Spending an evening listening & learning with homeless & vulnerably housed people in at Wintercomfort in Cambridge
I was commissioned to do a short workshop on democracy and registering to vote for the local charity for homeless people Winter Comfort. It was one of the toughest but at the same time one of the most worthwhile workshops I have run. I stuck around for an extra hour to listen to what people had to say about their experiences of local public services.
“Where do you start with something like this?”
Neither I nor Wintercomfort had run one of these. The aim was to get homeless & vulnerably housed people engaged in democratic processes as part of getting their voices heard. The challenge for me was figuring out how to persuade people to go to the laptop with Emily from Cambridge City Council ready to register them to vote.
“This sounds familiar”
A couple of years ago, I wrote how lots of things needed to be done before organisations and campaign groups went out to encourage people to vote – see https://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/why-the-debate-on-whether-to-vote-is-starting-at-the-wrong-place/. The challenge for me was to put some of this into action. What did I need to do in order to persuade people to get to the stage where they might be vaguely interested in registering to vote? The first thing I realised was that I knew absolutely nothing about the experiences of Cambridge’s street communities. So I asked them to ‘map’ their communities – in particular the people, organisations and activities they had day-to-day interactions with.
The above-two photographs show just how complex and diverse their day-to-day lives are. This made me realise that if someone like me was unfamiliar with this, what was it like for the rest of the general public? It was also a wake-up call for things I took for granted when one of the participants asked me:
“How do you spell comfort?”
Yep – check my privilege.
Starting like this prevented me from walking straight into the elephant trap of coming across as over-patronising – even though a couple of the men there said that this exercise was a complete waste of time. It was only when I said this was just as much for my benefit and those of my social media followers in local politics as it was theirs. It also nipped in the bud any risk of ‘sugar-coating’ all things democracy.
A sceptical and unpredictable group of participants – with good reason
With some groups I’ve run workshops for, I’ve come across people whose view is very much the less ‘state interference’ they get, the better. The participants in this workshop are in a position where the state has a large impact on their lives – but is not delivering (for whatever reason) in terms of solving their problems of homelessness and the other problems often found linked to it. Everyone I listened to that evening had been failed by public services one way or another. The experience of that – which left them without a roof over their heads – understandably is going to influence how they viewed public services.
The personalities of people who were there were incredibly diverse. You had people who were very confident speakers with very strong opinions, and you had those who quietly huddled in the corner – unbeknown to me but who were taking in absolutely everything. There were also some people who were drinking too – though this did not disrupt the event.
Differing views about the role of central and local government
Interestingly, participants saw it as the role of central government to intervene and deliver services directly when local government failed. This is what happened in the early days of Tony Blair’s government, where new agencies were set up reporting directly to Whitehall and ministers because the view then was that local councils could not deliver the public services needed. It was only about a decade later that decentralisation became a theme, picking up speed under Hazel Blears when she was Communities & Local Government Secretary.
Strong views about governance and transparency
Participants were absolutely red-hot on failures of governance and transparency both in local government and on non-state providers such as charities. They questioned whether the staff at some state-funded providers were qualified to do the jobs they were commissioned to do, and asked why the costs of procuring some goods and services cost so much – asking where the money was really going. Given the information, I could imagine a few of them giving some senior managers at both a local and national level a really good grilling!
Services not joined up at a local level
The strongest message coming back was for Cambridge City Council to have a much more regular presence at Winter Comfort – in particular housing officers. The same goes for organisations that deliver health services. The most popular idea was having a ‘super social worker’ who would be part-employed by the police, health and local council so they could ‘sort things out’ as they said. What struck me was how similar this was to an idea I blogged about several years ago, but how they had come up with the suggestion independently. It’s more compelling coming from them because they are the ones that use the services more regularly than me. From my blogging perspective, it’s a piece of applied public administration. It’s one thing saying ‘Yes nice blogpost but…’. It’s quite another having to respond to a vulnerable member of the public who is dependent on those services and who is being failed by those services.
Their ideas for Cambridge’s politicians to consider
Emily from the council and I wrote down their questions, concerns and complaints on a big sheet of paper.
One of the things that chimed with me was when people said public services should go to where homeless people are, rather than expecting homeless people to have to shuttle from office to office. In public service social media circles we often talk about going to the social media platforms that people are using, rather than creating new ones and expecting people to come to us.
I asked Wintercomfort staff to invite local MP Daniel Zeichner to spend an afternoon/evening listening to the community, and asked them to invite a panel of councillors and political party representatives to allow people to put their party political questions to those at a local council level. Interestingly, the councillor who got the most praise from participants was Cllr Gerri Bird, Mayor of Cambridge for 2014/15. When I asked why, they said it was because she listened, visited regularly and spent time with them rather than rushing off after 15 minutes. This was my experience of Cllr Bird during her mayoralty. (We have ceremonial mayors in Cambridge rather than executive mayors – the Leader of the Council – currently Cllr Lewis Herbert, is primarily responsible for policy & strategy).
Assuming all goes well, I’ll be feeding all of this back in person to Cambridge City Council’s full council meeting on 22 October. (See http://democracy.cambridge.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=116&MId=2795 for details).