Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Somewhere to Live

You can't be a probation officer for very long without coming across the issue of homelessness. Shelter, along with food and drink, is of course a basic necessity for life and to be honest the issue has been one of the most shocking aspects of the job almost from day one. I don't think the general public has any idea just how significant and enduring a problem homelessness remains to this day, despite 60 years of the Welfare State. For clarification, by homeless I do not mean so called 'sofa-surfing' - I really do mean street homeless. 

When I started out, the small English town I landed in as a green probation officer still indulged in the somewhat quaint practice of allocating council housing on the basis of personal knowledge or acquaintance of a councillor. The concept of the deserving as opposed to the undeserving was very much alive and well and the homeless problem was addressed by the simple expedient of telling people to get on the bus to the very large city nearby. This policy extended to the probation service and indeed the city in question had a vast array of facilities provided by the likes of the Salvation Army, Church Army, DHSS, Local Authority and finally some very seedy B and B's. However during the 80's and 90's I watched as all these facilities were closed for what I would call politically correct reasons - it was said that the hostels were too large, impersonal and institutional, but strangely enough they were never replaced with sufficient 'politically correct' bedspaces.

Although the town's housing allocation policy was eventually modernised, the housing department was in the forefront of paying for seconded police officers in order to help with the vetting of new tenants. To this day I have no idea as to the legal authority that allowed information stored on the Police National Computer to be used in this way, but one result was to effectively continue to deny housing to the 'undeserving' ie those with certain criminal convictions. It will be appreciated that even today, a Local Authority has no legal duty to provide housing for young single homeless men.

The cynical way of dealing with the problem of street homelessness came to a head under Tony Blair's government when he appointed Louise Casey to the so-called post of 'Homeless Czar'. She famously concluded that the homeless situation was encouraged by facilities such as soup kitchens and shelters and that if these were reduced or closed the problem would go away. This policy was supposedly endorsed by a couple of feeble attempts at conducting headcounts which purported to show a significant reduction in street homelessness. The problem just went underground of course with people to my certain knowledge forced to live in the local park, fields, bus station, empty properties and church yards. I well remember the shock suffered by the local vicar when he found one young man living at the back of his church. Based on information from him and supported by several members of the congregation, he threw the church hall open for the needy and was staggered when 12 people turned up.

I'm absolutely sure that this story can be repeated up and down the country to this day. By definition, those who are street homeless have to hide in order to try and evade the increasing habit of the police to 'move people on' or risk arrest under Vagrancy Legislation. Trying to find suitable accommodation for offenders remains one of the biggest challenges for a probation officer in 2010 and with the impending changes to Housing Benefit and cuts in services generally, I can't see the situation improving anytime soon.  


  1. The problems you describe exist even in the most rural areas, with local people trying to do what they can about it. As you say, it'll be a long time before things get "better" - what would be a definition of "better" most people would agree on, though?

    By coincidence, the delightful Ms Casey is in the news this morning with suggestions that would have a significant effect on the work you and your colleagues do - I guess that you'll be blogging on this separately.

  2. It is naieve to suggest that there is a simple solution to this. As a JP I see a relatively small number of truly homelwess in court, but am regularly told that an individual to whom we may give a short custodial sentence will lose their housing. On the other hand, if we give a community service, probation will help with housing. In reality, I do wonder 9and by inference you have confirmed) that there is little you can actually do to help the, say, male perpetrator of domestic violence who is not on an IDAP or similar programme, has no job and may be disinclined to work.

  3. The phrase "Probation will help with housing" fills me with fear. 90% of people I work with seem to think we're some sort of housing agency.
    The fact is, we might be able to refer to NACRO (if that individual hasn't already burnt bridges there) but that's it. In my area at least.
    No matter how often we tell the Court or the Prison this, people are still released with an expectation that we will get them housing. Somehow the term "help" equates to "give". Rather than encourage and enable them to access the same housing paths as everyone else.

  4. The reality is, we may be able to refer to NACRO (if that individual has never burned bridges presently there) that is the idea. In my location at least.

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