I was at a conference this week where the CEO of a homelessness charity said:
‘I was a corporate banker for a couple of years before I started working in homelessness. In my twenty years in this work, I think there is more competitiveness in the charity world than in banking.’
In the profit-making sector, competing for custom is the nature of the game. Competition is intrinsic to how a market place works. And some forms of competition between charities can be positive – its good to want to lead the way in terms of good practice and innovation.
But when it comes to work to address homelessness, competitiveness can easily become corrosive because it undermines how organisations work together. And collaboration is critical when it comes to helping homeless people off the streets.
Encouraging and facilitating better joint working between those addressing homelessness is the key focus of my job. I have been using the following model with local authorities and with faith and community groups. (I adapted this from the book For Good: the future of Church and Welfare – see my review):
Starting in the red zone, there have been significant conflicts that have erupted between local authorities and faith and community groups over how homeless people are treated. Also, some forms of help are established in direct contrast to how local authorities operate. When these are the hallmarks of the relationship, the sense of disconnection can become entrenched.
My role focuses on how we can develop the ‘c’s in green. Firstly, communication needs to be established between the parties, getting around a table and discussing how they work together. From there, we want to build a practical ways the work can be complimentary and collaborative. And often, these forms of relationship lead to voluntary groups being commissioned by the local authorities to deliver services.
Over in the blue zone, it’s important to be aware of the legitimate concerns that charities or voluntary groups become simply co-opted or controlled by the State. Charities should not lose their voice or their independence. The relationship should be one of mutual respect rather than one party telling the other what to do.
So why is building collaboration so important when it comes to addressing homelessness?
A fundamental truth is that no-one comes off the streets due to just one organisation. In someone’s journey of recovery, there will always multiple agencies involved such as outreach, church night shelters, hostel or housing providers and others who provide specialist help for addictions or mental health.
This reality should lead to ‘organisational humility’ where we acknowledge our need of others.
There are amazingly dedicated people who volunteer to go out regularly onto the streets to help homeless people. But their work is always most effective when it connects to the other forms of help. The idea of a ‘lone hero’ who goes out and ‘saves people’ is a myth.
Duplication and rivalry
In many areas there is friction and rivalry between groups who are giving out sleeping bags, food or clothing. Someone said to me recently that it was like ‘soup wars’ in her local area because of the arguing between groups.
The over-provision of such services leads to problems. It can fuel anti-social behaviour and enable people to remain on the streets. There is often an unhelpful collusion between benefactors and recipients which reinforces a sense of victimhood and disparages the work of established charities.
The problem is that this is the opposite of the kind of joint work and coordinated challenge which really helps people with complex needs to come into accommodation.
None of these tensions are new and the issues around street-based provision have been debated since Victorian times. But the advent of social media super-charges the disputes. Now anyone with a phone and twitter account has their own PR department.
And because homelessness has a powerful emotions connected to it, the content shared often provoke strong reactions. Images and videos of people giving out food or clothing may receive lots of ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ but this is not what brings people off the streets.
The compassion and dedication of volunteers mean that faith and community groups have a key role in addressing homelessness. And its vital that local authorities bring people together in common purpose.
This is how the problems of competition and duplication can be addressed. Conflicts can be resolved and relationships built on trust and respect. This is what most helps people come off the streets and into accommodation.
The old proverb captures it well:
‘If you want to go fastest go alone; if you want to go furthest, go together.’