Jad Adams is a journalist and broadcaster and Chair of the Nightwatch homeless charity in Croydon. Following his talk for BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought on how homelessness has been monetised (which you can listen to or read through Jad’s website here), we caught up with him to talk about the problems with government policy, attitudes and what we need to do to help the homeless….
You work with Nightwatch, a homeless charity based in Croydon. Could you tell us a bit about what you do?
“Nightwatch is a voluntary organisation, all run by volunteers, which operates only in Croydon. We were set up in 1976. I’m the Chair of that organisation. We’ve got about 130 volunteers. We go out every evening and we also help people with other things like re-settling former homeless people into new accommodation and helping people with working clothes like steel-toe capped boots, because you can’t even walk onto a building site and ask for work without protective clothing, so we supply them with that protective clothing. Nightwatch has been going since 1979, I’ve been chair of the organisation since 1992.”
What sort of problems do the homeless people you deal with have? Is it just the stereotype of drug addicts and so on? What are the reasons some of the people you’ve met have ended up on the streets?
“There are substance abuse issues with some people, but far from being the majority of them. Probably half the people we see at the moment are Eastern European, and if I look at the other section of people I see what they have in common normally, is something like an institutional background. Very often they were in children’s homes, they were in prisons, in mental institutions, they’ve been in the armed services. So very often, institutions are the main factor rather than substance abuse.
“So while some are drinkers it’s not the majority by any means, and the most common psychological problems for homeless people is not alcoholism, it’s depression.”
“There are always some who are addicted and I often help re-settle former addicts who have been through treatment programmes. And there’s more drinking in the homeless community than there is in the general community. There are always a small number of homeless people who are drunk and very noisy, so sometimes, the public get the idea that all homeless people are drunk and noisy, and that’s not actually the case, it’s just that the ones that are the most visible are also the most drunk. So while some are drinkers it’s not the majority by any means, and the most common psychological problems for homeless people is not alcoholism, it’s depression.”
Are there many ex-servicemen on the streets?
“The Ministry of Defence and the serviceman’s charities have really smartened up on this in the last ten years, and the reason, a rather cynical reason I think, is that we were involved in a couple of unpopular wars and the government didn’t want the men coming back from those wars to then become homeless because it would reflect badly on the government. I think that’s partly why, but I also think there’s been a recognition of the needs of ex-service people. So things have been better over the last few years. It’s one of the success stories, really. I used to see veterans of certainly the second world war, and the Korean war, and gulf war one which was 1991, and the falklands war which was 1982, and I saw people who were veterans of those wars. I haven’t yet seen any from Iraq or Afghanistan.”
What drew you to wanting to help the homeless?
“That’s a very good question and if I knew the answer to it I would probably know myself better than I actually do. I don’t why some people choose some things and not others. I mean I am concerned about animal cruelty but I have never been a member of an animal charity. I have a friend who fosters mentally handicapped kids, I would never think of doing that. I’m glad someone does but it’s not in my nature to do that. I know people who would never want to be engaged with the homeless community but it has always felt to me to be right for me, something that I wish to do.”
What are the problems with people’s attitudes towards the homeless and government attitudes and policies?
“I think the public are very positive indeed towards homeless people. In fact, they’re so positive that some people pretend to be homeless in order to benefit from the generosity of the public. People who have got somewhere to live and aren’t badly off will sit with a card saying ‘homeless and hungry’ and people give them money. They can only do that sort of scam because people are so concerned about homelessness and are committed to wanting to end homelessness. There really aren’t that many people anymore that blame the homeless for their own condition, which used to be what people would say. ‘They want to be like that,’ they would say, ‘they want to sleep in doorways or their lifestyle pre-disposes them to do that’. So the public don’t particularly feel that way, they realise that people are victims of circumstances. They would like to help, they don’t know exactly what to do, but they would like to help. Or they think that the government should help. But it’s very unclear to the public what you would do with a problem like homelessness.
“I think the hostels said you’ve got to come either all the way into the system and you’ve got to sign up for housing benefit and we’ll process you though the hostel or if you don’t want to play, just stay outside.”
“The last government was generally positive towards homelessness but I think they have been lead by some of the big homeless charities to put all their efforts into hostels. And I can’t see hostels being the answer because there’s too many homeless people and not enough hostels and also hostels just aren’t good enough. They are not a solution to the problem of homelessness. They can be a kind of halfway house between street homelessness and prison. So in effect, you’re going into a hostel which has got lots of rules and you’re going to be in there for an indefinite amount of time. That’s what very often happens to people who get into the hostel system.”
You say big homeless charities have influenced the government, how so?
“The government wanted to do something about homelessness very reasonably, and it was when homelessness was quite low. We hadn’t had a lot of Eastern Europeans coming in at that time, and the government was told that homelessness could be eradicated by the end of 2012, at least in London. And that clearly did not happen. The target of ending homelessness was nowhere near reach.
“So clearly we ought to say, ‘Oh right, it was a gallant effort but that was the wrong policy, let’s do something different.’ And no one seems to be saying that. I didn’t like to criticize the policy at the time because at least they were trying and some people indeed were helped. I can’t say that no one was ever helped by the policy of ‘No One Left Out’ but clearly that wasn’t a success, and we ought to be looking at other ways to help homeless people, other ways of getting people part-way into the system. Because I think the hostels said you’ve got to come either all the way into the system and you’ve got to sign up for housing benefit and we’ll process you though the hostel or if you don’t want to play, just stay outside.
“The charities had stopped looking at themselves as primarily charitable organisations and had started seeing themselves as businesses, that had to maintain a certain level of supply and a certain level of money running through in order to maintain their career structures and premises and so on.”
“I would much rather go to homeless shelters, where people can enter at will. They can refer themselves, they don’t have to be referred by some professional, which aren’t reliant on the stream of housing benefit, which is so difficult to get anyway. But once you’ve got it, it’s difficult to get out of.
“There were some specialist operations. There was some attempts to help people with substance abuse problems for example. Notably, the Westminster Drug Project has been very good in this field. But there was an awful lot of filling up hostels just for the sake of filling them up, in order to make sure the money supply continued to run through the charity. The charities had stopped looking at themselves as primarily charitable organisations and had started seeing themselves as businesses, that had to maintain a certain level of supply and a certain level of money running through in order to maintain their career structures and premises and so on.”
Why did that happen?
“I think that happens because that’s what organisations do. They get ossified. When you start pumping money into an organisation, it realises it wants to get bigger and get more money, and own more property and do more things and bid for more contracts and compete with other people that are doing the same things. That’s the way organisations work and it’s certainly the way they work in commercial fields, but I don’t think they should be working that way in the charitable field.”