Friday, 5 August 2016

Naive Charity

I was recently involved in a workshop where someone complained about the propensity for the wider public to support projects for homeless people that don't actually help.  The particular example she singled out was Street Swags, a charity founded in 2005 by young Brisbane woman Jean Madden.  Madden invented a weather-proof sleeping bag, and her charity raises funds to manufacture them and distribute them to rough sleepers free of charge so that they can sleep warm and dry in all weathers.

Among her many other awards, Madden was named Queensland's Young Australian of the Year in 2010.  In the past month or two she has been in the news for less pleasant reasons - sacked, sued and charged in the criminal courts with fraud for stealing money from the charity she founded.

This kind of scandal is certainly not the norm in the charitable world, but supporting charities like these is very popular.  The 2016 Young Australians of the Year are two Brisbane men by the name of Lucas Patchett and Nic Marchesi.  In 2014 they started a charity called Orange Sky Laundry, which operates a team of mobile vans that go to public places and wash homeless people's clothes for them.  They have since been feted across the country.

If you see a media story about homelessness, chances are it will feature some similar service - a food van, a bus that drives homeless people to appointments, a redesigned park bench that's easier to sleep on, and so forth.  It is a favourite stock news story - the generous ordinary man or woman who devotes his or her life to helping those less fortunate and receives in turn their eternal gratitude.

Because of my colleague's comment, I've been thinking a lot about these type of charities in the past few weeks.  Was she being unnecessarily harsh?  You might think so.  After all, here are some nice young people who are putting a lot of effort into doing good.  Why criticise?

The question is a fair one, but I think the critique stands up to scrutiny.  Madden, Patchett, Marchesi and others working on the same model are well intentioned but they are also naive.  They want to help homeless people, but in the end their interventions leave them exactly where they are.  At best, they are marginally better off for a short time.  At worst, the intervention unintentionally leaves them worse off than it found them.  For instance, bringing food vans into inner city parks, or distributing camping gear, can increase the visibility of homeless people, intensifying the safety fears of other users and amplifying voices calling for them to be "moved on".  Sometimes these hostile voices prevail, and moving on can make homeless people's lives a lot worse.  They would have been better off left alone.

I don't want to sound holier than thou about this.  In fact, in the past I've been involved in some counter-productive interventions myself.  None of us is perfect.  Still, the analysis I am presenting here is not just a matter of opinion, and it is not controversial among housing and homelessness professionals and researchers.

When I first started working in homelessness there was a prevailing view that some people were not "housing-ready".  To house such people was to set them up for failure.  Instead, we should focus on helping them to address the factors that led to their homelessness - their mental illness, drug addiction, or whatever - after which they could be successfully housed.

A growing body of evidence suggests that this is counterproductive.  Homelessness has such a huge impact on a person's mental and physical health that any efforts to help them with other issues will be swamped by the homelessness itself, and they will always remain ill, addicted and "unready".  All the best homelessness services now operate through a "housing first" approach - house people, then support them to remain in their housing and address the problems which may either have caused or resulted from their homelessness.

Of course this is not easy and some of these attempts will fail.  If we simply house people and don't support them with the right services they may indeed abandon or be evicted from their housing and end up back on the street.  But the chances that they will succeed are astronomically improved by being housed first, particularly if they are provided with good quality support at the same time.

So why are the young men from Orange Sky Laundry not helping people into housing, where they will have access to a laundry in which they can wash their own clothes?  Why do Madden's clients have to make do with a swag and not also get a bed to put it on or a roof over their head so they don't have to keep it under covers all night?  Why do we persist not only in allowing, but supporting and resourcing these acts of naive charity?  Why do their founders win awards while those who operate much more effective services are virtually invisible?

I think there are a few reasons.  The first is that many of these founders are, indeed, young and naive.  They simply don't have the hard-won knowledge of those who have been working for years in this field.  Yet this doesn't explain why they have successfully raised funds and won swags of awards, and why no-one had gently redirected their energy into something that will actually help.

I think this is explained in large part by the fact that their donors tend to be just as naive, and happy to remain so.  The best way to attract donors is to present a simple, compelling story about a person, and offer a simple (cost-effective) way to address it.  If you donate $80 you can provide a homeless person with a street swag.  The person your $80 helps will probably be a person like the scruffy, bearded middle aged gentleman in the photo - a full-blown homelessness stereotype.   If you are feeling particularly generous, a donation of $400 will swag up a whole family - presumably a family of five, although the family is not pictured.  You can donate to Orange Sky Laundry even more cheaply - a mere $6 will wash someone's clothes and you can cycle your cleanliness contributions up from there.  The man in their video tells you how much he loves the service, in case you weren't sure.

This kind of cheap and easy solution feeds our desire to believe that nothing is fundamentally wrong in our community.  If people are homeless, this is largely because they have chosen to be so.  Their situation is perhaps unfortunate, and we should extend them some kindness and tolerance, but ultimately there is not much that can be done, except to make their lives a little more comfortable.  It feeds our illusion of a stable and safe society in which people are happy in the places they now occupy, and all will be well if we just show a little more kindness.

This, however, is an illusion.  In 2010 I was involved in the first detailed health survey of Brisbane's rough sleeping population, using a variation on a US-developed set of simple health indicators.  Of approximately 200 people surveyed, over half were at a significant risk of dying in the following 12 months if their homelessness was not addressed.  Homelessness kills, clean clothes or not.

The good news is that this problem is far from insoluble, although the solution doesn't come cheap.  The cost of providing a high quality supported housing service for a high-need homeless person was estimated in a recent study at a bit under $6,500 per year and many of them will need ongoing support for more than a year - some for the rest of their lives.  These programs, unlike clothes washing and a chat, can't be delivered by volunteers - they require highly skilled, trained professionals.  There is no quick fix here, no cheap adrenaline rush of charity.  It is a hard, unromantic slog.

On the other hand, there are immense benefits.  The same study found that providing this housing and support reduced the person's demand on the health system alone by an average of  more than $13,000 per year in hospital admissions and visits to emergency departments, not to mention any other reduced costs, like policing, park maintenance and so forth.  But these are just dollars - what they represent is the fact that people who receive such support experience massive improvements in their health and quality of life.  These services quite literally save lives.

Yet there is no evidence of any knowledge of these facts on the Orange Sky Laundry or Street Swags websites.  If the young people who run these charities are aware of  them, they are keeping it to themselves.  If the charities themselves don't engage with these issues, what hope is there for their donors?

It has long been understood in the world of charitable fund-raising that what attracts funds is often very different from what solves the problem.  The classic example of this is the use of child sponsorship programs in overseas aid.  Donors respond very generously to requests for child sponsorship.  They may not sign up for a program or simply to support a set of organisational goals, and will easily drop the commitment the moment their income goes down.  However, the tug on the heartstrings of a cute, vulnerable child can be hard to resist, and once donors are signed up they tend to stay the course because they feel they have taken personal responsibility for a specific child's wellbeing.  Indeed, many donors feel a strong personal attachment to the child they sponsor, corresponding with them, sending them gifts and even visiting them.

The problem is that child sponsorship has been shown to be a very poor method of combating poverty in developing countries.  The reason is that children are not poor in isolation.  Poor children live in poor families who themselves live in poor communities.  If you only address the poverty of an individual child without addressing the structures of poverty in which they are embedded, you are likely to have limited success in the long term.  You can even make things worse for them because they can become objects of jealousy, hostility or exploitation by dint of being singled out and having extra resources directed their way.

This presents aid agencies with a dilemma, and they basically have three options.  The option taken by many agencies such as TEAR Australia, of which I have been a long term supporter, is to forgo child sponsorship and the income it brings and do good development even if this means less money.  A second option, followed with some success by World Vision, is a kind of uneasy compromise where you continue to use child sponsorship for marketing purposes with sponsors, but in fact direct the resources raised to projects which benefit the child's whole family and community.

However, there is also a third option - to ignore the evidence and continue as if it doesn't exist.  As in homelessness a disturbing number of charities continue to raise large sums of money for programs like child sponsorship which have been demonstrated not to actually work.  Furthermore, donors keep donating to them.

The opportunity costs of this shouldn't be under-estimated.  Orange Sky Laundry's 2014-15 financial report shows they had an income in that year of $265,000.  That doesn't make them a rich organisation, but it is enough money to provide good quality supported housing to 40 high need homeless people.  40 lives saved.  You can expect their income to increase in the next year or two thanks to the extra profile generated by the young founders' growing celebrity.  Street Swags, which has been going for 10 years now, had an income of over a million dollars in 2014-15.  Over 150 lives which could have been saved.  Instead, this money will go to things which at best make only a marginal difference to people's lives.  Donors will feel good, but they could be doing so much better.

So, if you are thinking of starting a charity, take responsibility.  Don't assume that because you are a clever young person or a successful business person you can work out what to do for yourself.  Chances are there are experts in whatever field you want to contribute to who have researched the issue thoroughly and have a solid, evidence based response that is crying out for resources.  Don't scorn such expertise, it is hard-won. If someone offers you a simple solution to a complex, entrenched problem it is almost certain to be wrong. Complex problems require sophisticated solutions which are time-consuming and costly.

If you are a donor, you also have a responsibility.  Don't just accept the superficial story.  Resist the stereotyped images presented to you by charities.  Google is your friend.  If you google "how do you solve homelessness?" you can spend as much or as little time as you like reading research which will by and large confirm what I have just told you.  We no longer have an excuse for naivety.  We can and should do better.  Lives depend on it.


Colin Scott said...

Excellent analysis

Hermit said...

Thanks for the information. I wish it was more widely known.

Anonymous said...

Spot on Jon. Street swags founder lives in my neighbourhood and I've always had issues with the concept. What happens after a week or two when the swag stinks? Or gets stolen, or lost? But it's hard to criticise when the community mobilises to support a bush dance and I feel churlish for not supporting. Thanks for putting this into words which I had struggled to do. Liz U

Rodney Holmes said...

Brave, insightful and evidence-based Jon. This is the dilemma of much community work. Treating symptoms without addressing structural causes attracts the majority of public support, volunteering, donations and funding. The real changes needed to produce lasting benefits are in evidence-based policy development that stands up to the dominant neoliberal paradigm, which is ineffectively ameliorated by this naive charity.

Christine Grose said...

Thanks for that Jon, you've described the tension between what people want to support and what actually makes a difference for preventing and reducing homelessness beautifully. I will say that Orange Sky also provide a great service for people living in poverty but who are housed, and at community laundry days, some great connections and friendships are formed, like I the good old Laundromat days.

Jon Eastgate said...

Thanks guys, it's possible I'm a little harsh on the Orange Sky folk. It's better to do some good than none. However, this year marks my 30th in the housing and homelessness field, and I'm sometimes frustrated by how little our efforts seem to touch the core problem.

Emily Cooper said...

This was exactly what i needed to hear on the edge of starting a 'cgarity' for want of a better word! Jon i came across this article after googling the name deidre coghlan lol! (I met you today at the common ground employment services evaluation). The founder of street swags did a speech at the womens day event when i was in prison and she came across to me as not just naive but naive and patronising, albeit genuine in her belief in her product. Thankyou for your insight- i am definitely not going to simply rely on lived experience in the planning of goals for heart2heart! Research research and more research!!! Thankyou. (Emily Cooper).

Jon Eastgate said...

Hi Emily, thanks for the feedback, it was good meeting you today. Of course I'm being provocative here but yes, there is lots of evidence about what works if we will only look!