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Is an end to homelessness in sight?

Natalie Farr reflects on the first conference held by Crisis in Wales.

Crisis, the national charity for homeless people, recently held a conference – its first in Wales – entitled ‘Ending Homelessness: what should change next?’ This was part of a series of conferences to mark the 50th anniversary organisations and introduce its current campaign to ‘end homelessness’. The Welsh conference followed on from those held recently in England and Scotland.

As a Cardiff Metropolitan University Housing Studies student, in the second year of my degree, I was more than eager to attend, and was in no doubt that the day would prove to be highly informative, insightful and thought provoking.

Charlotte Waite, from Solas Cymru, chaired the event, and began by establishing the agenda for the day. Crisis’s UK-wide campaign was introduced, and the charity’s desire to learn from those with professional and/or lived experience of homelessness was emphasised. Indeed, participation, meaningful dialogue and the proffering of possible solutions was invited and actively encouraged throughout the day.

After the chair’s welcome, Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes addressed the attendees. Alluding to the 50th anniversary, he stressed that the occasion was far from celebratory as, five decades after Crisis’s initial conception, there still remains much to be done. The significant strides made in Wales in terms of homelessness prevention were praised, and further supported via a video message from First Minister Carwyn Jones. Jon Sparkes concluded his session by ‘looking ahead’, underlining and acknowledging the work still required. The importance of working in partnership’ was emphasised – a central theme of the day.

That message was further reinforced by the conference’s next speaker, Carl Sargeant. The communities and children secretary outlined current Welsh Government responses to homelessness. Whilst conceding the concerted effort made in Wales in terms of alleviating homelessness, he acknowledged that numbers of rough sleepers, particularly in Cardiff, have risen exponentially, with a significant increase recorded in 2016.

His commitment to ending homelessness was apparent – he reiterated the necessity of working in partnership – and his suggestions as to possible solutions were innovative. A ‘Housing First’ approach was advocated, as was his desire to see an increasing awareness of ACE’s (Adverse Childhood Experiences), and their impact, amongst all those involved in delivering and shaping homelessness services.

Following this, Crisis research manager Francesca Albanese, outlined interesting research being undertaken, focusing on current, and future, projections of homelessness throughout the UK. Providing a comprehensive baseline, and set to be repeated annually, the research aims to directly support Crisis’s campaign and, ultimately, hold it to account. Success can be measured, failings identified and, wherever necessary, change can be implemented.

The third session of the morning was delivered by the chief executive of ‘Frameworks Institute’, Nat Kendall-Taylor. A psychological anthropologist, based in the USA, his organisation has worked with Crisis for the past year, advising it on how best to shape more effective messages around homelessness.

His session, which was original and thought provoking, focused upon the importance of ‘framing’- communicating messages effectively, in order to change public opinion and garner necessary support. Recognising the influence of culture, discourse and perception, he suggested avoiding ineffective methods of communication, such as overloading the public with data, and sanctimoniously correcting misconceptions. His key recommendations centred on importance of communicating anecdotally, placing homelessness in a wider, more relatable context, and connecting it with realistic preventions/ solutions.

Breakout sessions were held after lunch, with a choice of three being available: ‘Definition of Ending Homelessness’, ‘Tackling Rough Sleeping and the Role of Homelessness Services’ and ‘When Are the Conditions Right for Ending Priority Need?’. I attended the latter, which raised issues pertaining to the future direction of Welsh housing law, and asked whether or not reform of priority need, was required. Beth Reid, Policy Manager for Crisis, imparted pertinent examples from Scotland, and Dr Peter Mackie (Cardiff University) outlined the current Welsh context. The general consensus amongst those attending session was that despite difficulties posed by current conditions, ending priority need must be a serious consideration in very near future.

The last session of the day, chaired by Dr Victoria Winckler of the Bevan Foundation, focused on prevention and the need to see it as more than a concept popular in legislative rhetoric, as well as recognising importance of primary, as opposed to secondary, prevention measures. Again, the overarching premise of the session was ‘partnership’, and the importance of collaboration, co-operation and communication – between all services – as a means of effectively addressing homelessness. A video message, from Sophie Howe, the Future Generations Commissioner, complemented the session, and reiterated salient themes of the day.

The conference culminated with closing remarks by Jon Sparkes, who reinforced the urgency of Crisis’s campaign, and the need for everyone to get on board.

As a student, the experience was invaluable. Bringing together professionals – national and international, alongside individuals with lived experience of homelessness, enabled thoughts to be pooled, good practice to be identified, and recommendations, to inform future policy, to be made. All in all, I left feeling positive, and confident that Crisis’s campaign will be a success – commitment, enthusiasm and solutions not being in short supply.

Indeed, one fact shone through – ‘ending homelessness’ is clearly high on everybody’s agenda, Working collaboratively, reframing communications, and emphasising importance of early preventative measures, will surely go a long way towards ensuring it becomes an increasingly realistic, and viable, possibility.

Natalie Farr is a Housing Studies student at Cardiff Metropolitan University

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