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Abolishing homelessness?

May 18 2009
An interview with Dominic Williamson, director of policy, practice and campaigns for Homeless Link When Homeless Link announced its proposals for a national action plan to end homelessness by 2012, targeting a complete eradication of homelessness by 2022, the reaction was more cynical than hopeful. The Pavement received emails claiming it was a cosmetic move to get rid of rough sleepers for the Olympics in London, and others simply saying abolition of life on the streets is impossible. But Dominic Williamson, director of policy, practice and campaigns for Homeless Link, believes it is possible. Mr Williamson admitted that the 2012 date was linked to the Olympic Games; however, he rejected the more cynical perception of why this might be the case. "We are using the opportunity the Olympics present to concentrate minds on the homeless problem," he said. "With London under the spotlight, we are using the event to drive attention." He quickly dismissed any ideas about people being driven from the streets, and instead explained that he was seeking effective long-term help, as the games will mean increased employment and housing in the city: "We want to see some of this going to the homeless." Behind the announcement is a report, Ending Homelessness: From Vision to Action. Mr Williamson described this document as setting "theoretical targets" to "focus minds" within the sector and in government on how to achieve these goals. It focuses on 10 key areas (see below), which it hopes charities, organisations, policy makers, local authorities, the police and those using homeless services can work together on achieving. "Both dates are targets, but it is more about seeing what would happen, asking what that would mean and what we would have to do to achieve this," said Mr Williamson. "I believe that if government services do what we have said, it is achievable." Although the document requires substantial change across a broad number of areas, there are three main points Mr Williamson said urgently need to be addressed. For him, prevention of homelessness is key. "We know the biggest causes are the failures of the care system, and ex-prisoners and young offenders re-entering the community. We need to focus our attention on transitions for people leaving these areas." The second area on concern is the improvement of homeless services, from both charitable organisations and local authorities. "Staff in centres will be trained more thoroughly to ensure we are working with the right people," said Mr Williamson. "We are also developing our work with the police in the criminal justice system and discussing the treatment of people who breach their ASBOs. We do not just want them processed and kicked out." He added that although many Homeless Link members work with the police already, there was room for improvement. "The police can play a positive role with the right training, but often they do not know what to do with homeless people," he said. Most crucially, Mr Williamson said, the cost of not acting is more than the cost of action; he claims that being more positive towards the homeless will, in the long-term, lower healthcare costs and have a positive impact on the economy. As an umbrella organisation, Homeless Link has spent two years consulting on the document, but it has been careful to glean information not just from the sector. "We got responses from a few homeless people put forward by the organisations they work with," explained Mr Williamson. "You do get different angles from this. What homeless people see is linked to their personal experience and individual services, and we have built that into our discussion document." Homeless Link has outlined a number of policy recommendations for the government, including a comprehensive spending review looking three years ahead. "We want there to be a set amount of money available to support people and for new housing schemes," he said. "The government has committed itself to new housing, but we want some of this to be available to people off the streets. We also want a new target within the public services agreement across a number of government departments, because it is important to deliver support at all levels." Mr Williamson said there were still a number of public service areas which overlooked provision for people without permanent accommodation. He highlighted how, in education, the government has given targets for the number of young people taking GNVQs, but people without an address or the ability to attend regular classes cannot even apply. "Employment services is another problem area; homeless people have reported difficulties with the job centre because they have complex needs, such as drugs or alcohol abuse, that act as a barrier to entering work." Overall, Mr Williamson said he was confident in his aims because he believed the fabric of government and the thinking in wider society is changing. Modern Britain has made progress with social policy and people are better housed that they ever have been, with better healthcare and education. "The rest of the population is doing a lot better, but there is a group excluded from this progress," he said. "The question for politicians is: is it acceptable to exclude these people? The answer is, of course, no and a lot of policy makers are realising this." If you are still doubtful, watch this space until 2012. In the meantime, let us know what you think of this campaign. Homeless Link's 10 Key Areas for Action Prevention 1 A universal safety net to guarantee the fundamental right to accommodation. 2 Prevent homelessness during transitions in people's lives. 3 A national plan to halve the number of evictions. Support 4 A new national action plan to end rough sleeping by 2012. 5 Invest in Supporting People and develop services in areas where there are none. 6 A national network of 'Places of Change' for homeless people backed by capital investment and 'SP Plus' to fund holistic individualised support. 7 A new PSA for social inclusion. Accommodation 8 Add move-on to the National Affordable Housing Programme. 9 Invest in more affordable homes and create incentives to improve use of existing housing stock. 10 Rent and benefit changes.