Should the homeless pay? Open letter to the Hope Centre.

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On the 24th of July the CEO of the Hope Centre wrote on his blog an article entitled: “Why Hope charges for items like food and clothes.” In this article the CEO seeks to justify charging for these items, as well as selling donations on eBay and furthermore attacks organisations that give away things for free. You can find the full blog here: http://www.northamptonhopecentre.org.uk/sites/default/files/717%20CEO%20Blog.pdf

To sum up their strategy and their justification, they seek to impoverish the homeless in order to stop them buying drugs. Their reasoning is if they are spending money in the Hope Centre, they are not spending it on alcohol or drugs. That is clearly a win for the Hope Centre, after all they get to keep their users dependant on them while also being provided with a steady stream of income.

Is that an effective strategy to tackle drug and alcohol dependency among the homeless? Anyone who understands the nature of addiction would know that it comes first, food comes second. Going hungry to feed your addiction is always an option and If you have used all your money that you would spend on drugs or alcohol, what then? Well you do whatever it takes to get more, beg, steal, borrow and if you’re a woman that likely means prostitution.

Thus it doesn’t make much sense when they say they don’t want to ‘collude’ with drug and alcohol users, because if anything you are making the situation more hopeless for these people. Forcing them to do unsavoury things to maintain these addictions, while putting the blame on to them. It implies homelessness and their addiction is of their own choosing. If only they were a little bit better at handling their money they wouldn’t be homeless or addicts – this is the wrong mindset any organisation should adopt that seeks to engage and help the homeless.

Money is not a cause of addiction, that being the case taking it away from them isn’t going to solve the problem. Yes you may make it a tiny bit harder for them to get drink or drugs, and of course you would make them suffer more, or force them to take more drastic measures in order to access drink and drugs. But at the end of the day, unless they get the support they need, they are still going to be addicts.

For your reference here is a list of common reasons for substance abuse

  • Peer pressure
  • Boredom
  • As a way to deal with stress
  • Growing up in a home where alcohol and drug abuse is considered normal
  • behaviour
  • Self-medication to deal with mental illness
  • Relationship problems
  • Financial worries
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Those with low self-esteem may abuse substances in order to boost confidence
  • Substance abuse as part of a personality disorder
  • Teenage rebellion
  • To promote relaxation
  • To forget a normal life

You will notice that financial worries is one, so that being the case how does increasing the financial burden on your users, solve drug and alcohol addiction? If you are interested in understanding the causes of addiction, then please check out: http://alcoholrehab.com/drug-addiction/reasons-for-substance-abuse/

They also believe that charging for their service gives their users a level of responsibility – but clearly they are not responsible enough to have money. This point is contradictory, you say you want to give responsibility to these people, while at the same time saying they are not responsible enough to be trusted.

This of course generalises the homeless, while it is true that there are drug and alcohol problems within these communities, it doesn’t apply to all. With one of the primary factors for the abuse being the environment they find themselves in, that being the case I would like to know what body of evidence you are using in order to support this strategy.

You round off your argument by presenting an economic case for charging for your service, yet out of your 90k profits last year, you only made 7k from the canteen. Clearly you are not treading water to the point that providing these services for free would have a major impact on your operation.

Let’s look at the way you use donations – you like to sell them on Ebay in order to maximise profit, that is a very sound business approach but there are a few ethical concerns here. Are the people donating these items in good faith doing so on the understanding they are going to your users, and not on eBay? If so, then you are taking these things under false pretences. You sell off all the best stock, so why can’t a homeless person wear Prada or Gucci? You imply that homeless people shouldn’t be allowed to wear nice things.

That is a strange approach when you talk about giving them responsibility, having respect for yourself, having the opportunity to wear nice clothes – these things can make peoples day. If you don’t think they’re good enough to wear nice clothes, why should they think they are worth anything?

Finally you suggest that they can be choosy with their food, that they’re throwing their food away because they can go around the food banks. It’s a very shocking accusation, hunger is a very real problem for those on the street, and having access to basic food stuffs is a struggle. Yet the way you frame it, they are living the high life on free food. I’ve never witnessed a homeless banquet, and if like you say they are just throwing away the food they don’t like, wouldn’t they trade it, or sell it on? It’s nonsensical, and I’m sceptical of the proof that you have, outside of anecdotal evidence.

Is the strategy for change a positive one?

Having dealt with the fact money is not a primary motivator for drug and alcohol abuse, let’s examine the wider strategy. Firstly, I think it is extremely crass of you to use the recent tragic death of one of your users in to this argument, it is impossible to know if it was a cause and you use it to get emotive support.

So putting that to one side, let’s look at the issue here – is it wrong to give free things to the homeless community? I can turn this on its head and say is it right to financially benefit off the homeless community, because that is what charging them is doing – exploiting them. They have no where else to turn, they have very little and they are dependant on these services for help. Is taking their benefits, or their begging money away from them then going to help them get into a home, get off the streets and get the help they need? Unlikely, but it will continue to perpetuate a cycle of homelessness by keeping these people operating below the breadline.

If you are about change like you say you are I suggest you do something radical and innovative, instead of taking us back decades if not centuries on how we view and tackle the problems of homelessness and addiction.

For example

  • For the homelessness to have elected representation on the Hope Centre Board
  • For the service users of the Hope Centre to have a greater say in how the organisation operates, and greater control over the running of the centre
  • Draw up an inclusive strategy with the aid of the people you are seeking to help
  • Use a multi-agency response, instead of seeking to attack other organisations seeking to help the homeless – work in partnership with them.

I urge you to change the course of your organisation, I urge you to think about the language you are using, and the attitude you are adopting. Wouldn’t a better way to tackle homelessness be providing a supportive environment that helps tackle the underlying problems of these addictions? One that doesn’t judge these people for their problems, but seeks to engage with them and support them. With homelessness increasing in the town there is clearly a flaw in your strategy, so next time think, because there is another way.

Signed
Stephen Miller