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The curse of the cure

Posted on March 10, 2019: by John-Mark McCafferty

John-Mark

How do you show something that isn’t there? How do you represent something which hasn’t happened? How do you explain your success when it’s …an absence of something? In any event, they say when you’re explaining, you’re losing. At this time of continued crisis in the housing and homelessness sector, the need to show delivery is vital: cold weather emergency beds; homeless hubs; services to make the lives of homeless people a little easier. With up to 10,000 people officially homeless, there is an obvious need for Government and organisations to urgently respond. The provision of short term accommodation and related services for families and individuals who have lost their homes is required. It is only right and correct that charities and the state intervene in relation to the emergency of homelessness.  Hostels and homeless hubs are examples of cures – much needed remedies to address some very desperate situations facing people and families.

A cure is tangible. It’s iconic: a cure for cancer. Cures are essential. When we are in the middle of a crisis, all we want is for the spectre of whatever we are enduring to be taken away. And who wouldn’t want to be the person who developed a cure for cancer? Assisting people who are already homeless is compelling in a similar way. The van supplying the food and volunteers to people sleeping rough on our city’s streets is visible. It’s physical proof of help, as is the homeless hostel. While scandalous, the existence of a family in emergency accommodation strikes us and pushes us to act, to give, to mobilise. There’s a giver and a receiver in this transaction; the curer and the cured.

As a country, the vast majority of our thinking, energy and resources in this area is focussed on the curative aspects of the homeless crisis. The provision of short term shelter for someone who has lost the home they loved. And this is vital, unfortunately. On our streets, volunteers providing food for people is, some would argue, a compelling and visible remedial action on homelessness. The opening of a cold weather hostel or a family hub, while not home, is somehow the best we can do in the circumstances.

Why? Because somewhere along the way, a person or a family found themselves out of home. Maybe they were evicted because they could no longer pay an exorbitant and increasing rent. Maybe their landlord was selling up and wanted to do so without sitting tenants – which is currently within a landlord’s rights, as is eviction due to renovation of a rented property. For the 10,000 people currently in emergency accommodation, their path to homelessness was somehow not prevented – yet for many, that same path was not inevitable.

A fixation on the cure is contributing to the problem, and may be cursing efforts to find structural solutions to the issue. While the vast majority of resources – and thinking - continue to be committed to the symptoms of homelessness, the system will struggle to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place. And yet the gains to human lives, communities - and the exchequer - to homeless prevention are obviously positive. By addressing things ‘upstream’, we eradicate – or at least have less of a problem – ‘downstream’. In contrast, most statutory and voluntary efforts related to homelessness are focussed primarily on the cure, where matters downstream have already escalated, human suffering is increased and the financial cost of emergency accommodation and related services to the public purse are enormous.

The provision of advice, tenancy protection and tenancy sustainment measures to renters is key – as is the investment and public promotion of them.

Prevention means that something doesn’t get so bad that we’re reaching for a plethora of remedies. Prevention ‘cuts things off at the pass’, so to speak. Most of the people moving into homeless accommodation do so from the private rented sector. As a result, the provision of advice, tenancy protection and tenancy sustainment measures to renters is key – as is the investment and public promotion of them. This needs to go in tandem with policy and legal change to ensure security of tenure, rental affordability, better standards and greater overall rights for tenants, in a tenure in which a growing number of people are spending more of their lives.

So why is prevention getting such little public attention and such low funding compared to the more curative interventions?

Part of the answer must lie in terms of visibility – or lack of visibility. How do you show that you avoided all those people from drowning, through improved water safety; or from falling off a cliff, through enhanced barriers and signage; or from car accidents, by reducing speed limits and better public awareness campaigns? Similarly, how do you communicate that families and people who were facing the prospect of homelessness had their tenancies protected? How do you explain such an absence - without losing your audience?

 

The Tenancy Protection Service provided by Threshold has proven to be highly effective in preventing homelessness and keeping people in their home at a time where the cost of renting, and the scarcity of rental accommodation, is proving a massive struggle for many. Through providing advocacy, advice, Residential Tenancy Board representation and our Tenancy Protection Service, Threshold helped an average of 4,376 households to remain in their homes in 2017 – that’s 364 families a month. That’s around 10,000 individual people in the private rented sector that we prevented from homelessness – the same as the number of people currently in emergency accommodation. What’s even more powerful are the stories and testimonies of the people themselves whose homes we’ve saved – but that’s for another blog. These are families who can remain in their communities, keep their children in local schools and access the local services and supports that are part of the everyday fabric of their lives. That’s what we represent through our advice and preventative work. Our challenge is to ensure that we make these success stories – in the face of an extremely difficult rental sector – as visible as possible. That way, renters will know that real, tangible help, through the prevention work of our Tenancy Protection Service, is at hand.