On this page, I'll be talking about my experiences working with The Wallich to tackle homelessness.

Hi, I’m Alex…and I am working with the Wallich because I feel strongly that not all homeless people in Wales, some of whom in vulnerable and extremely difficult situations, have a family to support them. Likewise, not everyone has been fortunate enough to have an education and might, for example, struggle with literacy skills.

As such, I want to work to help ensure that the information about services and support for people in these situations is communicated in a clear and accessible way. Encouraging homeless people to engage in the political process is also a way to help them get their voices heard. To this end, I am now volunteering for the Wallich, supporting the Research and Communications teams. This way I can help represent service users so that they can tell their side of the story.

After working in Higher Education for six years, I returned from West London to South Wales, where my family lived. I have engaged with a variety of services in the Cardiff area, including the Wallich, over the past year.

 

Alex’s blog

Jump to an entry:

05/12/2016 – My role at the Wallich

23/09/2016 – Housing First

22/08/2016 – Surveys, interviews and Likert scales: how satisfied are YOU?

14/07/2016 – Wallich event: creating opportunities for homeless people

27/06/2016 – Adult Learners’ Week

21/06/2016 – more bits and pieces; what have I been doing this month?

09/05/2016 – income tax devolution and my HTML coding

25/04/2016 – the Welsh Assembly Election debate

11/04/2016 – today, I’ll be tweeting for the Wallich

08/04/2016 – the Welsh Assembly Elections, the Welsh political process, touring the Senedd

21/03/2016 – registering to vote, even if you don’t have a fixed address

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05/12/2016

My role at the Wallich

I should have written about this sooner, but I’ve had a busy couple of months! In October, I started a paid, full-time position at the Wallich. I now work as the organisation’s Research Officer, in the Public Affairs and Policy team.

As my loyal readers will know, I did some part-time research work for Shelter Cymru over the summer, which helped me develop a lot of the skills that I’ll be putting to good use in this role – of course, my work in Higher Education helped in this regard too. My volunteering at the Wallich over the past year has also contributed to my understanding of the organisation. My understanding of homelessness service provision, mostly in the context of South Wales, will also help when it comes to working here.

My role will involve carrying out research, working on rough sleeping statistics and evaluating some of our projects and service. I’ll also be involved in influencing policy and policymakers to make a tangible difference to homelessness in Wales.

Now that the Public Affairs and Policy team at the Wallich has two members, myself and my line manager, the Wallich is well-placed to have a real impact on policy based on sound research. Considering we didn’t have a policy team at all even two years ago, this is a big step forward! This, of course, sits alongside one of the Wallich’s existing strengths – providing accommodation for people faced with homelessness.

I firmly believe that in a civilised society we should help the most vulnerable people around us to help themselves, and that the opportunities the Wallich provides for its service users are an effective way to do that.

My own experiences in Cardiff have taught me that there are many ways in which the services in this part of Wales work quite well. There are lots of options, for example, when it comes to providing food for people sleeping rough or living in hostels. The recent Housing Act in Wales also shifts the emphasis onto preventing homelessness, rather than tackling the problem after it has occurred. This approach has cost benefits and, when it works effectively, stops people from enduring the stressful experience of being homeless in the first place. The UK Government is looking at doing something similar with legislation there and, although there are some issues with the way the Act is being implemented, I agree with the general approach it takes. We’re also seeing Housing First as an approach getting more attention here in Wales (I recently wrote a post on this very concept), so it is an interesting time to be working in this field!

I won’t be posting on this blog any more, but my writing will still appear over at the Wallich’s Policy and Campaigns blog. In fact, I just wrote my first response to UK Government policy. I highly recommend it 😉

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23/09/2016
Housing First

‘Housing First’ (which I lazily, or efficiently, abbreviate to ‘HF’) is a conceptual approach to tackling homelessness which has been adopted in different ways in different countries. Housing First has achieved varied but broadly encouraging results.

The Wallich’s Anglesey Housing First Project, as the name suggests, operates on a model similar to Housing First. As such, this blog post doesn’t just discuss a theoretical approach to tackling homelessness, but how this approach works in practice – not just in Wales, but across the world.

Like any approach to policy, people have raised criticisms of HF. Towards the end of this post, I look at not just the positive outcomes that HF has achieved, but examine some of the criticism to assess its validity and relevance.

What is Housing First and where did it come from?
Housing First has existed since the at least the late 1980s, when Tanya Tull launched a Housing First-based scheme to tackle homeless affecting families in Los Angeles. In 1992, Dr Sam Tsemberis, a psychologist who focuses on people with serious mental illnesses and long histories of homelessness, founded a similar scheme in New York. Dr Tsemberis is often credited with devising Housing First as a concept.
The idea behind Housing First is quite simple. The name provides a huge clue; it is the idea that for a homeless person – who potentially has a range of other issues – huge benefits can be realised by giving them independent accommodation before (or rather, independently of) focusing on tackling other issues like substance abuse. As such, housing is separate to treatment.

Other key principles of Housing First include: providing support for as long as it is needed; operating on a harm reduction approach; and not forcing anyone into any kind of treatment. There are other core principles which you can find in this guide.

Some aspects of this contrast with the more common approach, like the one found in Cardiff (which is sometimes known as a ‘linear’ or ‘staircase’ model), for example. In this system, someone is gradually made more independent, moving from emergency accommodation/shelter to hostel to support housing to, finally, some form of independent living: the private rented sector, perhaps.

In the Housing First model, a person can be moved from the streets directly into their own apartment or house, with no homeless shelters in between. Crucially, this does not mean that an individual will find themselves without support. We will see that, in the Wallich’s Housing First project, for instance, support is a key part of the process – alongside living independently. The Guardian describes Housing First as a genuine attempt to ‘end homelessness rather than manage it’.
Housing First projects exist across the UK. Homeless Link evaluated nine Housing First projects in England (including projects in London, Newcastle, Stoke, and Brighton); their report on these projects is available for download.

‘Glasgow Housing First’ is an example of a HF scheme in Scotland. DePaul runs ‘Housing First Belfast’, an example of something similar in Northern Ireland. I’ve listed these to show adoption of HF across Great Britain, but they are by no means the only examples.

Finland’s experience of Housing First
Housing First dictates Finland’s entire approach to homelessness, and as such provides a rich case study. One key component of implementing the HF approach was converting hostels and homeless shelters into new properties, which in itself enabled the creation of new accommodation to be taken up. No hostels exist now, and the last one, a 250-bed Salvation Army hostel in Helsinki, is now made up of 80 apartments with on-site staff. The presence of these members of staff highlights the fact that support still exists for the Housing First tenants. Being provided accommodation without conditions doesn’t mean that any other issues a person has are suddenly ignored. It is a key precept of Housing First that such services and support are provided.

The Guardian also makes the vital point that for the system to work, it needs dedication across state- and local-level organisations and departments. It will also depend on enough accommodation being available in the first place – not that one has to believe in Housing First as an approach to think that the UK needs more affordable housing, which would be a good thing in itself.

The Wallich and Housing First
The Wallich runs one project that aligns very closely with the Housing First model, in Anglesey. The reason it isn’t technically true Housing First is because the Supporting People framework under which it operates makes it difficult to say that support will be provided for as long as necessary. Other than that, though, the Housing First Anglesey project is an example of the approach at work.

You can read about the experience of one person living there: Aaron highlights how difficult he found it to even attend meetings with a support worker while undergoing the pressures of homelessness or some of the indignities of living in a hostel. He also discusses the fact that support is still available to him, and he is being helped when it comes to tackling his mental health issues.

He also finds it a positive thing to share with the other people present in the accommodation. Aaron says that in his view, his recovery while being part of the Wallich’s HF-type scheme in Anglesey has been the quickest he has experienced in his life. He also explains his current context – studying for new qualifications, for example. This seems to support the idea that once someone is independently accommodated and settled, focusing on other productive things and dealing with remaining issues becomes easier for someone to focus on.

Where else has Housing First been adopted?
Housing First and HF-type schemes have been adopted around the world in different contexts – I’ll mention a few examples here.

In the USA, the Department of Veterans Affairs in particular has embraced the Housing First model. (If you are unaware of the context in the US, it is worth knowing that there exists a fairly prevalent issue with mental illness and homelessness among veterans).

Housing First is also officially endorsed by the US Interagency Council on Homelessness – the top-level agency dealing with homelessness policy in the Executive Branch the US government – as best practice to be used by organisations and agencies across America.

A large number of cities in the US have adopted Housing First programmes. Housing First has also been adopted, to varying extents, in Australia, Canada and France.

Positive outcomes
Housing First has shown positive results in many of the places it has been adopted. The Guardian article I’ve already linked to details some of this. Results of HF programmes in Canada have shown reductions in clients returning to hostels or rough sleeping, reductions in nights spent in jail, and fewer police interactions with people living in HF accommodation.

Aaron’s story, discussing his experiences in the Wallich’s project in Anglesey, also highlights the positive aspects of Housing First he has experienced directly – independent living helping him achieve other things and tackle his mental health issues.

Massachusetts has reported considerable cost savings after moving to Housing First. Like Canada, Denver has reported a decrease in hospital visits, incarceration days, and detox visits. Crucially, Housing First schemes also tend to save money.

As this link shows, there was a 30% drop in rough sleepers or shelter/hostel residents across America. This was in part due to the Housing First approach that Congress had directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development to focus more on in 1999.
Finland’s aims for homelessness, now tackled entirely using HF, are ambitious: the country wants homelessness entirely eliminated. I am attending a conference on 30th September where I will learn more about how their venture has gone.

My own experiences make me think of some benefits that might be more anecdotal: for example, I can imagine that by putting someone into independent accommodation, you are moving them away from the kind of hostel environment where drug and alcohol use tends to be quite common and people can influence each other in a negative way. Additionally, being given the chance to live independently can act as a day-by-day example of what a ‘normal’ life is like, and the sense of fulfilment it offers a person.

Criticisms
One main criticism of HF comes when it seen as a one-size-fits-all solution to a huge range of problems, to be deployed without regard to context. I think this criticism could be levelled at nearly any homelessness policy, where context will always matter and affect results.

Some people criticise the core concept of HF, however. In some ways, it is easy to see why – ultimately, people who for whatever reason find themselves homeless are being given something (a home) that it might take other people years to obtain. Where someone has become homeless through events that are beyond their control, perhaps some of this criticism is mitigated, but it is easy to see why some people might take issue with the idea that a person who has become homeless through alcohol abuse, for example, should be given a home without preconditions.

Some parallels are made between HF and the ‘Panelak’ buildings that still exist in some parts of the post-Communist bloc. Such was the drive to give people accommodation during the Communist era, cheap tower blocks were constructed that Vaclav Havel, president of Czechoslovakia in 1990, called ‘undignified rabbit pens’. That said, this kind of criticism could be levelled at cheaply, hurriedly constructed housing in any context. Additionally, the possibly Communist idea of moving large numbers of people into cheap, nearly-identically built housing is not the same as using Housing First as a specific solution to the specific problem of homelessness alongside other issues like mental health problems.

Clearly, there is some truth to the idea that simply assigning people to houses could be seen as giving someone something for nothing, which does fit more alongside socialistic ideas than the capitalist ones we tend to live by in the West. I think this criticism is somewhat mitigated by Housing First being used in very specific contexts where they get results, save the state money, and actually put people back on track to being productive members of society. In some ways this kind of efficiency is the opposite of Communism! Additionally, even if you believe the idea that certain state entitlements should be earned (including, perhaps, housing), when it comes to veterans, for example, it is easy to argue that they have ‘earned’ housing by fighting to defend their country.

Others suggest that some countries simply don’t have the housing in existence to assign it to homeless people. This, it strikes me, is a slightly different problem, and in the UK for example it is well-known that more affordable accommodation needs to be constructed in any case – benefiting many, not just those who would become part of the HF scheme.

Ultimately, it seems that many of the criticisms of Housing First apply when Housing First has been applied as a one-size-fits-all solution.

Sharam Kohan also makes the important point that when it comes to, for example, dealing with mentally ill people, it is for agencies and organisations that specialise in these areas to guide policy, not agencies that deal with housing, who should ideally defer to the ideas provided to them by the experts in particular disciplines.

Our conclusion
Rather than wrap this up myself, I’ll leave it to Will Atkinson, Policy and Research Manager here at the Wallich, to give his thoughts. He’s been closely involved with the project in Anglesey and as such feels strongly about Housing First.

“Housing First has been proven to be effective in housing homeless individuals with complex issues across Europe and North America over the past three decades. Here in Wales, The Wallich has been operating a Housing First project on Anglesey for three years and the results speak for themselves.

Over three-quarters of service users entering Housing First Anglesey, some with complex needs and a history of repeat homelessness, are positively moved on to sustainably manage their own tenancies. HF Anglesey has sustainably housed individuals for whom the traditional staircase model of homelessness service delivery (shelters >hostels > supported accommodation) would not have been successful. Through the support HF Anglesey provides, funded by the Supporting People Programme Grant, the service has saved health and social care service resources through preventing relapse and repeat homelessness.

The Wallich operates Rough Sleeper Intervention Teams (RSITs) across Cardiff, Bridgend, Newport and Swansea. Daily, we see individuals who are remaining on the streets because they are too vulnerable to enter hostels due to complex needs such as mental health issues and the fear of violence or relapse. For these people, Housing First would provide an alternative.

I see Housing First as more of a philosophy than a strict method of service delivery. The method may need to be adapted to the local housing market and funding frameworks, as it has been on Anglesey. We should work hard to stay as close to the core principles of Housing First and lobby to change the frameworks to get closer to pure Housing First but that shouldn’t stop us changing lives in the meantime.
Housing First should be scaled up across Wales as soon as possible to house the most vulnerable people, many who have been failed by traditional services.”

Further reading
For more information about Housing First and the ideas behind it, the Wikipedia page is a good start and provides plenty of links elsewhere. The EU guide to Housing First is also an excellent resource.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Housing_First

http://housingfirstguide.eu/website/

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22/08/2016
Surveys, interviews, and Likert scales – how satisfied are YOU?
Recently, at the Wallich and at Shelter Cymru (another fine organisation I’ve been doing some work for) I’ve been involved in interviewing people. The aim of the interviews has been to gather information about the experiences Wallich residents have had, and their how they were treated while facing homelessness for the first time.

The answers we’ve received will be used to gauge how they’re responding to the services they’re being offered. How people are treated and dealt with by the relevant organisations is also important, and overall we’ll get a good picture of where things are going well and what needs to be improved.

My previous career in Higher Education made me familiar with this kind of qualitative research work. I’ve done a bit of teaching around qualitative research methods – students often have to conduct research for their essays and dissertations, as I’ve done as part of my own education.

I’ll use to the words ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ a few times during this post, so I’ll explain what they mean: ‘quantitative’ research refers to having lots of hard statistics and numbers, while ‘qualitative’ is more focused on people describing their feelings and experiences, which you can then draw broader conclusions from. There are many ways of carrying out both types of research, and they’re not mutually exclusive.

Although I’m familiar with the concept of this kind of survey/interview, it has been a while since I engaged in it in a concerted way, and it’s certainly been a while since I gave this topic any real thought. Recently I’ve been devising interview questions and conducting interviews, before transcribing and analysing them; because of this, I’ve been mulling over the topic in general, as well as issues that might be particular to the field that Wallich and Shelter Cymru work in. This post tries to deal with some of these thoughts. It is entirely possible that I ramble a bit here, but a little rambling never hurt anyone.

Customer satisfaction surveys
Whatever your background, you’re probably familiar with the customer satisfaction survey. Nowadays these are, perhaps, too common. I recently read about a hospital patient who was still recovering in their bed when they were asked to rate their experiences as a patient. Many of you will have encountered a survey pop-up while browsing the Internet, asking you to grade a particular website.

Another thing I’ve noticed, and I can’t be alone: how common it is in advertising for us to get some statistic – 93.8% of customers would use SUPADENT toothpaste again! Then a paragraph of small print flashes on the television screen –  we absently wonder how many people were actually interviewed by the suits at SUPADENT, and what the actual questions were, before the next advert starts and we forget about it.

Many of you must have, like me, rolled your eyes at a ‘Likert scale’. This is the technical term for that common scale, often numbering 1 to 5, where we choose a number to rate how satisfied we are, or how much we agree with a statement.

They have their uses, and there’s a lot of interesting information out there about them: for example, one issue that sometimes comes up with Likert scales is that people tend to gravitate towards the middle ‘neither agree nor disagree’ type of option. This ends up providing a big chunk of deeply average ratings that might not be particularly useful.

Being over-surveyed makes us all less likely to complete surveys – and if we do answer the questions, we might hurry through them as quickly as possible. I would argue that conducting fewer surveys that have been more thoughtfully devised is the best way of getting meaningful results.

Surveys in the context of homelessness – some thoughts
Working in Higher Education taught me that the views of students were of massive importance to the running of a university. Some of my work involved devising ways of collecting these views, using some of the tools that students used every day to access their lecture materials, for example.

Similarly, it is understandable that charities like the Wallich, who provide complex and possibly life-altering services to people who, while in varied situations, are perhaps likely to be vulnerable in some aspect.

This context is important. Straight away, I can think of several issues that might come up when an organisation is trying to collect the views of people who have been dealing with homelessness. For example, people might not want to answer any questions about deeply personal issues. Some people might prefer to spend time developing trust with members of staff and only participate at that stage. At the other extreme, some people might want to discuss their experiences with interviewers they don’t know and aren’t likely to see often. Finally, if people are intoxicated or otherwise worse for wear during interviews, how ethical is it to go ahead and ask the questions, and how useful will the results actually be?

What do we do with the results?
When it comes to these kinds of surveys, it is vital that the results are useful. Ultimately, meaningful results can lead to new strategies an organisation can use. Everything should be focused on getting meaningful answers and then planning how to act on them. In my view, in this context at least, obtaining deep qualitative data from a reasonable number of people is probably more useful than getting hundreds of Likert scales but no further information.

Context, again, is important here. An organisation will have to decide what an ‘acceptable’ result is, and what they will need to work to improve. For example, if 78% of an organisation’s clients are happy with the way they are spoken to by individual staff members, is that good enough? Can the organisation focus on other aspects of their service, or is that 78% below par? This is something that should ideally be decided before research is conducted.

Organisations need to carefully think through what actions they will take to improve results and satisfaction. Let’s go back to the 78% of satisfied clients – if that number is just used to reinforce a sense of organisational smugness, where everyone involved pats themselves on the back, then the exercise has been futile, in my opinion; or, at worst, damaging, if it leads to institutional complacency.

The overall state of an organisation matters too; if a company has been in dire straits with its customers and is in the early stages of radical new strategies to improve the situation, perhaps 67% satisfaction, up from 42% the previous year, is a sign things are on the right track.  If an organisation is trying to obtain funding, perhaps healthy numbers of quantitative statistics are more convincing – but I’d argue that if this is the case, perhaps the whole system needs to be looked at.

Incentives and rewards
Over-surveying, perhaps, and human nature generally, mean that in certain areas, organisations struggle to get what they see as good numbers of respondents to these kinds of surveys. How can that be handled? I would argue that smaller numbers of interviewees who consider and thoughtfully respond to questions is better than a huge number who try and get through the process as quickly as possible. That said, there is a balance – one person answering conscientiously isn’t going to provide a full picture if there are 500 more people who might have an opinion!

I mentioned pop-up surveys on websites earlier. I’m sure that you have been promised an entry in a prize draw for completing one of these, and perhaps had emails offering similar things in return for survey answers. This brings us to the issue of incentives; again, if a strong enough incentive is offered, people might only respond to get the incentive, instead of thinking through their answers carefully.
If no incentive is offered, it’s reasonable to assume that people who have most to say, or feel most strongly about whatever experience they’ve had, are going to be most likely to be replying. That’s not to say this information won’t be useful, but perhaps you’ll be at the extreme ends of your clients’ experiences.

It’s worth remembering in this specific context, of homelessness in particular, that what might seem like a small incentive to someone else might, to someone who has experienced or is experiencing homelessness and some of the things that sometimes go along with it, could actually be a lot.

I recently had a (perfectly cordial) debate with a colleague at Shelter about the ethics of offering someone £5 as a nominal ‘thank-you’ for completing a survey. Obviously, what the survey is about is relevant – if an organisation offers an incentive to complete a survey, and the survey is about that organisation, then it might skew the answers. That said, we’re not talking about rigorously ethical academic standards here – even if £5 makes someone slightly more likely to praise an organisation, so what? As long as they don’t tell barefaced lies because they’ve been so wowed by the fiver, the results will still be useful. My colleague argued along this kind of practical line – in reality, what difference is this likely to make?

And that brings me to my conclusion.

My conclusion
Taking everything I’ve just written into account, I’d emphasise that there is no catch-all approach to surveying people. It isn’t ‘one size fits all’. Questions should be devised carefully, targeted to get at the heart of these issues. We are not writing peer-reviewed articles. Representative samples are useful in a practical sense, not because someone is going to be rigorously checking our data for ethical issues. So it should focus on practicality. While in other contexts, more quantitative research has its place, how useful is it likely to be here, when compared to deep, qualitative data where someone has genuinely opened up about how they felt about what service they’ve provided? In my view, it is much better to have this one conscientious, thoughtful person, than to be able to say you have ten Likert scales of rating four or five.

So, in conclusion: surveys should be devised to be practical and genuinely useful. What is acceptable and what isn’t should be clarified beforehand. Genuine meaningful actions should be taken afterwards in light of the results. In the context of homelessness, care should be paid when thinking through the issues people might have. When it comes to incentives, they need to be big enough to encourage people who might be wavering, but not big enough to change people’s views, or to encourage people who don’t really care about what they’re saying to participate. Finally, a few meaningful and well-thought-out responses are better than hundreds of slapdash ones. Perhaps I just tend to value qualitative data over quantitative, and as I’ve said, it really does depend on the context – you might have some combined approach, to get both.

I’d feel awful if I didn’t give you the opportunity to rate this post and my conclusions!

Rate my survey – are you satisfied?
How much did you agree with this survey?
Answer 1-5, where 1 is ‘completely disagree’ and 5 is ‘completely agree’

How likely are you to complete another satisfaction survey, over the rest of your life?

Answer 1-5, where 1 is ‘I’d rather be struck down right now’ and 5 is ‘I actually seek out surveys to do, it provides my life with meaning’

How fantastic is the author?
Answer 1-5, where 1 is ‘eminently fantastic’, and 5 is ‘absurdly wonderful’

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14/07/2016
Wallich event : creating opportunities for homeless people

Last week I was involved, as were members of Wallich staff and lots of other people, in a Wallich event at the Senedd, or Welsh Assembly Building. The aim of the event was to promote the work the Wallich does providing opportunities for its clients – things like work placements, volunteering, training, education, and other initiatives that build on the Wallich’s links with local employers. I’ve written about the fantastic setting, the Senedd building itself, before – so I won’t do that again. I’ll focus on the event itself.

So who was there? It was a decent-sized crowd – I’d estimate between fifty and sixty people. They included: Wallich staff; Wallich service users; managers and other members of staff from organisations the Wallich has links with (for example, the ACORN recruitment agency; Laing O’Rourke; ISG construction, the Welsh prison service, Cardiff & Vale College, and many more); other Wales-based organisations (who were looking to learn about how and why working with the Wallich beneficial at all!) and Welsh Assembly members.
The focus of this event was on how the Wallich worked to provide opportunities for its service users. That’s not to say the Wallich’s other key work (getting people off the streets and keeping people off the streets) didn’t come up at all; it’s just that the focus here was on the third strand in the manifesto.

First we had an introduction and welcome from Jan Balsdon, Head of Community Partnerships at the Wallich. Next, Dan Langford – Group Marketing Director at ACORN – talked about his recruitment agency and its work with the Wallich. After this, Lesley Griffiths, Assembly Member for Wrexham and previously the Member responsible for homelessness and housing, discussed the work she had been involved in as part of the Assembly.

After the speeches, there were two informal Q&A panels. First, questions were asked of three Wallich service users – Dee, Stuart (both of whom now work at the Wallich) and myself. Next, the audience got to quiz three corporate partners of the Wallich: Andy Tonkin from Laing O’Rourke, Wayne Phillips from the PS Group, and Kenny Brown, from HM Prison Service.
Rather than go into too much detail about what was discussed, which has been done to perfection on the Wallich news page and the visual minutes I drew, I’ll focus instead on…the visual minutes I drew!

As well as participating in the service user Q&A panel, I tried my hand at something new. Readers of this blog, and subscribers to the Wallich Twitter feed, may be familiar with my cartoons. What I’ve never tried before is ‘visual minutes’ – different from written minutes in that they are a visual, drawn representation of what’s being said at a meeting or event.

Although I’m pretty confident at writing text and drawing things in an interesting eye-catching way (I hope so, anyway!), what makes visual minutes really tricky is keeping up with someone talking at normal pace. This is a lot harder than you’d think. That said, I gave it a decent bash. I’d prepared the big sheet of paper beforehand, using the event’s agenda, so I could concentrate on minuting what the three speakers were actually saying. Doing this for a Q&A panel might have been too much for me – and, of course, I was on one of the panels myself.
Here are my efforts – what do you think? Take a look from a different angle if you like.

Alex's visual minutes

This event involved a lot of effort on the part of members of Wallich staff, and the efforts clearly paid off. By the looks of things, attendees were getting involved in thought-provoking conversations, making the kinds of connections that can only be made by talking to someone face-to-face. Not only that, the speakers all provided us with some interesting food for thought – which was perfect, as actual food was provided by the Assembly events team, and it was very nice indeed.

 

On the visual minutes I’ve drawn, you can see some of the statistics that were mentioned – statistics that highlight how pervasive homelessness is, as well as how successful some of the Wallich’s initiatives are. Additionally, the fact that the speakers and panel members provided different perspectives, from their different roles in relation to the Wallich’s opportunities, meant that people heard from a wide range

of relevant voices. It was also great to see the Wallich’s commitment to keeping service users at the heart of what it does in action.

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27/06/2016

Adult Learners’ Week

It’s Adult Learners’ Week!

I’ll be publishing a new drawing for each day of ALW at the Wallich Twitter feed.

There’s also plenty to read about what the Wallich does to offer opportunities to its service users.

Take a look at our stop-motion video of the first drawing (thanks to Will for taking the pictures and putting it together!):

 

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21/06/2016

More bits and pieces – what have I been doing this last month?

This month has been a pretty busy one, but busy in a good way. I’m starting a part-time position at Shelter I wouldn’t have been able to take on if it hadn’t been for the Wallich, who put me in touch with their partner charity. So there’s been a fair bit of paperwork and a fair bit of training. I’m eager to get started properly!

June has come and nearly gone, with nothing bar some sticky, sweaty and humid days to remind one that it is not winter – remember, though, that sleeping rough isn’t pleasant even during the more ‘comfortable’ months…you can take a look at the Wallich’s data on rough sleeping here.

Over the last few weeks I’ve also been doing some drawings to promote and inform people about Adult Learners’ Week. ALW, which takes place next week (commencing June 25th) is a campaign and a collection of events celebrating opportunities for adults to develop their learning. Follow that link and click the ‘upload your event here!’ button to browse a list of Welsh events.

The drawings I’ve done highlight the importance of learning opportunities for adults, and the employment that can result from these opportunities. There will be one drawing uploaded to the Wallich Twitter feed on every weekday of Adult Learners’ Week – so, as I’m sure the mathematically astute have deduced by now, that makes five drawings. So keep your eyes peeled next week, and get involved in Adult

Learners’ Week!

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09/05/2016

Some bits and pieces  – income tax devolution and my HTML coding

I thought I’d have a little ramble today. As more posts have been going up, this page has been getting longer. That’s why I’ve added a list of entries at the top of the page, which when clicked jump down to the appropriate place. You’ll also notice some sleek ‘back to top’ links to reduce the amount of annoying scrolling you’ll have to do, because I’m so considerate. I know this is fairly simple stuff, but it’s been a while since I did any HTML work, so I’m kinda proud of myself!
Thanks to everyone who liked, posted, retweeted, or even glanced at the Twitter stuff I was doing over the last four weeks. The responses to my cartoons and doodles made me think about adding some of them to these blog entries, so keep your eyes open.
A little snippet on devolution – I was reading in one of the newspapers the other day (I can’t remember which one, I’m afraid) about the new tax powers that look like they’re going to be devolved to Wales over the next few years. I had a look online and found some more info on the BBC website.
Basically, the Welsh Assembly will be getting more powers to tax in 2020; at the moment it’s only council tax that the Assembly has control over. It looks like this will increase to include some income taxes. What do you think about this? I’m not entirely sure I see why people in Wales

would need to have their income taxed any differently to people in England. Or Scotland, for that matter. But that’s just me…

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25/04/2016
The Welsh Assembly Election debate

Last Wednesday, Will and I went to the ITV Welsh Assembly Elections debate. It was actually the first time I’d experienced live television, though I have been on TV before (years ago, sporting a sexy mohawk, I was interviewed for a Welsh documentary about, oddly enough, men’s hair through the ages). So the event was interesting on that level, though as Will promised, there was a lot of waiting around.

The debate took place in the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, not far from the Museum and Crown Court in Cardiff. I’ve walked past this building a lot, but never been inside, and it was pretty impressive. It was a nice bright evening when we arrived, and people were milling around outside the back of the building, in the sun by the little river.

I’m not going to go into a massive amount of detail about the debate itself, but thought I’d mention a few of the points that most struck me, regarding homelessness and the debate more generally. I have decided who I’ll be voting for, but I’m going to keep quiet about that!

Don’t rely on my observations – go and watch the full debate video yourself.

  • – Nobody made any ridiculous gaffes, errors, or said anything that seemed controversial. In that respect, the debate was a fairly ‘reasonable’ affair, though there were a few legitimate back-and-forths
  • – To me, it seemed that of Nathan Gill of UKIP especially and to a slightly lesser extent, Alice Hooker-Stroud of the Green Party, didn’t have the same amount of time to speak. I mentioned this to Will, who pointed out that perhaps these parties and their members didn’t have the same amount of experience in terms of debating, and perhaps hadn’t learned to cut in as much. I hadn’t thought about it this way, and it made sense
  • – Broadly speaking, the topics went in this sequence: Welsh steel; Welsh industry and the economy a little more broadly; education; housing; and finally, health
  • – Although I have to confess that I don’t know about some of the issues that were discussed in as much detail as some of you might – I only really know the basic facts about the Welsh steel issue, for example – it seemed to me that all the parties made some pretty decent points. Applause was fairly evenly distributed, although the ‘major’ parties seemed to get slightly more
  • – Homelessness as an issue was only mentioned by name by Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru, who said ‘homelessness’ twice (I think). The Green Party did allude to homelessness and people under threat of eviction. I am slightly disappointed the issue wasn’t raised more, though housing in general was focused on quite extensively – the idea of building affordable homes, for example, in the places that most need them, came up from several parties and seemed to have broad agreement, though perhaps some of the details were different
  • – Labour had the difficult position of a party that has been in power for a long time – 17 years in this case. Carwyn Jones had to sell the party’s successes without suggesting that everyone was now completely delighted with the state of Wales and that there wasn’t a lot of work to be done!

I think I’ll leave it there. I had a good time at the debate, though it’s a shame homelessness didn’t come up more than the bare minimum; I

understand there was a lot to discuss! Make sure you check out the debate video so you can make an informed vote!

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11/04/2016
Today, I’ll be tweeting for the Wallich…

So here’s something that’ll make your Monday a bit more fun! Today I will be in charge of the Wallich twitter feed . I’ll try and post some statistics, drawings, and other stuff, for the next few hours. All views expressed will be my own, and won’t necessarily be endorsed by the Wallich. There might be a poll or two in it, so keep an eye on the page, retweet me, all of that good stuff.

Today’s Twitter theme, based on the first theme in the Wallich’s manifesto for the Welsh Assembly elections, is ‘getting people off the streets’; how we do that, why it’s a good thing, and so on.

Enjoy Alex Monday at the Wallich!*

*Title clearly not great and therefore pending.

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08/04/2016
The Welsh Assembly Elections, the Welsh political process, and touring the Senedd

A couple of weeks ago, I went on a tour of the Welsh Assembly building (or ‘Senedd’ in Welsh) in Cardiff Bay. I was taken on this tour by Will and Amy from the Wallich’s research and communications teams.

Over the hour or so that we were there, we learned a lot about: the political process in Wales; devolution; the Welsh Assembly itself; and, of course, the ideas behind the architecture of the building itself. Our tour guide, Gareth, was ready for any question we threw at him, and although we did our best to stump him, none of it worked!

I’d guess that many people in Wales have a vague idea of the Welsh political process, and the upcoming Welsh Assembly elections. This is certainly true of me. It was really interesting, then, to build on that knowledge and learn in more detail about how certain decisions are discussed and debated in Wales. In the spirit of sharing, I thought I’d pass some of this knowledge on.

I’ve split this blog post into three parts: first, I’ve written about the building itself. Then, I talk in a bit more detail about the political process in Wales – first there is a quick history of devolution, before I focus on what the Welsh system currently involves. Finally, I mention some of the other things we learned during our tour.

Before I go on, I just wanted to plug my previous blog post, and remind everyone reading this to register to vote before the Welsh Assembly Elections. You need to do this by April 18th in order to vote on May 5th.

 The building itself

The Senedd is a gorgeous building. The Welsh Assembly website emphasises the fact that the building is a public one, and doesn’t ‘belong’ to the Assembly members. One thing that struck me once we were inside was that the debating chamber, where the work goes on, is underground. The members of the public in the ground-level parts of the building are treated to a fantastic view across Cardiff Bay – a view not shared by the debating politicians.

Instead, the Assembly members have their debates and discussions down in the bottom of the building, inside a circular chamber, ringed by a public gallery that looks down on it. Beyond this are several committee rooms which, again, sit alongside public viewing areas.

The architecture stretching up from the central chamber resembles a tree – we learned that this was a deliberate choice by designer Richard Rogers to make sure the Assembly members stayed humble, and wouldn’t think of themselves as ‘above’ the people they were representing. You can also see the debates taking place as happening at, or themselves forming, ‘the roots’ of Wales, leading to laws and policies building upwards like the trunks and branches of a tree. There is certainly something organic-feeling about the wooden beams forming the curves of the roof inside the building.

On the ground- and upper-level, where you do get a view across the Bay, it is well worth it – particularly on a day as pleasant as the day we went over. Even if you have no interest in politics, but appreciate thoughtful and interesting architecture, you could do much worse than taking a trip to the Senedd.

The story of devolution

The story of ‘devolution’ as we know it today started in 1997, when the Labour party won the British general election. One of the things Labour had promised during its campaign was to hold a referendum, in Wales, to see whether people living here wanted more powers ‘devolved’ to Wales. ‘Devolution’, simply, means ensuring that decisions affecting an area are, with some exceptions, made by the people in that area. Devolution has also taken place in a slightly different form in Scotland, for example.

The result was close, but voters who wanted powers devolved to Wales achieved 50.3% of the vote, compared to 49.7% against. This vote led to the establishment of a ‘Welsh Assembly’, which has responsibility over twenty policy areas.

What are these devolved policy areas? As you might imagine, certain policy categories that affect Britain as a whole remain the remit of our government in Westminster – where, of course, Welsh MPs represent their constituents here in Wales. Some of the primary things that are dealt with in Westminster, as opposed to Wales, are: national security, the armed forces, welfare and benefits, and taxation (with the notable exception of council tax).

You can find a full list of what is devolved to Wales online, but it includes: the NHS; schools and education beyond school level; highways and transport; the Welsh language (as you might expect); and, last but not least, housing, which is the area that the Wallich works in.

The Welsh Assembly now

Now that you understand how devolution works in principle, we can look at what the Welsh Assembly actually consists of, and how it works within the policy areas that have been assigned to it.

The Welsh Assembly has 60 members. Each one represents a fairly small, specific area called a ‘constituency’. Some example constituencies are: Bridgend, Ceredigion, and Cardiff North. There are 40 constituencies in Wales.

If 40 Welsh Assembly members represent constituencies, and there are 60 in total, the mathematically astute among you might realise that this leaves 20 Assembly members who don’t represent a constituency. Instead, these 20 represent larger areas known as ‘regions’ (examples include North Wales and South Wales Central). The actual mechanism is a bit more complicated, but essentially these additional 20 members are put in place to provide a more balanced split of parties in the Assembly – sort of ‘topping up’ the balance of power according to the percentage of the vote received in a given election. The aim of this system is to try and ensure that election results are fairly accurately represented in the Assembly.

As you now understand the difference between decisions made in Wales and decisions made in Westminster, you might have already guessed that voting for a member of the Welsh Assembly for your constituency is an entirely separate process from voting for an MP to represent you in Westminster. It is likewise separate from selecting European MPs to represent you at the European Parliament in Brussels.

On the Assembly website itself, you can find a complete list of Assembly Members and the constituencies and regions they represent.

It is important to remember that devolution shouldn’t be seen as an event that happens and is then finished with – another referendum in 2011, for example, meant that the Welsh Assembly could pass legislation on the devolved policy areas without first needing permission from the Parliament in Westminster. Perhaps the actual policy areas that are devolved to Wales might evolve over the coming years.

 

What else did we learn?

Something else that Gareth talked to us about as he led us around the Senedd – we were also pleasantly surprised by how interested he was in where we had come from and who we were representing – were the differences between Wales and the UK in terms of getting public petitions discussed by politicians.

To guarantee a petition will be raised in the Welsh Assembly, you only need 100 signatures. In fact, if you work for an organisation and submit a petition in the name of that organisation, you only need one signature. When you consider that getting any kind of response to a petition in Westminster requires 10,000 signatures, that’s a pretty good deal.

During our tour, we also saw the Mace, which is kept in a glass box in the debating chamber itself – its physical presence is what actually allows the members of the Assembly to pass laws, granting permission from the Queen.

You can take a tour of the Senedd yourself, which is free. Just get in touch with them via their website, or give them a call on 0300 200 6565.

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21/03/2016
Registering to vote – even if you don’t have a fixed address

I’ve spoken to and encountered plenty of homeless people, many of them using services provided by the Wallich. During these encounters, I’ve heard many articulate, thoughtful and strong opinions about loads of political issues – including, for example, the British government in Parliament, the Welsh assembly, immigration, foreign policy, political parties, Europe, and many others.

It’s pretty obvious that homeless people in Wales are just as politically motivated and politically thoughtful as anybody else, and in some cases, more so. This doesn’t do much good, however, if you can’t use your opinions to change anything, or affect the political decisions made in Wales and Britain.

So what’s the first step? Registering to vote. If you don’t do this, you can’t vote (obviously!), and if you can’t vote, you have no influence on who runs the country in Parliament, who represents us in Europe, or in the Welsh assembly. If you’re registered, you can even vote for your local crime commissioner, meaning you have a direct effect on law enforcement and legal issues in Wales today.

I want to be clear here – I’m not actually saying that you have to vote. Some people believe that not voting is a legitimate political choice in itself, and I think I agree with that. What I am saying is that you should register to vote. If you don’t even register, you can lose representation in Parliament because the number of MPs that exist is based on the number of people in the electoral roll.

Registering to vote can also help you do things like rebuild your credit rating. Whatever your views are, and whether you want to vote or not (obviously, I would argue that voting is enormously important, and there are countries in the world where most people can’t vote, or the voting system is corrupt, so we should see it as a privilege), just registering to vote makes sure that you can be ‘seen’ or ‘counted’ by the system.

This all sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, it sounds great because it is great. What if your next thought is, ‘this is all well and good, and I’d love to register to vote, but I don’t have a fixed address’.

I’m way ahead of you. Not having a fixed address isn’t actually a problem. I wonder how many people are aware that homeless people in Wales – including sofa surfers and rough sleepers – can still register, and can still vote.

Not only that – if you’ve been remanded in custody but not yet convicted of an offence, guess what? You can still register. Likewise, if you’re a patient in a mental hospital, you can register to vote.

Basically, as long as you can register some fixed landmark, which could be a park bench, you can be told which polling station you can actually go and vote at. This information will be on a polling card, sent by post to an address that you specify you can pick mail up from. If this is going to be a problem, you can just pick it up from the council – your support worker at the Wallich can provide more info about this.

This process of registering is easy. I know this because I had to register to vote after I recently changed address. To show you just how easy it is, we filmed this video at the Wallich hostel and outside the Welsh Assembly building.

Registering to vote takes a few minutes online (here’s the website) and if you don’t have a fixed address, there’s a simple paper form to fill in. Rather than talk about it on this page, I’ll let the incredibly handsome guy in the video do the talking (the incredibly handsome guy in the video just happens to be me). Once you’ve registered, you will stay on the electoral roll until you change address or move to, say, sleep rough in another city.

You have until the 18th April to register in time to have your say at the Welsh Assembly elections.

Register to vote so you can make your voice heard alongside the other homeless people in Wales when it comes to the important issues affecting all of us today.

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