27 August 2001
ITEM 1: A statistic, which, with proper promotion, will become a news item.
ITEM 2: Her remit, a woman with an impossible job.
ITEM 3: My gooey liberal heart.
There was a target, it may have been to cut the number or rough sleepers by two-thirds in five years but the specifics are not important; there is a target and the deadline is approaching. The number of rough sleepers is measured by a streetcount: a hastily assembled militia of workers and volunteers walks around a city at night, pairs with carefully prescribed areas, counting anybody they see sleeping out. Each report back their result, results are totalled to produce a figure; the figure, of course, is hugely inaccurate: anyone who has gone to any effort to hide themselves away (a bush, a car, any kind of concealment) does not end up in the figure, but the streetcount takes place at regular intervals (let us say every three months) and it is hoped that the inaccuracy of each figure will cancel themselves out: it is the variation which is important.
One figure is preselected to be imbued with a particular significance: it will form the statistic.
The target was a promise, a promise made by a government; her job is to make sure that the target is met, the promise is kept. I am talking about homelessness (the figure, you will remember, inaccurately records rough sleepers, not the homeless) which is not one of our most pressing social issues, but it is one of our most visible: you do not beg on a council estate. Making a promise to cut homelessness, perhaps by two-thirds in five years, is therefore good PR. People see beggars outside their favourite shops, they see dirt and self-neglect, they are forced into a reaction: annoyance or pity, either way something must be done. Why tackle inner-city squalor when you can clean up the high street? Why intervene in intracontinental genocide when people want you to save foxes?
If the money spent on helping the homeless, rather than spent on agencies and workers and programmes, was simply divided up amongst them, they would each receive a lump sum of around seventy thousand pounds.
A statistic, like a news item, does not record what is: it is created to induce a perception of it. Press releases are fired out, interviews are given: if you have the right contacts, enough influence, blanket coverage ensues: this is important, we are told. She is under tremendous pressure, governments need to be seen to keep their promises, she has not been employed to improve people's lives, she has been employed to meet this target.
Meeting the target is SUCCESS, not meeting the target is FAILURE: a two-minute interview on the Today programme has no time for anything else.
[Explanatory digression: housing the homeless is not as simple as finding a vacancy and slotting them in. The vacancy needs to be appropriate (putting a man with a history of sexual attacks on women in a mixed hostel is not good, likewise sticking some guy trying to stay off booze in a wet dorm,) also it needs to be supported. Knowing they have survived on the street before makes it easier for one-time rough sleepers to walk out on accomodation if any problems present themselves, or once mental health and substance misuse issues make them too chaotic to handle, if they are not still in touch with workers to encourage them and find solutions. Hostels, it should be noted, are frequently rife with drug-use, intimidation and incontinence: refusal to be housed in one is often motivated by fear rather than satisfaction with life on the streets.]
Rumoured tactics from other cities lacked finesse, streetcounts that inexplicably failed to cover areas known to be common sleeping sites, such as a cemetery, on the grounds that only the streets were the remit (only the visible, the problem): here, she has been systematic.
All beds are frozen for the week before a streetcount, as vacancies come up workers may not fill them to ensure the maximum number available the day or two before the event itself, and in order that those who will inevitably bail after only a few days do so after the count has been made; some hostels are instructed to crowd sleeping areas with camp beds to produce a temporary, unsustainable increase in fillable spaces. Then, for the last day or two before a count, workers are told to carry out a blitz: referring everyone they can find into every bed available, her own team go out making any referrals possible with no regard for suitability, sustainability or client history, trampling over the careful work of nurturing trust and tailoring appropriate placements that outreach workers have been building up over long periods of time.
As the deadline approaches she's been getting more desperate: stories filter back of personal tours around the streets with the police in tow, sectioning anyone refusing to engage or co-operate with housing workers, of a team with a reputation being brought up at great expense from Brighton, whose success rested in invoking the long-neglected Vagrancy Act on those not willing to degrade themselves to a hostel. An institution at least counts as a home; a jail bed is a bed.
I am talking about homelessness but politics has transferable skills.
ITEM 3: My gooey liberal heart.