Washington DC has a big problem with homelessness. To give you a sense of the scale of the problem last winter the city paid God knows how much putting over 200 families up in motels, and according to a recent survey 4% of pupils in DC schools are homeless.
There are lots of different people who are trying to deal with this problem including city agencies, charities and advocacy groups. These groups regularly meet under the Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) and have a plan to end homeless by 2014. Given that there are literally thousands of homeless people in Washington, I’m going to go out on a limb and say they are not going to hit this target.
I have never heard of a public policy question where people don’t say we need better partnership working. Crime, education, public health, you name it, people will say that we need better partnership working to solve these problems. The same is true of homelessness provision in DC.
In the UK, New Labour mandated a number of partnerships at the local level including Local Strategic Partnerships, Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships and partnerships relating to the Every Child Matters agenda. I think it would be fair to say that these mandated partnerships did not quieten the chorus of people calling for better partnership working.
I attended the last meeting of the ICH. This meeting showed many of the reasons why partnership working so often fails. Many of the people attending the meeting did not have the seniority to actually make decisions, the agenda was mostly updates from various sub committees and, there was no clear process for how to come to agreements or to take action.
One thing was clear from the meeting, if there are fewer homeless people in motels this coming winter it will not be because of the existence or work of the ICH.
I could not help but contrast this meeting with the meetings of the Clarence Way Tenants and Residents Associations (TRA) in Camden.
These were well attended meetings. The TRA did a good job of getting a range of residents to attend and they did a really good job of getting the different public services out. There were always police, housing officers, councillors, someone from the local community association, environmental health officers and so on. The TRA basically forced everyone to work together.
There is a beautiful quote from Ella Baker “strong people don’t need strong leaders”. In this case, it’s more like organized communities don’t need organized partnerships.
What are the implications of this observation for things like the ICH? I think a much better way of organizing things would be to spend money bringing homeless people together and building their ability to come together. Once homeless people started coming together they would inevitably start to make demands of the various agencies that are relevant to their lives and partnership working would naturally occur. What’s more, this more empowering approach would be, I believe, far more effective.