Yesterday’s Guardian carried the distressing story of how the futures of 29 young women and their children are being put at risk by the decision by Newham Council to withdraw funding from the Focus E15 Foyer in Stratford, East London. The council has warned that, because of a desperate lack of affordable housing in London, these young women may well be housed many miles away from their home, community with the consequential loss of links with family, education and other networks they have built while living in the Foyer. The unintended consequences of this short term decision and the long term damage it may cause was well summed up by our own Steve Hillman in his comments.
Later in the evening, the New Zealand writer, Eleanor Catton, made history by becoming the youngest writer to win the Man Booker prize at the age of 28. In her acceptance speech, she talked about how another book, ‘The Gift’ by Lewis Hyde, had influenced her understanding of the West Coast Gold Rush that provides the backdrop for her novel ‘The Luminaries’. The area was rich in gold, prized by Europeans for its value, and seen as pure currency to be traded. But another mineral, greenstone or ‘pounamu’, a symbol of belonging was prized by the Maori for its worth and could only be given. She went on to talk about what it means to live in a society that is based on ‘worth’ rather than ‘value’ and her words took me straight back to Newham.
The truth is that we grossly ‘undervalue’ the talent and potential of millions of young people. We live in a society that demonises them and sees many of them as a ‘worthless’ drain on society, particularly if they are socially and economically excluded. There are structural barriers that make it very difficult for them to access work and we have a welfare system that, instead of investing in their future potential, traps them in poverty and disadvantage. Services are often seen as ‘interventions’, one way ‘transactions’ in which the recipient has precious little involvement in shaping the offer. Even in Foyers, where a ‘something for something’ deal is an explicit part of the relationship between the young person and the service, do we really make the best use of what the young person has to offer? So is it surprising that, when we look at the effectiveness or otherwise of the services that work with them, we count the wrong things. We make notional calculations about the money that might be saved for the public purse by preventing someone from spending a lifetime on drugs or not going to prison and yet are prepared to throw away the positive investment that has already been made in the lives of the young mothers in Focus E15 and the contribution that they would undoubtedly have made to their families and communities.
I hope the image of that group of young women, children in arms, telling their individual stories of the difference the Foyer has made to their lives proves a powerful wake up call to those who are blighting the lives of a generation of young people who, contrary to popular belief, are keen to get their lives on track and build a thriving future for themselves and those around them. Because, sadly, the story of what is going on in Newham is only too similar to stories we are hearing every day at the Foyer Federation. We are hearing of lengths of stay being reduced to a point where it is simply not possible for Foyers to provide the integrated induction to adulthood that every young person needs and some young people simply do not get at home. Services are being told which young people they can take, how long they can take them for and what they should do with them. Moving them through a service as quickly as possible, even if that means a tenancy in the private rented sector on benefit, becomes more important than getting a place in college or moving them towards work. The ‘system’ is simply not working for young people – whether it is education, benefits or housing – and, as a society, we are storing up serious trouble for ourselves because these young people are our future.
I think Eleanor Catton has put her finger on something very significant. A society that is based on ‘worth’ rather than ‘value’ is one that prefers to see young people as ‘feckless layabouts’ in need of a kick up the backside or ‘victims’ in need of charity rather than ‘possibilities’ in need of investment. It is a society that seeks to measure the cost of everything and ends up knowing the value of nothing.
Here at the Foyer Federation, we believe we all have to take some responsibility for the situation we have created. It is time that central and local government stopped batting the blame for cuts backwards and forwards between them. But, equally, those of us in the third sector who are involved in delivering services have to be open to the need to change the way in which we do things. For the last couple of years, we have been working with a group of our members to remodel services in a way that challenges the deficit based approaches that underpin so much of what is commissioned and delivered. Because we simply don’t accept that it has to be this way.