Three of us stood uncomfortably close in a small, grey, social housing lift heading for the fourth floor. Two of us were holding open boxes of dried food and some pots and pans. The other, James, stood in the high visibility jacket I’d never seen him without, gently humming to himself.
This was a big day for James; after twenty years of life on the streets James was finally moving into permanent housing. I was his support worker helping him move into the flat he’d been patiently waiting for during his time in our high-support hostel.
Bad choices and bad luck
Over the two years we’d known him, James had become a favourite amongst the staff and residents. He spent most of his time in the communal areas talking to anyone who wandered by. Stories of relationship breakdown, bad choices and bad luck were James’s explanation of his homelessness.
Now in his 50s, the streets had left a scar of alcohol addiction and a long list of medical ailments. Nevertheless, James was quick to laugh and hopeful of a better future.
The flat was bright, but bare. The local church had managed to secure him a few bits of furniture and a TV, as they did with all departing hostel residents. Along with the items was a card full of encouraging words and ‘Congratulations on your new home’ written on the front.
However, the concrete floors and bare walls didn’t exactly feel like a home. James had never been to the church associated with the gifts. But he was grateful for the items and slightly confused by the card.
The doors of the lift closed as the two of us waved a cheerful goodbye, reminding James to come by the hostel if he needed anything.
His professional support was now handed over to another organisation who would connect with him in the coming weeks, delayed due to the current (permanent) high demand.
James was a success story: a positive move-on, an example of a slow – but effective – system moving someone off the streets.
However, once the lift doors closed, I never saw James again.
A few weeks later we heard that he had tragically died, sat alone with the TV on. Emergency services were alerted by a neighbour complaining of a bad smell coming from his flat. His addiction-related health problems had caught up with him. It was likely that for two weeks he had sat alone with just the TV for company.
His funeral was attended only by the staff and a few residents of the hostel. There was little said about his life before he became homeless.
Desert of community
At the beginning of my work in supporting homeless people, James’s story starkly taught me that ending homelessness must be about more than housing and handouts. And that we should never be more concerned about practicalities than we are about people.
Too often, when someone is newly housed, there is a desert of community, leaving people balanced on the edge of society. They are without a network to protect them from returning to the streets or to stop them moving deeper into loneliness and isolation.
Every time I ask a person who has moved out of homelessness how they did it, the practicalities of housing, food and possessions are footnotes in their story. The key issues are of friendship, community and belonging.
Years after James died, I conducted some research in which I spoke to a number of homeless and recently homeless people.
I asked to hear their stories and they shared jarring accounts of relationship breakdown: of arguments with friends, of marriage failure, of absent or abusive parents. This often preceded a complicated journey of addiction and mental health issues.
Employment and faith
Those that had made it out of homelessness had built some form of community away from the streets. Usually this was either through employment or through engagement with a church, faith or other community group.
They’d found a place where they could not only receive support, but contribute into something and build a social network.
Of course, their journey wouldn’t have been possible without the practicality of housing and a variety of skilled professional support. But, it’s that network that propels people away from homelessness into a new identity long after someone has been housed. And, it’s this flexible, relational network, providing informal support, that protects someone from returning to the streets and enables them to live a fuller life.
Enabling people into communities beyond homelessness needs to be a central part of our service design. It requires an individualized approach of discovering someone’s ambitions and interests, then building people into them. It requires setting a higher bar of success than food served, TVs handed out or people housed.
I’m not sure we ever asked James in any serious way about where he’d like to go to find community. And, beyond a generic card, I’m not sure if any group ever invited him in. We were focused on addiction support, housing and health.
The faith group gave him items they thought he would need. But, what James really needed was friendship and community…and on that, we all failed him.
Simon Dwight is a former CEO of King’s Arms Project and now an Adviser to the government on how community and faith groups address rough sleeping