A homelessness survey that isn’t

Having had more than a passing interest in Manx homelessness for decades I read http://www.iomtoday.co.im/news/isle-of-man-news/health-needs-of-isle-of-man-s-homeless-revealed-by-audit-1-8297739 out of curiosity, then got slightly annoyed.

Sadly, either the reporter was not granted direct access to the full survey (which would be par for the course), or hasn’t had time to study it (which would be understandable, given the skeleton staff with which Manx papers now have to be produced) or it isn’t what it appears to be (which is definitely par for the course).

The thing is, Graih isn’t the island’s homelessness charity. That is Housing Matters, as I know because I helped set it up a decade ago. After an early attempt to derail negotiations between government and the HM steering committee, it was agreed that Graih would concentrate on the clientele which they had always worked with, i.e. single males for whom mental instability was the major issue, and housing difficulties a side-effect of that. The main reason for this was the practical difficulty of mentally unstable men being around vulnerable women and children.

So, Housing Matters would concentrate on the larger issues of homelessness, which would involve helping anyone in difficulty to find emergency accommodation, working with young people who leave home because of family issues, educating the public about homelessness and liaising with government to try and find long term solutions. Graih would deal solely with the small group of men they initially made contact with and anyone new introduced to them via that community.

To be honest, as becomes obvious each time I talk to one of their volunteers, Graih know very little about homelessness, almost as little about any form of mental illness, and rarely, if ever, come into contact with people whose major problem is housing. So, while I give them practical support when I can to do what they alone seem willing to do, they lack the specific skills or knowledge to conduct such a survey, which makes it misleading and even worthless for any serious or practical purpose.

Because what Graih really deal with is a long term consequence of the closure of old style mental institutions since the 1980’s, and the Thatcherite myth that anyone so displaced would be cared for and reintegrated into the community. They never were, and in addition all the core services which should have helped them have also been removed. No social workers, no qualified therapists for drug and alcohol dependency, and a wait of a year or more for places in even the tiny Manx mental health unit which remains, not just for overnight care of serious cases but even day clinics for common issues.

Graih are certainly at the more honourable end of those taking up the slack, but the greater problem is that, instead of providing professional help and facilities, government now hand such services over to religious amateurs who – to be absolutely blunt – are unqualified, sometimes dishonest, and often downright dangerous. Sometimes as much as those they are supposed to be helping.

In addition, those directly working for government are no better. To come right back to the key point of the story (information gathering on the homeless), a decade ago I sat in for Housing Matters, then called Kemmyrk (Manx gaelic for ‘shelter’) at an interdepartmental government meeting to consider a proposed database provided by the UK housing charity, Shelter, as a key part of a consultation. Basically, the database would be created by a 14 question report to be filled in by any government or charity employee who came into contact with a homeless person – police, social security, probation workers, women’s refuge, etc, etc.

As the results of this simple five minute task were fed back to a central database a picture would emerge of not only the numbers of homeless, but the types of people, the reasons and, in general, specific Manx factors which the government could then find ways to deal with. It could then provide both an annual governmental report and even a day-to-day analysis to allow those supervising to monitor and head off new issues.

Except that it never happened. Firstly because the managers of those who would have filled it in said it was too much work. Secondly because they didn’t like the questions.

The main problems were (1) that they wouldn’t prove that homelessness was due to foreigners (because it never has been) and (2) that it would prove that certain charities who mount emotional appeals for public money based on folk myths don’t actually have many clients, and those that they do have are mainly generated by the faith based homophobia and misogyny of the churches behind them. Nevertheless, the agreement taken away from the meeting was that department heads would get together and produce a simplified version, which should then be up and running within months and able to make at least an annual report to Tynwald within the year.

So, government has had the capability to do this survey properly for at least a decade, and by now should have had a detailed database in place which allows it to analyse and solve the specific problems of Manx homelessness. All of the potential contributors, if genuine, had an obvious interest in this happening, because it would have been all the evidence needed for funding their jobs, and for tailoring their services to meet actual need, rather than what some old wives’ tale thought it might be.

But it hasn’t happened. Because there is a steady flow of public money into private and third sector services which purport to deal with homelessness and allied social problems, based on a steady flow of folk myth unsullied by hard fact. On the other hand, hard facts would actually help any public body genuinely motivated to deal with homelessness, but in the process could make government failings crystal clear and derail a very nice gravy train.

I think we can safely assume that an effective database is never going to be put in place, can’t we?

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