It takes a village…
I’m fortunate to have a job where I see lots of people doing lots of amazing things (occasionally the reverse too) but a project that I visited whilst in Austin Texas as part of the US Embassy’s International Visitor Leadership Programme last week has got to be up there with one of the best.
Having set housing as one of my priority areas for action following a large-scale engagement exercise earlier in the year I’d asked the US State department who organise the programme if they could build in some housing related visits.
During my stay in Washington I visited a programme working with homeless men aged between 18-50. It felt like it was a fairly familiar programme, hostel type accommodation, working intensively with men after they have been in detox and are drug and alcohol free, helping them to understand addiction, build self-confidence and ultimately find work.
The men I spoke to said that they valued the facility and that it was helping them to turn their lives around. However, in a system which seems more disjointed than ours, missing the vital player that is strategic health and an almost non-existent offer of public or social housing, other than a slightly less restricted hostel type accommodation after they left this one, I felt that they were relatively hamstrung in terms of what they could achieve. I left feeling pretty despairing about their situation and confirming my view that the American system for addressing these types of vulnerabilities is messed up.
My view hasn’t really changed about the system but what I saw at a small but beautiful project a week or so later in Austin has made me rethink my view of the state being the solver of all.
Arriving at the Community First Village on a sunny Thursday morning and being asked to meet Alan, the chief executive of the programme, by the outdoor cinema, I thought we were in the wrong place or that the claims that had been made about their work in providing housing to the long term were exaggerated.
The place was like a high-end holiday home site with cool teepees (where some pay a fortune to feel bohemian in for the weekend), shiny retro caravans and beautifully painted and decorated tiny homes. There was a group doing yoga on the grassed amphitheatre and a gift shop selling lovely pottery, jewellery and paintings amongst the food and living supplies and the whole place was spotless.
The programme started in Austin in 1998 and was based around providing healthy meals to people living on the streets. Since then, their volunteers have served more than 5 million meals to homeless men and women.
The next phase was the development of the Village. The programme is a Christianity based one but on meeting its founder Alan I found him and those who worked and lived at the Village to be concerned about nothing more than turning lives around.
Their motto is ‘housing won’t solve homelessness only community will’ and you could certainly see that there. Despite financial constraints, it’s relatively easy to build homes but the big challenge in developing and funding services for the homeless community is dealing with with complex and challenging issues that they often come with as a result of problems of abuse and childhood trauma, substance misuse mental health to name but a few. Giving a tenancy won’t give them the support they need to maintain it, the skills they need to pay for it or the self-esteem they need to feel the lives they live are worthwhile.
This programme aims to do all of these things. Having bought some earrings in the gift shop I went to see their craft workshop where there about a dozen people working. I met Debbie who had been in the streets for many years, and was busy crafting away beautiful plates before passing them on to her colleague to be inputted on their computer sales system and taken up to the gift shop where the proceeds of any sale she makes will go directly to her.
I then met Penny, a woman in her 50’s who had been homeless for 40 years. She had spent some of that time sleeping in her car and some out on the streets. She came across the Mobile Loaves & Fishes programme when she had broken her femur and underwent surgery. She had metal plates in her leg and 36 stitches and was told she had to leave hospital four days after her operation because the basic Government health care option would not fund her stay any longer. She went back to a tent on the streets not being able to walk and was found by the Mobile Loaves team. She told Alan and I that she was on a high with her bipolar that morning but that she was channelling that into mass production of Christmas plates and ornaments ready for the shop. She’d already made about 20 by 10am! She told me how she never thought that she could be this happy and that she now has not only a roof over her head but safety friends and a job which suits her.
On touring the rest of the site there were similar stories, Warner a young man in his 20’s who had slept in his car for 2 years going from job to job is now living in the Village and training as a blacksmith, making new fencing for the site and gifts which he wasn’t just selling in their shop but other shops in the area. JR who had been homeless for four years and was very pleased to have become the project’s poster child. He invited me into his home for an ice lolly and a chat and told me how he is paid $900 a month for being in charge of keeping the (immaculate) toilet and shower facilities clean.
There are 240 units accommodating 280 people on the site. They cost between $275 and $400 a month depending on size which is about half of what residents can claim in benefits. For that all utilities and facilities are included as well as access to onsite healthcare, social and well-being activities and at least weekly community meals for everyone on site; the rest of the time they use the fridges and microwaves in their units or the communal kitchens which were clean well equipped and pretty cool.
The work options are varied from the shop, crafting the products, ironwork and a garage facility to fix the onsite vehicles and where there had also obtained a local repair contact too. They had almost finished the construction of a tiny House hair salon too where no doubt there would be further work opportunities for residents.
They pride themselves in operating with no government subsidy but they do have about half their income from church donations and lots of volunteers.
I can’t help thinking that whatever they were spending it would likely be far less than we are spending on the range of services and interventions for homeless people in Wales if only we could get that kind of joined up thinking and funding.
Perhaps the Well-being of Future Generations Act is part of the solution for that and the Housing Innovation Fund which has recently been announced by Carl Sargeant (with some exciting projects from what I can gather from the other side of the Pond) could also provide an opportunity in its next phase to build find these types of innovative long-term solutions to meeting the needs of our homeless population.