National Summit on Tackling Multiple Disadvantage – a space for action

Wednesday, 10 May 2017 - 3:51pm

I’ve just returned from the second national summit on tackling multiple disadvantage. A two-day gathering organised by nine charities and funders working together, it brought together 300 people with both lived and professional experience of multiple needs. 

Group discussion at Tackling Multiple Disadvantage

This is familiar territory for me given my work with the Making Every Adult Matter coalition, in which Homeless Link is a partner. All the same, it’s rare and welcome to spend time with so many people who have different backgrounds and expertise.

After these sorts of events I’m always conscious of the need to translate what I learned back into my day-to-day work – so here are three (inevitably personal) reflections.

We’re making progress – but have a lot further to go

Since the last such event in 2015, huge progress has been made, and I saw organisations from across England present their work and the impact it’s had on people’s lives. However, there was also a clear message that we can’t afford complacency or self-satisfaction. I was glad to hear plainly-spoken challenges about where our response falls short, particularly around rising homelessness.

For instance, Lord Victor Adebowale – chief executive of health and social care charity Turning Point – had a simple question for the audience. Given everything we know collectively about what goes wrong in people’s lives, and the costs not just for those individuals but for society (an estimated £4.6 billion in unnecessary A&E attendances, for starters) – why haven’t we sorted it yet?

It’s easy to blame others for those shortcomings, but over the two days I heard people describe situations where voluntary sector organisations lack ambition for the people they support, fail to represent their best interests, or simply aren’t self-critical enough when it comes to their work. That’s a message that those of us working in the sector can ill-afford to ignore.

Doing what the evidence says

One potential source of complacency is our reluctance to ask hard questions about the assumptions that inform our work. Beth Watts from Heriot-Watt University made a persuasive case that we shouldn’t tolerate responses to social issues like homelessness that aren’t backed by the best available evidence.

If we want to genuinely help people, she said, we have a moral obligation to do what makes the most and the best difference to their lives. For her part, she also set out the responsibility of researchers to help people meet that obligation (for more from Beth on this, see her excellent blog on the summit.)

As Beth points out, over the last decade we’ve learned plenty about effective approaches: Housing First, the MEAM Approach and trauma informed care to name just three. Despite that, the temptation to stick with the old ways, or adopt untested ideas because they’re eye-catching or politically expedient can be very strong.

Realistic optimism

One of the privileges of working with the brilliant organisations represented at the summit is the optimism they share, often driven by people who’ve transformed their own lives and want to help others to do the same. The question, then, is how to make sure that optimism is channelled in practical ways – and that can only happen if we’re also prepared to ask difficult questions and recognise where we make missteps.

Summarising a discussion along these lines, Mind’s chief executive Paul Farmer described the need for ‘realistic optimism’ – striving to make things better, bit by bit. Perhaps that’s not the stirring call to action that some would prefer, but I suspect it’s the only one that can unite both those who are driven by the belief that things urgently need to change, and those who want to see persuasive evidence first.

By pointing out what happens where those two impulses collide, the summit opened a space for action. In closing, Terry Nelson from Jigsaw CIC put the challenge from now on in clear terms: “listen to people, then do what you say you're going to do.” Over the last few days we’ve made a good start – now we need to challenge ourselves and each other to see it through.

The summit was jointly organised by Big Lottery Fund, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch), Lankelly Chase, the Making Every Adult Matter (MEAM) charities (Clinks, Homeless Link, Mind and Collective Voice) and Revolving Doors Agency.