Caritas Anchor House

Working at the heart of homelessness

Is there such a thing as a homeless charity?

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Is there such a thing as a homeless charity?

30th November 2009
A few months ago I dwelt upon the challenges facing my organisation, Anchor House, in the light of Pope Benedict’s Encyclical Caritas in Veritate: we had decided to go back to basics and, by respecting the sanctity of every individual, we are now coming to terms with our new reality.

What does our new reality mean?

In dealing with over a hundred homeless, ostensibly single people, we have gone back to the basics, as I have had to ask myself what is expected of me and my staff. Our residents give us the answer everyday of the week in their dealings with ourselves. We have developed a community where we have the roles of father, mother, brother, sister. Membership of this community is devoted to a common cause, the personal development of our residents so they can obtain jobs, be good citizens and obtain their own housing.

Our community now has a wider membership, that of our former residents coming back to their ‘family home’. I never imagined that I would be in a maternity suite on a Sunday when one of my staff was a birth partner for a young woman. Young mothers bring back their children to show how proud they are. Role models and peer mentoring are becoming a new reality.

I was talking to a forty-odd year old resident recently about the direction of his life and he described how one of my staff had the mother role to our residents and that I played the father role. This accolade brings with it a need for us to reappraise our relationships and how we relate to everyone; particularly for the staff group as they consider their roles.

We have to consider how we provide the love of the family setting whilst getting the message of ‘tough love’ over to our residents. Does this cause us to have a dynamic debate with strongly-held views on both sides? Certainly, but we are united in the role of serving our residents and getting the best for them. Consequently we sometimes have to go to places that we have never envisaged.

Where have we gone?

In dealing with the needs of our residents, my staff  have had to bulldoze themselves into doctors surgeries to ensure that the medical profession consider more than the obvious, and get to the heart of the matter.

Why were we in the police cells to ensure that one of our residents got the right treatment?

Why are residents dealt with differently if we turn up at the Job Centre with them?

We have to go through rules and procedures that at times are not conducive to the dealing of the problems being faced by our residents.

We see the laxness of the rules surrounding Members of Parliament expenses whilst at the same time we see our residents being increasingly put through the hoops about benefits of about £60 per week. I am not for one moment suggesting that monies be paid over for nothing, on the contrary, we believe that there should be recognition of the fact that benefits are paid for a reason.

One of our residents was offered a retail job by the job centre, the employer then decided to pay in cash, with no payslip. Our resident did the right thing but has subsequently been penalised by the benefits system: we in turn did not receive any rent. The rule books can be hard to cope with at the bottom of society.

Increasingly we are seeing our residents being offered jobs where they have to agree to a pre-work assessment period of unpaid work of sometimes up to a month in length. Their benefits get messed up, they often seem not to get the job and then others are taken on. Call me a cynic, but though the job market is very problematic, I struggle to see how this type of behaviour is conducive to developing a long-term relationship with the long-term unemployed, who if we are to be believed will be targeted by whatever party comes into power after the next general election.

The relationship between society and our residents needs to be reconsidered. We are placed within a procurement system for training and employability initiatives that determines that such initiatives have to be regional, sub-regional, pan-London: yet our relations are with our residents are on a one to basis. Is there a place for a new paradigm, from the bottom-up in society, as opposed to prescriptive contracts that rule out individuality and personal relationships?

Why do I believe this is important?  Well it is quite simply because, on a daily basis, the strength of my staff’s personal relationships makes a difference to their lives. We recently had to separate two residents who had a major disagreement, where chairs were going to be smashed down on heads. Our relationship with our residents saw beyond the major problems of anger, one has now achieved a good job, the other is volunteering and has a positive future.

Is there a need for a new paradigm? We think so, where would our two residents be if their disagreement had taken place in a job centre, a police station or a doctors’ surgery? Prison would be a possibility. Our preventative and personal approach to relations saves society untold thousands per year, is it time for a new preventative bottom-up Paradigm?

Keith Fernett, Director

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