sanctions have left people who were already struggling with no money because they didn’t realise that their claimant commitment was to apply for 35 jobs in a week. I think the one positive to have come out of the austerity agenda is that we talk about jobs much more – and getting people into secure jobs has moved up the list of priorities for our services.

What makes me particularly concerned about austerity is not necessarily the immediate impact; we can help people get food (though who would have thought 10 years ago that food banks would be a normal part of our society?) and we’re just about hanging on to the supported accommodation services which mean people still have a supportive place to live. It’s the longer term impact on people and communities: the decline in self-esteem and self-worth brought on by using food banks and being treated like a parasite when you try to claim benefits. The shift in people’s sympathy for others who have had a terrible childhood or a traumatic event in adulthood which has led them down the path of homelessness. The steady cutting of health services, which can mean that the people who are more difficult to help – those with dual diagnosis* for example – are less likely to get a service, so their condition gets worse. More young people come to our services because the youth services that might have prevented their homelessness have been shut. The zero-hour contracts people are being forced to take have the opposite effect a secure job would have, and shift people further into poverty. How young people start in the world has a huge impact on themselves, their future children, and the communities in which we live, and for those young people who are most vulnerable and have the least family support, it’s getting harder.

“What makes me particularly concerned about austerity is not necessarily the immediate impact […] It’s the longer term impact on people and communities: the decline in self-esteem and self-worth brought on by using food banks and being treated like a parasite when you try to claim benefits.”

It would be easy just to give up and go home. The government isn’t going to change its rhetoric despite evidence of the damage it is doing, and we might have this government in power for the next 10 years. House prices and rents will increase, social housing will be done for too. The cuts will be continue, our services will be eroded, and people who are homeless will survive in night shelters, in private hostels and on handouts. Let’s forget the last 15 years ever happened…

Or, we keep on helping the people we work for to find hope and support them to change their lives for the better. We can’t do this by just surviving and continuing to try to do more with less, stressing out our staff and reducing the quality of support, but by changing how we do things, focussing on the things we know work and trying out things that might. Let’s keep trying to work with people on their strengths even when society is focussing on their deficits, let’s really help people set their own priorities and let’s not pretend there is a market solution to everything.

And finally, what the conversation about austerity risks doing is putting everything in an economic context. Helping people out of homelessness is what we should be doing as a well-off society, because it is the right and moral thing to do, not because it saves money.

 

*Dual diagnosis is the term used to describe patients with both severe mental illness (mainly psychotic disorders) and problematic drug and/or alcohol use. Personality disorder may also co-exist with psychiatric illness and/or substance misuse.