Re-examining the Benefits of Charitable Involvement in Housing the Mentally Vulnerable

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The traditional social perception of charitable endeavour is a positive one. Charities are perceived to be an essential component of social provision and make a significant contribution to civil society. They develop “new services…[plug] gaps in delivery…and often focus on meeting the needs of the disadvantaged and socially excluded�. Indeed, charities are being embraced as a necessary aspect of a vibrant and effective Third Sector, which provides “a new third way� for public service provision, harnessing “the sector’s strengths to challenge and stimulate new ideas, complement …shared objectives and take forward the development of social policy generally�. This vision of a shared approach to service provision between the public, private and third sector, with central government in an enabling role, is apparent in all spheres of current public service provision. The focus of this article, however, is not to consider the important ramifications of the Third Way on the social housing sector. It is beyond the remit of this paper to conduct a theoretical and contextual analysis of housing policy and alternative systems or solutions beyond the involement of charities; this has been explored in the volumionus literatue on social housing elsewhere. Instead, this article seeks to explore the role played by charities alone in providing housing and housing services to vulnerable groups, although the discussion should be of wider interest to all those concerned with service delivery and policy for vulnerable individuals. The genesis of this paper arose from an ESRC funded empirical research project, entitled “Housing The Mentally Vulnerable: The Role Of Charities�. The qualitative data was sought by carrying out a series of thirty-four structured and semi-structured interviews with charitable housing associations, housing and mental health support groups and legal experts. In exploring the nature and scope of charitable involvement in housing this group, the work revealed that charities play a very important, and suprisingly extensive, role. Coupled with concern in the sector that charities might be struggling with the increased demands of provision in many different spheres includin housing , this prompted questions as to whether such significant charitable involvement in housing the vulnerable is as beneficial to users and providers as it first appears. It is important to state from the outset that this paper will not seek to argue that charities are poor housing and support providers; such an argument would be difficult to sustain in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. Similarly, charitable organisations will not be compared with other housing providers to consider which might provide a better level of service; the service charities provide is recognised as both important and worthwhile. This paper does not suggest that these activities should be curtailed or that charities should be removed from service provision, and replaced by other bodies. The aims are more modest. This paper simply seeks to re-examine the benefits that charities bring to housing the mentally vulnerable in context. While it is not contested that many benefits will derive from charitable involvement, such as greater social cohesion and more responsive services, these benefits cannot simply be taken for granted. It is a trite proposition that some charities are better run, and provide a better service, than others; varability across any sector or group of similar organisations is to be expected. In practice, it is suggested that some of the benefits that the sector brings to the vulnerable may get lost or diluted in direct provision, either due to these organisational variations or because of the demands placed on organisations running such a housing service. Although many of the difficulties faced in housing the vulnerable, such as joint working, are germane to any provider, charitable or otherwise, some aspects will have a particular resonance or impact on charities. Morever, it cannot be guaranteed that those charities which currently provide benefits will always manage to do so. This article will explore the possibility that for many charities the increasing demands on them to provide services may be more than their infrastructure and resources can withstand. It will be argued, that while charities offer an excellent and necessary supplementary housing service, any further extension to their role could be potentially damaging to the charities themselves and the tangible benefits associated with charitable involvement may be lost if greater pressure is placed upon them.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)177-200
Number of pages24
JournalNorthern Ireland Legal Quarterly
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2008


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