Plea to overhaul basic skills training for the homeless

2nd July 2010 at 01:00
Charity calls for focused support to reverse major decline in job prospects

A charity is calling for an overhaul of skills and welfare to work programmes to tackle a decades-long collapse in employment prospects for homeless people.

St Mungo's, which runs around 100 projects for the homeless in the south of England, says that in 1983, 86 per cent of its clients had some form of work, usually casual or migrant labour. Today, much of that work has disappeared, leaving just 4 per cent in employment. One in seven has never had a job.

"For centuries, homelessness was viewed and understood as a phenomenon linked to migrant labour. Those who used the common lodging houses and casual wards clung onto the labour market with their fingertips, never more than a step away from destitution," said Charles Fraser, the charity's chief executive.

"Something has gone drastically wrong for Britain's homeless men and women seeking work over the last 25 years. But 80 per cent say that it is their goal to get back to work. Why can't we help them achieve that?"

The charity is calling for the Flexible New Deal, the Government's welfare to work programme, to include a preliminary stage with basic capability assessments, and a support system to address the skills gaps that keep homeless people out of work.

It says support must be focused on basic skills - half of homeless people lack functional literacy. About a quarter of the 1,500 surveyed by the charity also wanted some form of vocational training.

Forty per cent said they were not offered any training through Jobcentre Plus. Just less than a fifth said that what training they had been offered was not helpful.

Some providers have already made their own efforts. Lambeth College is working with the charity to address the basic skills needs of homeless people at a hostel in Clapham, south London.

Residents design their education programme according to their own interests, but college staff ensure that literacy and numeracy are embedded in whatever they do.

Because the learning takes place in the hostel, it is thought to be more accessible than provision in college.

Richard Chambers, Lambeth's principal, said: "If you were to judge the work we do in terms of FE performance indicators, it would never get done. But it works in terms of people participating in a way that fits their personal circumstances."

St Mungo's said the college had to take a risk in breaking away from the standard assumptions of further education. Previous attempts to work with FE had foundered when colleges wanted the charity to assure them that students would remain on the course to the end.

"The answer is no, we can't. This is a hostel," Mr Fraser said.

Mr Chambers said the college did not only judge students' success by progression - it also valued the boost in confidence and social benefits of learning. However, four students have gone on to college courses.

With unemployment at 9.3 per cent - the highest in the capital - getting people into work is a priority in Lambeth.

"Whether it's youth crime or health issues or any other big social problem, if you tackle worklessness and put money in people's pockets, that impacts on everything else," Mr Chambers said.

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