Leading in a Crisis
Building more affordable homes won’t in itself resolve the complex issue of homelessness, the new chief executive of Crisis tells Mark Cantrell – but it will help
From December/January 2015 edition of Housing magazine
There’s never a good time to take the helm at a homelessness charity, you might say, because by definition its existence means there are people in dire need of assistance.
On the other hand you might say that it’s always a good time because then there’s someone ready to help those in need. But in an age when welfare reform and cutbacks, rising rents and house prices, stagnant incomes and hardening attitudes, are compounding the problem, it must seem an especially daunting time for a new chief executive to arrive at Crisis.
“It’s not an easy environment,” Jon Sparkes conceded. Nonetheless, he was undeterred.
Sparkes’ background has covered the public and private sectors as well as the voluntary sector, and he’s had prominent roles in a number of charitable organisations. Most recently, he was the chief operating officer with UNICEF UK, but highlights from his CV also include the national disability charity SCOPE, where he was chief executive, and his tenure as the chair of the Disability Charities Consortium. When the opening arose at Crisis, he jumped at the chance.
“Crisis is a great organisation,” he said. “It’s doing something that has always been important, but seems to be increasingly important right now. Homelessness is clearly a major and significant issue. Crisis is an organisation that is committed to achieving the social change that tackles the causes of homelessness, but we’re also committed to supporting homeless people individual by individual to make sure they get the right solutions, and in between those things [we’re] committed to producing the evidence and evaluation around what works. If you as an individual want to lead a serious social change charity, then I can’t think of a better option than the opportunity of leading Crisis.”
That’s all very well, but with the need for its services growing, how has Sparkes’ background prepared him for the challenges that Crisis will face in an environment of austerity and worsening levels of homelessness?
“There are things that the charities I’ve worked with have in common: they’re working around people who are disadvantaged, the barriers to people accessing their rights or the things they are entitled to,” he said. “In the disability world you see a lot of stereotyping, abuse, a lot of discrimination, and you’re seeing – not the same traits – but you are seeing parallel traits here. The thing I have developed over the years is an understanding of social justice and a desire to take barriers down to people having a decent life.
“I have no personal, direct experience of homelessness, but what that says to me is that it is really important for an organisation like Crisis to make sure that we employ people who have direct experience of homelessness, that we engage people who have been homeless as volunteers, and that we listen to the people that we are providing services for. None of us have a monopoly on the right ideas and the good ideas.”
That attitude of listening to those who have the direct experience bore fruit recently in the form of the charity’s ‘No One Turned Away’ report, which served to lay bare some of the barriers that Sparkes is keen to take down. The report, derived from the experiences of ‘mystery shoppers’ posing as homeless people seeking assistance, revealed a disturbing trend of local authorities turning them away to sleep on the streets.
“We worked with people who have been homeless but who are aspiring actors to create the sorts of scenarios that they were familiar with. For example, someone who was running in fear of domestic violence, or someone with learning difficulties who’d been locked out of their flat by their landlord, or someone who was unable to stay in the family home,” said Sparkes. “We let the local authorities know what we were doing, and we let them know the week in which we were going to mystery shop their housing options offices, yet in 29 of 87 visits the individual was sent away with absolutely nothing, no support, no advice – nothing. In 50 of those 87 visits, they were sent away with support that wasn’t adequate.”
For Sparkes, the findings are indicative of over-stretched councils wrestling with cuts in central government funding, but part of the issue also resides within the legislative framework of council’s statutory duties, and this is something the organisation is looking to address in its lobbying efforts.
“We’re calling on all of the political parties to commit to reviewing homelessness legislation because it’s clear there are groups of homeless people who are being left out altogether – by design.The 1977 Housing Act created the issue of priority need. That needs to be tackled,” Sparkes said.
“If you don’t meet the priority need criteria, which is typically single people, then there is only a duty on the local authority to provide an assessment, and advice and guidance; there is no duty on them to ensure that you’ve got somewhere to stay. So they can quite legally turn people away whose only solution might be to sleep rough – and that’s happening.
“We’re worried by that, because it’s actually enabled by legislation, but we’re also worried about the groups of people who actually should be defined as priority need, but who – certainly from our mystery shopping – aren’t.”
Build more homes might be the obvious answer, but for Sparkes and Crisis that is only a partial solution.
“The challenge for us is to make sure that it is understood, by the public generally but also by Government and all the political parties, that homelessness is an issue which isn’t simply solved by building lots more houses. Clearly, there is a housing crisis and that needs to be tackled, but there’s a homelessness crisis that needs tackling too,” he said.
This interview first appeared in the December/ January 2015 print edition of Housing magazine. It was subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 30 January 2015.