Our shared responsibility to end homelessness

Words by

Rex Siney

It may seem a little out of the ordinary for an estate agent to be talking about homelessness, but even before Brickworks was fully formed, we made the decision not to shy away from the difficult conversations.

Our business is, in some ways, at odds with our ethics. Being part of the system whilst at the same time striving for a fairer society was a dichotomy that weighed on our minds. The only way we could square the circle was to confront the uncomfortable truth, that if we believe in a shared responsibility to end homelessness, we’d have to step up, take action and help tackle it head-on.

We were only too aware of how easy it is to be caught up in the bright lights of the big city; the London that’s full of possibility, whilst having your eyes turned away from the realities of the housing crisis. So we sought out an organisation on the front line, that is working with the homeless community at the grassroots, that could inform us and direct support to where it can make the most impact.

This led us to the brilliant and innovative London youth homeless charity, Accumulate, and its inspirational founder and Director, Marice Cumber. We took some time to speak to her about the young people she works with and their experience of being homeless in London - and how Accumulate’s work is bringing opportunities to young people.

A homelessness epidemic

There is an epidemic of homelessness in our capital city. For every visible person living in doorways and dark corners, there are hundreds more of the ‘hidden homeless’. Those living in temporary accommodation - be it in hostels or B&Bs - people sofa surfing with friends or living in their cars; the numbers are incalculable, partly because so few are eligible for housing support and, because they don’t live on the streets, many don’t identify as homeless.

Most of us can’t comprehend how tough life as a homeless person is. The constant stress of finding accommodation, facing the unknown and uncertainty about the future, and on top of this many are coping with complex needs, drug dependency and poor mental health – all that often arise as a result of, or been a contributing factor to, a lack of a home. It’s a ‘cocktail of difficulties’ as Marice calls it.

One factor that compounds an individual's situation is the boredom and isolation that sits alongside the chaos of homelessness. Without education or employment to offer meaning or purpose, the situation often becomes more desperate. As Marice explains ‘it becomes a boiling pot of people who are challenged by the system, without something positive to engage with, which in turn leads to spiralling deeper into depression.’ And so it’s no wonder that, with the erosion of self-worth, people cannot find the motivation to get out of bed, let alone change the situation for themselves and escape the cycle.

Breaking the cycle

And that’s where Accumulate comes in. They are a lifeline to many young homeless people, providing a possible route out through the arts. But what's on offer is much more than education; it’s an opportunity to build self-confidence and to see the possibility of another life. Take Danny* for example. In his previous life, he had been in and out of prison seven times and was using crack and shoplifting to survive. Having completed a course of workshops with Accumulate just two years ago, he’s now clean, studying for a degree, and employed to run workshops at the Barbican, among other places. It’s an incredible transformation that speaks volumes about the ability of Accumulate to effect change.

Keeping going through Covid

As the pandemic took hold, Accumulate was at the beginning of a 12-week programme of workshops creating The Book of Homelessness, a graphic novel telling the raw and powerful stories of those taking part. When lockdown kicked in, Marice realised it wasn’t just the workshops that ceased, ‘it was community, it was the one positive thing in someone’s week, where they felt supported and valued. And then all of a sudden we had to stop.'

As creative thinkers, the Accumulate facilitators sprung into action to find a solution. And that solution was art kits. Marice and the team created ‘workshops in an envelope’, containing everything needed to take part in that week's creative activity, as well as a chocolate bar and a postcard to check in and say hello. The group moved communication onto a Whatsapp group, where people would share their work and snippets of their creative process. Marice says it became a safe space for people to share when they were struggling, ‘the rest of the group would say “c’mon, do the workshop with us", and they produced their own support group’. And so, Accumulate was still providing support and an ear to listen, even during the darkest days of Covid.

The power of creativity

The ability of Accumulate to shapeshift in a crisis, to evolve overnight, is indicative of the organisation’s pioneering approach. Rather than shrink the operation, their ability to react to the shifting sands of the pandemic enabled them to expand their support to young homeless people during lockdown. The art kits had been a resounding success, so much so that the team made contact with their network of hostels across the UK who were keen to get involved, and the Accumulate Art Kit Project was launched. Over the course of 2020 almost 4,000 kits were distributed nationwide, delivering high-quality arts courses and galvanising a community that engaged some of the UK’s most vulnerable people at a desperate time.

The impact of Accumulate on the lives of young people cannot be underestimated. The feedback they receive from participants is that the boost in confidence and self-value allows them to believe in a different future for themselves. For Marice, Accumulate's measure of success is in the personal, individual stories. It’s the metamorphosis that has occurred to enable someone to feel they can get out of bed that should be celebrated because, as Marice says, ‘it’s taking that first step on the journey to a better future’. It’s why, for Marice, she considers these wins her biggest achievement.

The next steps

Once a participant has taken that first and hardest step, taking the risk to try something new and meet new people, it’s paid off in spades. Marice recognises the progression of people to transform their lives as a huge achievement for Accumulate. The scholarship scheme, supported by Brickworks, enables people to access higher education. Of the 24 people who have received a scholarship, half have continued on to do a degree. For Marice, this is a game changer, because the accommodation options for an undergraduate can help break the cycle of homelessness. It can put them on a completely different path by providing a passport to a career.

One such success story is Lisa, who has completed her photography degree this year, and is already forging a plan for her future, “which wouldn’t have happened without the scholarship and support from Brickworks". Even for those who don’t go on to university, the scholarship is a catalyst for change and empowerment, enabling access to employment or education, or simply developing more positive habits and ways of living.

A winning formula

The evidence is abundantly clear - the Accumulate formula works. But currently resources can’t keep pace with ambition; their sights are set on scaling the model to other cities as well as offering more support to those studying in London, where being an art student, with all the materials needed, can be eye-wateringly expensive. ‘Life bursaries’ would enable these young people to have the best chance at success, so that transformative change is a possibility.

Accumulate continues to innovate, most recently by providing work opportunities through their Creative Futures programme, as well as diversifying into corporate training and initiatives such as ‘Get An Education to Give An Education’ where profits of public art courses fund workshops for homeless people.

To say it’s been a privilege for Brickworks to be a part of the Accumulate story is an understatement, and we’re looking forward to seeing these bright young people thrive as they carve out their careers. Accumulate is always looking to collaborate, and there are so many ways to support this extraordinary project, so if you’d like to get involved contact info@accumulate.org.uk.

*Not his real name