Mediation has a place in the fight against scourge of homelessness

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It’s 50 years since Ken Loach’s hard-hitting drama about a homeless couple, Cathy Come Home, aired on British television. There have been many attempts to reduce homelessness since then but perhaps now, more than ever, it is an issue for which a range of approaches are needed.

There are several initiatives in which mediation and the skills of mediation are being used as part of approaches to tackle homelessness and last week in Glasgow I came across another, at the Community Mediators Network meeting.

Graham Boyack, Scottish Mediation

Graham Boyack, Scottish Mediation

Community Mediation is most often associated with helping to resolve neighbour disputes, whether it’s about noise, parking or, sometimes, the height of a hedge. To think only in those terms, however, would lead to a lack of appreciation of the great variety of work that community mediators undertake and the positive outcomes they create.

Our hosts, the mediators who work for Community Safety Glasgow, are housed in a modern building where they can easily meet and collaborate with other services in a way which allows the skills of the mediators to be used outside of a formal mediation process. It can include work with the local police service, with the mediators helping to resolve disputes that might otherwise have ended up in court, with the root causes and relationship issues addressed.

But that was something I already knew about – what I hadn’t known was relayed in a presentation by mediators seeking to prevent homelessness who are embedded in the social work teams across the city. The idea is that the mediators can see people early on, so perhaps get to the root of problems more quickly, letting them facilitate conversations with those seeking help and the agencies they are involved with.

We were given case studies showing where and how mediation had been used and the mediators involved could talk about both the successes and challenges involved.

One involved a son whose behaviour due to his alcohol issues had led to him becoming homeless. The mediator was able to broker a conversation which resulted in the man being able to return to the family home with an agreement about alcohol use that meant he didn’t drink in the house or come home under the influence. In different circumstances the son may have ended up remaining homeless, facing the problems that would present.

In another case a young man was sleeping rough. Through a conversation with the mediator, a gambling addiction and debt came to light. Eventually, a very difficult conversation with his family took place which led to him returning home. Had that not happened he may have dropped out of college and remained on the streets, with the great personal cost that would involve.

So why has this been working? One of the reasons has been that the mediators have been regarded as independent of the council and the confidentiality of their meetings has allowed people to open up in a way which otherwise might not happen. The activity of the mediators has allowed conversations to take place with families that may not have been possible otherwise.

The key reason for success has been that the mediators are at hand when cases come in and have been able to build trust with colleagues about their work. Critically, success has been apparent when early referral has been made to the mediators.

In terms of gauging success, the mediators have come up with some simple measures. They are: clients remaining at home, clients returning home, clients moving out in a safe and planned way and clients regaining meaningful positive contact.

This hasn’t all been easy as to both colleagues and the homeless, mediation is not universally understood and neither is its potential as a positive intervention. One of the ways of helping people to understand has been the circulation of case studies to casework teams, and partnership working with other agencies.

So, what next? As the service is still young, promotion of the service remains a priority. To take this forward the mediators are looking to gather evidence of the impact they are making, promoting the success identified and adapting their practice to client needs.

Whilst there is a need to tackle some of the big-ticket issues such as housing stock and affordable rents if the issues portrayed by Cathy Come Home are to be tackled, it’s also clear that using mediation and the skills of mediation have a vital role to play.

Graham Boyack, Director, Scottish Mediation