Reflections on #Leadership in the #Homelessness sector

Board member Vic Rayner’s blog on Julia Unwin and Matthew Taylor’s thoughts on homelessness and leadership at Cumberland Lodge in January

The London Housing Foundation Leadership programme comes at a very important time in transition of the sector, reflects Julia Unwin of Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Next year is the 50th anniversary of Cathy Come Home – this will bring a sharp focus on the work of homelessness and housing. Julia reflects how this narrative set in train a series of actions that changed things within the sector- putting a statutory and regulatory framework around the sector which offered a stronger base to support individuals and families at risk of homelessness.

Despite the focus on street homelessness in the 80’s and the public outcry that ensued, the problem still grew. A critical breakthough came about by the ability to define the problem in a way which showed that it could be solved. The ability to do this, and lobby government to understand the problem, was critical in shaping the Rough Sleepers Unit. During the 90’s under the Rough Sleepers Unit there was real reduction in the number of people living on the streets. Importantly, Julia feels that during that period there was a real break in the connection between poverty and squalor. Is there evidence that we are slipping back to this connection – when we are seeing the advent of ‘beds in sheds’.

Are we heading for another significant transition – what are the key factors that we need to recognise, anticipate and understand. Deficit reduction will be the priority of any future government’s top priority. This drive is raising a really big discussion about the size of government and this impacts on the views about what government can do and what it’s priorities are. This has huge impacts on the available directional spend of local authorities, but perhaps almost in response, authorities are now flexing their power in defining their legitimacy in terms of their local democratic responsibilities.

It is important for the homelessness sector to understand the impact of a hugely bifurcated workforce – where there are two completely different experiences of employment – those with better paid job security – and in a contrast a huge growth in very insecure positions, with an extreme levels of casualization in the labour market – and the crisis in the housing market is making that notion of ‘getting on your feet’ being further from the reality for the vast majority.

Julia also reflected on how technology is not just changing the way we do things, but also the things that we do. This provides the ability to deliver much more detailed analysis of individual’s potential outcomes – around health, educational attainment, and many other social determinants. The homelessness sector needs to understand the potential impact on those who are homeless and we must understand how that might impact on the ability to generate ‘solidarity’ within communities. Need to recognise that welfare reform and the sanction regime will drive many people under the radar.

Leaders of the future need to recognise that there will be even more accountability, even more scrutiny and even less understanding of those who are homeless, a strong creation of ‘other’ that we must challenge and ensure that the voice of those who are homeless is heard and listened to.

Matthew Taylor of the RSA then joined the session – and from the start – was modelling his vision for effective leadership by bringing challenge and support to delegates on the London Housing Foundation leadership course. He urged the sector to bring some clarity to what it is talking about when it talks of homelessness. By conflating issues associated with inadequate housing and those who are sleeping on the street – the sector runs the risk of being out of control of how the discourse we wish to inhabit is interpreted, or with what it is aligned.

Matthew also laid out some pointers to the future leaders of the sector – starting with a timely reminder of the moral imperative that you must constantly ensure that you focus on mission rather than organisational glory!! We share challenges that the third sector as a whole faces around impact and the need to have clarity about what we want to do, be courageous and understand what your ‘model of change’ will be. In the process of change, then you may need to ‘dethrone the elite’, capitalise on untapped assets, co design and examine culture.

In order to be successful leaders you need to collaborate. He reminded us we are not in a ‘self indulgent’ period, where existence is a given, you need to get challenged, ask for help, break down barriers and look outside of the sector. Innovate – but radically – not incrementally – and ensure you have, or make, the capacity to stand back and look at how things could work differently. For example, if we fail to understand and connect with new social movements then we will get left behind. The way in which the homelessness sector operates needs to tap into this much more localised space.

He also left us with a poignant thought around the politics of ‘telling it as it is’. What are we afraid of? If we are clear what we are talking about, and give people the full picture, then they can act. He warned of the dangers of ‘progressives’ (I think he was talking about us!) leaving a vacuum in social and political debates where there is no obvious ‘blanket’ incitement or opposition in support of the sector as a whole. If we can’t or won’t articulate a nuanced response – then the space is left wide open for those who wish to polarise and simplify opinion and perspectives.

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