The Business of Homelessness

by Joe Baldwin

Homelessness in Brighton, UK ‘is so in your face…you just can’t avoid it,’ said one frontline worker at a volunteer-run day-centre for homeless people. The organisation works with young people in the city who sleep rough or are insecurely housed. I volunteered there one day a week as a frontline worker beginning in 2014, and in the summer of 2015 spent three months conducting ethnographic research with other volunteer frontline workers as part of my MA dissertation. By the time of this research, I had formed a strong bond with the organisation as a whole, and I believe I was seen by other frontline workers as not someone who was on a ‘placement’ or a ‘researcher’ that was there to ‘exoticize’ his ‘subjects’. Instead I was someone who was a part of the organisation and had a stake in the outcome of the work being carried out there.

My initial research approach was to search for themes that stood out – in the context of an investigation of youth homelessness in Brighton – to understand how homelessness provision is enacted in the day-centre. How the organisation is funded came to the forefront of my thinking as I witnessed the impact it had on everyday service provision for young people who used the day-centre. As I’ll show below, that service provision occupied by frontline workers and service-users are shaped and altered by institutional pressures – be they from government or the private sector – that stem from how the voluntary sector is structured. Ultimately, this was done in two ways.

Government definitions of acceptable and unacceptable service provision

The first institutional pressure that influenced the day-centre in Brighton was the way in which other service providers in the city were centrally managed by a government programme that set out what was to be expected from homelessness service providers. Successive government initiatives have been created to dictate to service providers what is deemed as ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ organisational behaviour, and in Brighton this was no different. Rather than service provision being shaped solely by service users, workers or volunteers – the people who experience homelessness – government plays a big part in shaping the terms of the debate around homelessness, and therefore determining what organisations can do for homeless people.

The Homelessness Action Programme was introduced in 1999 in order to restructure the homelessness sector in two ways. Headed by the Rough Sleepers Unit, it encouraged ‘active partnership’ with non-statutory organisations. As Paul Cloke et al. write, it overhauled the way contracts were outsourced to these organisations by taking in to consideration modes of service delivery. Service providers had to demonstrate their active engagement with other organisations, develop ‘outreach programmes’ and look at the ‘specific problems’ of homelessness. In effect, successive governments have outsourced homelessness provision to voluntary organisations but not completely let go of their influence. The Rough Sleepers Unit has a officer in each town that has implemented the Homeless Action Programme who chair the various consortia established to facilitate ‘local joint working’, which, as Cloke et al. say, is effectively the extension of central government power. Any organisations that reject the approaches of the Rough Sleepers Unit quickly find themselves labelled as ‘unhelpful’ or ‘unprofessional’. The homeless day-centre in Brighton is one of these organisations according to a frontline worker during one of the interviews conducted:

‘It [the day-centre] certainly started as an outsider organisation because it has never received any statutory funding from the council. Also, because we are run by volunteers, we were always inwardly focused, the organisation always fiercely embraced its independence.’

Housing services are so under-resourced that all too often they turn people away, to combat this one of the services at the day-centre provides is to send frontline workers to accompany service-users to these meetings. Indeed, with practises such as service-rationing and gatekeeping becoming common in the welfare system, frontline workers accompanying service-users to housings drop-in meetings at organisations such as the Youth Advice Centre (YAC) to advocate on behalf of service-user, at times led to tensions being raised between on the one hand frontline workers at the day-centre – supporting service-users to get the support they require and frontline workers from other organisations who may not appreciate their attendance. Having someone support service-users at a meeting may not transport them in to a position were they are able to rent their own flat but it could often be the difference between getting pushed a little higher up the waiting list for temporary accommodation.

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The day-centre had often been stigmatised for a ‘lack of professionalism’ or for ‘taking anyone’ and had ‘difficulties’ communicating effectively with other service providers in Brighton in the past. Providing the advocating service led one interviewee to even distinguish the day-centre as a ‘rogue’ organisation, on the margins of homeless service provision in the city. They saw this characterisation as positive, ‘…we’ve got a bit of reputation as a ‘rogue organisation’…I think its quite good, it means we’re more flexible in the type of service we can provide.’

The characterisation of the homeless day-centre in Brighton as being ‘rogue’ appeared to be changing in 2015. In the time I spent at the day-centre, there was a strategy shift to become more in-line with other similar service providers by increasing communication and relationships with other organisations in the homelessness sector. One example of this was the introduction of hierarchical structures amongst frontline workers. Something similar to normative modes of management arrangements based around hierarchy, informal ‘key volunteers’ who take charge of over-seeing less experienced frontline workers in the day-centre had been introduced. Given extra training and greater responsibility, this role appears to contest traditionally symmetrical power-relations in this grass-roots organisation. In reality, there has been an increase of homelessness applications in the city by 50% in the past four years, with a large proportion of those being from people aged below 25. What was more evident was the organisation reacting to an increase in service users, that therefore required practical mechanisms introduced in order to cope with the rise in demand. One example of this was introducing these ‘key volunteers’, who reduced the amount of time needed to train new volunteers and therefore was more an exercise in maximising resources rather than to professionalise in a manner that was acceptable to funders. As one worker suggested:

‘…that (characterisation of a ‘outsider organisation’) has changed massively but mostly because of physical space, more service-users, we’re growing because of demand so we need efficient practices.’

Organisations like the homeless day-centre in Brighton, who do not submit to more corporatist practices are often dismissed as ‘amateur’ by other members of the sector, lack both time and skills to compete in bidding and are under-valued by more powerful organisations. Indeed, in the past there had been only one paid member of staff who oversaw the management and funding and now there are more. But even with added paid members of staff, there was still a heavy reliance on external professionals to volunteer their time to support the organisation in accounting and other practises. Further, one of the structural aims of the organisation was to improve its reputation from a service on the margins, to a day-centre that was willing to cooperate and communicate efficiently with other service providers in the city. Frontline workers often characterised these changes as the organisation ‘getting better’, ‘improving’ or ‘becoming more organised’. Whilst this was certainly true, what is interesting here is how the day-centre was shaped in part by its own growth but also by external characterisations of ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ forms of service provision by other actors in the sector.

Partnership…or business deal?

The project of political austerity in the UK has led to a rise in competition for funding in the voluntary sector and this is the other pressure that is put on service provision. The day-centre in Brighton is a small organisation and is heavily restricted by a lack of funding. The organisation faces a difficult battle for financing in a highly competitive market. As one frontline worker lamented, the day-centre is ‘…constantly fighting for funding. If we had the money, we would be able to provide mentoring schemes and so much more for our service-users.’ The day-centre is mainly funded by small charitable trusts or community fundraising activities. Recently, with the rise in need, the fundraising strategy now places more focus on promoting relationships with larger organisations that bring longer relationships and more sustainable financial backing. The logic behind this was explained to me by one frontline-worker:

‘With Council funding, you have to apply and it’s a really long process with different organisations competing for money. The problem with the application process is that there are lots of regulations and it is so time consuming for a small organisation like ours. Without council funding, we’re not tied down to any Council funding aims or goals, it gives us more freedom.’

Funding from the Council then appears out of reach for smaller, outsider organisations. Smaller funders also traditionally place fewer conditions on funding, which creates the opportunity to be more flexible with the service that the organisation provides – such as not needing to adhere to Council requirements that service-users have a ‘local-connection’ in the area to fully use their service.

There has been a shift at the day-centre to gain more funding from larger corporate organisations, which over the last twenty years have developed corporate social responsibility divisions that fund community projects or organisations. Private corporations have filled the gap left by the withdrawal of state spending in the welfare sector by promoting corporate social responsibility ‘relationships’ with charitable organisations. What is of interest to us here is how these private companies affect welfare provision. Generally speaking, funding from the private sector does not come with conditionalities but they do emerge with certain limitations imposed on what services can and cannot do.

The argument for the involvement of private companies in social and environmental management is justified because of a lack of state funding for welfare projects. And yet, there are risks involved in establishing discussions of social and environmental justice solely on economic arguments. The risk of this form of fundraising is that it outsources responsibility for defining what justice in the welfare sector means, in this case for homeless people, to managers and investors in private companies. But what types of rights do corporate social investment managers recognise? One frontline worker outlined one example of the limitations imposed by the necessity to promote a positive image to current and potential funders of the day-centre – one that did not contest punitive measures imposed on homeless people. The frontline worker suggested that they were forced to alter a particular fundraising strategy that they would preferred to have used, as they explained:

‘Political stuff can be difficult, like when I was creating a funding page to get us (the day-centre) an appliance that we needed, in the application form (for the funding page) I mentioned the police moving-on our service-users four-times a night. I was told stating this would upset our funders. I was shocked. I was like: who are these funders that think homeless people should not sleep? The response I got was a despondent shrug of the shoulders.’

Here, the implication is that a frontline worker attempted to represent a service-user’s lived experience – police harassment – but was blocked because of the perceived damage it would do to funding prospects or the organisation’s image. The right to advocate on behalf of homeless people was a negotiable right, a right that was defined (or re-defined) by the relationship company investors had with the organisation, rather than the rights of people who experience them.

This is not an attempt to brand private companies as unfit to fund such ‘spaces of care’. Indeed, funding from the private sector allows great work to be done that supports many people but in the process it can shape ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ forms of service provision. With public sector funding having diminished over the last twenty years, organisations like the day-centre in Brighton rely heavily on private funding. Whereas frontline workers at the day-centre are right to suggest that the service they provide is not affected by conditionalities from the public sector, it was found that corporate social responsibility fosters some non-negotiable rights. When funders in-directly shape service provision, the space that exists at the day-centre to contest punitive measures directed towards homeless people becomes a narrow one. Notions of charity and compassion are allowed, but not politics.

In the shadow of the neo-liberalised state, voluntary organisations operate in a context of funding pressures and contractual obligations that direct and constrain their practises. Thinking about the day-centre as political spaces has implications for how we understand the role of the state. The private-sector penetration of voluntary organisations often imposes definitions of eligibility and incentivizes certain care practises. Rather than categorising the relationship between funders and the day-centre as a ‘partnership’ (as many organisations do for private interests) it would be much more correct for it be defined as a business deal.


Joe Baldwin is a graduate of the MA in Human Rights at the University of Sussex and currently a frontline worker for a homelessness prevention service.


Title image: Embedded from © Getty Images.


References

Blowfield, M. 2005: Corporate Social Responsibility: reinventing the meaning of development? Chatham house: the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Cloke, P, May, J, Johnson, S. 2010: Swept up lives? Re-envisioning the homeless city. Wiley Blackwell.

Miligan, C, Fyfe, N, R. 2005: Preserving space for volunteers: exploring the links between voluntary welfare organisations, volunteering and citizenship.’ Urban Studies.

Scullion, L. Somerville, P. Brown, P. Brown, G. 2014: ‘Changing homelessness Services: Revanchism, ‘professionalisation’, and resistance.’ Health and Social Care Journal.

 

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