Workers at St Mungo’s have voted for strike action by an overwhelming margin. The issues at stake include a reduction in annual leave entitlement and the charity’s sickness and disciplinary policies. But homelessness workers are also up in arms about the charity’s history of sharing rough sleepers’ personal information with the Home Office without their consent.
Union officials say collaboration with the Home Office has damaged the professional integrity of St Mungo’s outreach teams as well as risking their safety by forfeiting the trust of rough sleepers. They want guarantees that homeless people’s data will never again be shared for the purposes of immigration enforcement.
The charity’s current stance is that information will no longer be shared directly, but may be passed to local authorities who have data-sharing agreements with the Home Office.
A previous strike ballot was defeated last September because the union branch involved, Unite Housing Workers, missed the minimum threshold for participation by a single vote. Activists were hardened in their resolve this time round , particularly since St Mungo’s accidentally leaked an email from chief executive, Howard Sinclair, about the need to “erode support” for the union.
Last November, Sinclair announced he will leave his role in 2020 to take a ‘gap year’. The news came a week after St Mungo’s published an internal review admitting the charity passed on rough sleepers’ data without their consent between 2010 and 2017 — and made inaccurate statements about doing so.
The internal review reveals the extent to which parts of the voluntary sector have internalised neoliberal rationality. Charity managers saw working with the Home Office as part of an “assertive outreach” approach designed to “encourage” rough sleepers to take up employment and accommodation. The implication appears to have been that being threatened with deportation would make homeless people more likely to leave the streets.
Such approaches gloss over the complexity of homelessness as a social and political issue by implicitly locating its causes in the choices of individual rough sleepers. They ignore systemic factors like austerity, a lack of affordable housing and the breakdown of collective solidarity. When homelessness is understood as voluntary, it follows that the solutions to homelessness must address the errant psychology of homeless people.
Neoliberal homelessness policy is a coercive example of what sociologists call ‘responsibilization’, which the theorist Wendy Brown has identified as a key feature of neoliberal societies and which has underpinned workfare policies such as the requirement for benefits claimants to perform voluntary labour.
Workfare logic says that poor people who want assistance must comply with conditions designed to elevate their mindsets and reduce their ‘dependency’. The logic of neoliberal homelessness policy dictates that poor people whose poverty offends others — rough sleepers are the most obvious example — can be forced into compliance if threats are insufficient to make them act in what the neoliberal state sees as everybody’s ‘best interests’. (The St Mungo’s internal review cites newspaper headlines about perceived ‘antisocial behaviour’ by rough sleepers as among the motivations for adopting an ‘assertive outreach’ strategy.)
In this framework, the idea that it might be the state’s job to provide employment or decent housing goes out of the window.
Theory aside, this kind of ‘assertive outreach’ has never worked in practice. Carrot-and-stick approaches to homelessness are doomed to failure where rigid structural forces exclude some people from access to decent accommodation. In the case of EU rough sleepers — who tend to be migrant workers from the poorer nations of the European Union — restrictions on entitlement to housing benefit make it impossible for many to leave the street even when in work. Britain’s departure from the EU is set to worsen this situation.
When charity managers use neoliberal logic to justify their support for authoritarian state practices instead of pushing back against policies that compel workers to sleep rough, an assault on the rights of employees is a logical next step. Charity workers need to start making links between their own struggles at work and the failure of the charities they work for to stand up for the rights of vulnerable people. The militant response of St Mungo’s workers to their bosses’ role in creating a ‘hostile environment’ for rough sleepers is a template for such action.
St Mungo’s staff recognise that the failure of managers to properly communicate the charity’s data-sharing intentions signals a lack of respect that extends to not being willing to pay them properly or give them the job security they need. They have also identified concrete ways in which collaboration with the Home Office has made it harder for them to do their job, even putting them at risk of assault while on shift.
Above all, their decision to strike reveals an understanding of how sharing information with the Home Office has sullied their vocation as homelessness workers and betrayed the grassroots vision of the charity’s founders. St Mungo’s was started in 1969 as an act of solidarity with rough sleepers. The name ‘St Mungo’s’ was chosen because “a Christian saint’s name would stop police hassling workers on soup runs.” In 2020, the charity now owns property worth around £80m, and it has turned to the multi-national PR firm BLJ to recover its image after the rough-sleeper removals scandal.
Charity workers don’t immediately come to mind when you think of militant workforces. Detroit autoworkers, Liverpool dockers or the University of London’s outsourced cleaners better fit the image of working-class people organising to improve their employment conditions.
Yet the charity sector, which like every other sector mirrors the economy at large, is ripe for industrial action. Staff complain of overwork and the generalisation of precarity, while an increasing reliance on government contracts has compromised the independence of the sector and eroded cooperation by pitting charities against each other for commissions. The plea of ‘pragmatism’ has been used to justify the involvement of charities in everything from the detention of children to employment schemes that usher marginalised people into exploitative, poorly paid work.
The IWGB’s new charity workers’ branch intends to strengthen the union representation available to voluntary-sector workers, a large proportion whom are project workers on short-term contracts. Around 30 members attended the first meeting last month, highlighting grievances that ranged from bullying and vicarious trauma to outsourcing and pay inequality within organisations.
Voluntary-sector workers must avoid the temptation to idealise the charitable vocation. A glance at the history of charity in the UK reveals its implication in state and private ventures aimed at disciplining the poor. But charities and charity workers can, nevertheless, be a force for positive social and political change.
To do so, they need to maintain their independence from the neoliberal state, training their focus on the defence of rights rather letting themselves be used as instruments of social control, even if it requires new models of charity financing and governance.
But the rehabilitation of ‘charity’ will depend above all on the elaboration of a new kind of rationality that unites charity workers with – rather than distancing them from – the people they support. Efforts to help homeless people (or migrants or domestic violence survivors or disabled people or anyone else) need to be joined to the recognition that ‘service users’ are workers just like us.
Benjamin Morgan runs the EEA homeless rights project at the Public Interest Law Centre.