Yesterday evening, ITV showed “Undercover: Life and Death in a Homeless Hostel”. This was a troubling and deeply shocking undercover report into the way some people are treated in accommodation designed to support them.
By David Orr, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation
11 November 2016
The makers of the programme had asked me to comment on some of the footage their undercover reporters had filmed. I’ve been involved in both homelessness and housing for a long time – my career started in a support service for street homeless people in Glasgow in the 1970s – and I’ve seen some poor service in that time. I was still appalled by the callous disregard for people demonstrated by some in the film and their complete disrespect for the inherent dignity of human life. The film records at least some of my response.
I admit I had some reservations about taking part in the film. We have a long history of documentary makers distorting the work that many people and organisations do to support homeless and vulnerable people and I’m acutely aware that words recorded in a long interview can be used out of context. I’m glad I took part though. This was important and serious television journalism which deserves to be seen and acted on.
There were, however, a couple of things I said to the journalist which didn’t make it into the final film. The first is my belief, based on first-hand experience and observation, that what we saw is not typical. There are fantastic organisations the length and breadth of the country where caring and committed individuals make genuinely heroic efforts to provide high quality support to extremely vulnerable people. That work deserves to be publicised and celebrated. The last thing we need is for there to be a public backlash against all services based on the deplorable behaviour of a few.
My second, more challenging, concern is the reality that appalling though the service shown on the film was, there is too little available for such vulnerable homeless people. For far too many, the choice even now is poor service or a life on the streets. We don’t have enough good quality, well managed supported housing which is why it is possible for terrible services like this to exist.
All of this shines a bright light on just how important it is to have a secure funding for the provision of good supported housing and care. And we don’t have that at present. We have had intensive conversations with the Government over the past year on how public funding should be used to support and encourage high quality provision, not just for homeless people but for thousands of others who need some support to be able to live independent, fulfilling lives in the community. We have made some progress but there is still too much uncertainty to allow new services to be created with confidence about their financial stability. The Government has also decided that already underfunded support services should see their rents cut – a measure that will have almost no positive impact on public finances but will cause intense problems for some great services that are already under huge pressure.
Of course we must ensure that public money is well spent and properly used. That is why, in an extensive series of proposals we put to the Government, we suggested that all services seeking enhanced funding to provide support services should be formally registered. We care about the quality of provision and think the nation should invest in that.
We can also advance a clear economic case that appropriately funded supported housing saves taxpayers a considerable amount of money as it reduces demand for health services and expensive long term residential care.
These, though, are not my core concerns. Theresa May’s government has given a welcome focus to the needs of the ‘just managing’. This is a group of people who are not even just managing. They are really not managing at all. They are extremely vulnerable. Our response to our fellow citizens when they need our support is not fundamentally about economics. It is about our humanity.