In recent years, support measures for homeless people have become more visible and the issue better understood. In 2019, Wrap Up London collected 21,021 coats for rough sleepers — 25 per cent more than in the previous year.  

Homelessness has many faces. Breaking the taboo has fostered more honest rhetoric and a broader definition. So-called ‘sofa surfing’ and taking base in temporary accommodation as well as squatting, are now recognised types of homelessness.

A climate of empathy and understanding produced pop-up housing schemes during the pandemic. Six thousand people were temporarily accommodated during the first three months.

By the December lockdown, 253,000 people were ‘experiencing homelessness and trapped in temporary accommodation’.

The many faces of homelessness

To be clear, the UK didn’t necessarily have 253,000 rough sleepers — remember the issue’s ‘many faces’. Rather, 253,000 is the number of people found to be lacking a secure residence as revealed by temporary accommodation use alone.

Only 26,167 people using temporary accommodation during lockdown have since been permanently housed.
The benefits of eviction bans have largely been cancelled out due to other factors, such as domestic abuse. This has resulted in an estimated 130,000 households without shelter.

The many forms of homelessness were already disproportionately affecting England’s black population even before the pandemic struck. Statistics taken from 2019 reveal that those who are BAME are made homeless or face the threat of homelessness every eight minutes.

Driving for Change

A legacy of fresh homeless support is emerging from the lockdowns. Coffee chain Change Please has created the ‘Driving for Change’ initiative. The scheme has repurposed London buses as mobile service centres, providing a range of key services on board. These include free GP and dental appointments, haircuts, employment advice and lessons in financial literacy. London Mayor Sadiq Khan declared the initiative open on October 7, 2021.

Research by the London Housing Foundation illuminates a strong feedback loop between prison leavers and homelessness.

Offenders are ‘around 50 per cent more likely to break the law again if released without somewhere to stay’.

A stable family that provides shelter is, therefore, a highly effective measure for preventing homelessness. With this in mind, how effective can we really expect the new scheme to be? Does it strike at the root, or merely improve the conditions of life without laying a fixed base?

I posed this question to Ary Ganeshalingam, the Chief Marketing Officer at Change Please, who explained Driving for Change — and Change Please more generally — as a two-sided approach: ‘one part of it is the immediate solutions, but the other part is to reengage the community; it’s all about building trust. It’s not enough just to give immediate services, but the idea is to at least reconnect with some of the community that we might not have initially and to help them to reintegrate.’

So how does Change Please enable this integration over a coffee counter?

Answer: visibility and networking. ‘We allow the public to see our employees a few times and to give them the opportunity to eventually, hopefully, come into the world as a barista or into other working opportunities.’

The repurposed buses therefore provide the vital means — such as a clean and tidy appearance — to a more successful end of gainful employment.

Co-sponsored by HSBC and sub-sponsored by Mastercard, the Driving for Change scheme offers the opportunity to open a homeless bank account. This service was started precisely to treat the causes and not the symptoms of poverty. Mike Finnigan, Head of Customer Experience for HSBC, explains:

‘There is a massive vicious circle that’s now been identified. People find themselves in homeless circumstances and without identification and verification documents. They find it so difficult to open a bank account, so difficult to get employment and to have any sort of accommodation. That vicious circle has just got bigger and bigger and it’s our part in society to help with that as much as we can. We are really pleased to play a part in that.’

HSBC now works with over 200 charity partners, including Crisis and Shelter, who can introduce prospective homeless account holders to the bank. They can use the charity address in order to break the Catch-22 of needing a bank account to get an address and vice versa. But isn’t this just blue chips ‘virtue signalling’ and businesses acting in the interest of self-promotion?

We know that black people and prison leavers without family are at an increased risk of homelessness. So why don’t activists strategically target preventative measures to help these groups, rather than driving around in a repurposed bus? The truth is, it is impossible to predict who will be made homeless. What’s more, the statistics do not especially resonate with those fighting homelessness on the front line. Ary has only been in this job three months: ‘… and already it’s broken down so many perceptions. The stories you hear are incredible. You just don’t realise how quickly things can turn around for people out there. It’s shocking and a real eye-opener. There is this misconception that everyone who is in that [homeless] community is driven by substance abuse’.

A 22-year-old homeless woman interviewed for the YouTube channel ‘Invisible People’ revealed that she was on the streets precisely because she is not a substance abuser: ‘I’m not a drug addict, I’m not an alcoholic and I’m not pregnant. Those are three things that get you help from the council. I don’t fit for a charity’, she says — standing on a pair of crutches, in the rain.

Cases like this reveal the complexity of the issue. There is still much that we do not understand about homelessness and how to treat it. Absolutely anyone can fall on hard times. Whether we admit it or not, lack of opportunities breeds crime, anti-social behaviour, vandalism and drug use. On the most cynical level, fewer people on the streets means more people working, a greater pool of talent to draw from and more tax payers. So yes, the companies sponsoring Driving for Change are acting in their own interest, but not in the way one might think. Like anyone else, they want to be able to live quiet and peaceful lives free from vandalism and to have more talented people applying for their jobs.

Increased support services and the creation of opportunities really is better than battling a vicious circle. Not least because any one of us may need urgent support at some point.

Further ‘reading’:

Listen to the full interview with Change Please: Here

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