tackling homelessness & poverty in the Humber region

Enabling Change – Richard McKinnon, CEO Humbercare, Hull.

“They make it easy to be able to say we can achieve x, y, and z.”
Richard McKinnon, CEO Humbercare.

The homelessness sector in Hull is currently a volatile place to work, at least – it is for some. There is a small, but loud, movement of people expressing their distrust of local government commissioned services and established voluntary sector organisations. Social media is alive with keyboard activism, grabbed photos are shared as undisputed fact, vitriol accompanies video. Worryingly, the very people that need help – our city’s rough sleepers, sofa surfers, and those at acute risk of homelessness – are in danger of being influenced by this clamour, perhaps even avoiding services that could actually positively transform their lives.

Despite this, remarkable outcomes are being achieved by those commissioned to deliver support.

Richard McKinnon is CEO of Humbercare, where he has worked for 19 years. His involvement within the homelessness sector in Hull started much earlier. At 20 years of age, in his first job within the sector, he was a bank worker for the English Churches Housing Group. Before joining Humbercare he also spent time in employment with other homelessness and social housing organisations. At Stoneham Housing Association he worked with offenders being released from prison. For HullHARP he helped to deliver services at Dock House. He was part of the team that set up the Roper Street night shelter many years ago. Throughout his career in the sector he’s also encouraged partnership working, and has served on many Boards and advisory panels.

I asked Richard what originally motivated him to pursue a career in this sector:

“I’ve always had an understanding of it. My parents were involved in it, so I grew up seeing this sector – much wider than just homelessness though, it included mental health. I developed a passion for the sector. Doing ‘bank’ work I saw much more of it. Very quickly I wanted to be involved in trying to make a change in the city, in terms of facilities and services offered to people.”

Homelessness has changed a lot over the last few decades. Right to Buy has decreased council housing provision. House prices have risen dramatically, making even ‘affordable housing’ unattainable for some. More and more people are having to rent in the precarious ‘Private Rental Sector’. Rough sleeping has more than tripled in the city in the last decade alone.

Richard told me what the homelessness sector looked like at the start of his career. “It was”, he said:

“a very different picture to what it is now. As we’ve moved forward we’ve seen individuals’ complexities get worse. Back then it was traditional street drinkers if you like. The idea of anybody using a drug or sticking a needle in their arm, even amongst the homeless community, was frowned upon.“When we opened Roper Street, that must be over 20 years ago, it was just a building that was open-floored, with mattresses on the floor. People used to turn up, and it was soup and sandwiches, head down, and a breakfast in the morning before they went off. That was purely donation funded, all done on a voluntary fundraising basis to be able to run that service. We were regularly getting 20 to 25 people through the doors each night, presenting as street homeless.”

He went on to explain how homelessness now differs:

“The complexities that individuals face themselves are much more demanding. The ease by which people can fall into homelessness and other associated issues seems to be easier than it was then – and much more severe. There is a lack of services in Hull, not just bed spaces but those services that wrap around and support people. The way funding for organisations like this is distributed now has made it much more of a competitive environment. There will be those that criticise organisations like Humbercare as just being businesses, but that’s the way in which the money is available – to be able to deliver these services.”

The funding of homelessness service provision, especially in the voluntary sector, is a very contentious issue for many. A common argument posed by those clamorous voices on social media is that no organisation or group, however constituted, should be seen to ‘profit’ from others’ misfortune and disadvantage. How services can become sustainable for their beneficiaries, and attract well qualified and experienced staff to generate the required outcomes, is often overlooked by such voices.

I asked Richard to respond to this argument that there is a lot of money to be made in the homelessness sector, and that organisations such as Humbercare are profiteering from those in homelessness, poverty, and disadvantage:

“People will have their views about how organisations should be run. There will be people that say companies shouldn’t receive funding for the work they do. But sadly, for us to be able to supply housing to people, it comes at a cost. We don’t own our housing stock, we have to lease our housing stock, so we have to pay for that. Then, to be able to provide support to people living in those properties, again it has to be paid for. What I can say is that all the services that Humbercare provide are commissioned from whichever local authority we’re working in, or whichever organisation we’re working with. If we are delivering a service, that’s been by way of a successful competitive tender process. So we have to demonstrate that we are of good value, that we give value for money, that we have robust management systems in place, that we’re able to keep people safe, to provide decent outcomes and make sure that people get the best that they can. We are accountable and we have to answer to the people that give the funding.”

I pressed Richard for further clarity about the level of scrutiny Humbercare receives from its funders and stakeholders. He replied:

“In the last year alone Humbercare has had its services inspected by the Care Quality Commission – that is by no means an easy process. They come in and spend a huge amount of time going through the organisation, reading page by page case files, right the way through to how staff are employed, how we treat staff, how we run the organisation, how we keep individuals safe and how we treat them when they’re receiving our services. As part of that process we were considered to be good across all key lines of enquiry, that in itself speaks volumes. We have also had our Investors in People inspection and award, there have been no issues and the report is complimentary of the organisation. We just had a full audit inspection of all our services commissioned by Hull City Council in the last year, every single service has been inspected in detail, every report that has come back has been complimentary.”

I can attest to this. The certificates of compliance and evaluation from various scrutinising panels are displayed for all to see in the reception at Humbercare’s Head Office.

The organisation that McKinnon leads is not a small undertaking. In the last year of financial reporting, he tells me, the business has turned over approximately £5,000,000. The charitable organisation employs 165 people, works across 4 local authority areas, and enjoys the support of around 100 active volunteers too. Humbercare delivers 18 related services, serving about 800 people at any one time. Richard adds:

“We don’t just work in Hull, we don’t just run a hostel, we run many different services – some very complex, for very complex and vulnerable people.”

It is the complexity of the service delivery, and the complexity of the people it serves, that sometimes results in incidents that attract negative comment and attention online.

I asked Richard if this negativity was having an impact upon staff morale, and the ability of the organisation to continue to deliver its outcomes for beneficiaries and funders alike. He replied:

“I am accountable to our Board of Trustees, and as an organisation we are accountable to those that provide our funding. The staff have been vocal about it. They are quite passionate about what is being said, and they want or need to respond to some of these comments. But what we are more focussed on is delivering our services. Every service that Humbercare delivers is the result of a competitive tender process. It’s very structured, it’s very clear, it’s very transparent from whomever gives that contract. The ability to be able to win contracts in that way is done on the back of the experience, the professionalism, and the passion of the people who work for Humbercare. They make it easy to be able to say we can achieve x, y, and z.”

[Copyright Jerome Whittingham, 2018]

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