Social Bite sleep-out does good – but we need systemic change

The National, by Mike Small 

09.11.18

The model of a mass sleep-out promises “four cities, one night, 12,000 people under the stars”. What’s not to like?

The project has a tremendous amount of goodwill, and it’s difficult to question its mixture of ambition, innovation and drive for social justice. I wouldn’t doubt anyone’s integrity or good intention from within the organisation, nor would I doubt that they have done a tremendous amount of good in their time.

But the project does raise some serious questions about social enterprise and social policy in Scotland that need addressed.

Despite the very many positives about the Social Bite original concept – give people an opportunity for food, training and employment, and highlight homelessness whilst increasing solidarity – the project now seems to be suffering from over-reach.

The sleep-out projects seem mired in celebrity culture, confusing political solidarity with a pop festival and blurring the lines between having a good time and addressing serious social crisis.

What many people are concluding is that we don’t need a bedtime story, a pop star, or John Cleese, we need a public housing programme.

Not “affordable housing”, not “mid market rents”, but a proper, solid housing policy, and this needs to be with real jobs with real pay.

Further to that we need urgently to regulate and reform the private rental market which is dangerously and recklessly out of control, so that a minority of people who already own their own homes, own other property which they rent out at exorbitant rates.

This is a national scandal and a disgrace. And it is a scandal and a disgrace that affects overwhelmingly the younger generation.

Homelessness and the wider housing crisis are part of a continuum and along that continuum lies economic precarity, uncertainty and low-pay. It can’t be fixed overnight and it can’t be fixed with a sleep-out.

The system inoculates itself against change, and this is why the system adores Social Bite.

What we need is systemic change, not more celebrity culture. While George Clooney and Leonard Di Caprio are great for raising the profile of Social Bite, it does seem that the enterprise inevitably gets into a game where soft media coverage is a metric of success, rather than dealing with hard, intractable social realities.

Some people are making a lot of money off the housing market – and this is the uncomfortable reality that needs to be confronted.

If the showbiz culture and obsession with media profile sits uncomfortably with efforts to sort the housing and homeless crisis, so too does the idea of a campaign that gives a platform for companies to virtue signal their CEO’s benevolence.

Social Bite’s corporate supporters pages feature Shell, Hilton, Barclays, Gleneagles, Marriott and RBS among the others jostling for attention. No doubt well intentioned, the top managers are encouraged to vie against each other in a Fundraiser League Table.

The companies are given various incentives to raise funds. These include: “Social Bite Co-Founder to come into your office/workplace to say thank you to staff and also to give a personal tour of the Social Bite Village”; special VIP seats and hampers; or even, extraordinarily, “a house named after them or someone of their choice in the Social Bite Village”.

How would that feel if you are long term homeless but you’re soon to be put up in a wooden house with the Hilton logo on it?

This feels bizarre and distasteful and vaguely dystopian, confusing endemic social crisis with marketing opportunity and human solidarity with entertainment.

If the managers and staff of big corporations want to feel better about themselves or find some salve to their existential crisis, maybe they should just leave and get a job doing something useful?

The secondary issue here is how we need media champions and how social enterprise becomes obsessed with a handful of figures.

The model that then gets held up, to be copied and celebrated, is one of glory-leaders.

This cult of the personality feeds the idea that our serious socio-ecological crisis can be solved just by Great Individuals. For food, we bring on Jamie Oliver, a TV chef. For starvation we bring on Bono. David Attenborough has plastics covered because we all watched it on the Blue Planet.

It’s a form of infantilism.

It’s not anyone’s fault that we are in this situation but we need to be alive to the deeper issues here.

Homelessness will not be solved by just raising money from private donors any more than we can fix the NHS or under-funded schools by a jumble sale.

There are lots of positive things about Social Bite, such as the way it has raised the profile of the homelessness crisis, and the way it created a new model in its cafes for work and training.

But some of it smacks of a throwback to an old era of philanthropy.

Josh Littlejohn’s idealism and ambition are admirable, so too is his dynamism. But there is a feeling that once someone is in the spotlight they are untouchable, and each idea they have is a miracle.

The cult of personality morphs gently into celebrity culture. One interview compared Littlejohn spiritually and physically to Che Guevara.

Questions about the viability and strategy of the Social Bite Village abound. Is it not going to create a ghetto of people with a range of personal problems … and do we really want to be isolating people rather than integrating them into society? Are tiny wooden houses a clever innovation or a gimmick?

How does any of this get to the root of the housing and homeless crisis?

Maybe these doubts are unfounded and the world of corporate social responsibility will unlock enough resources to solve homelessness forever.

I really hope so, but that company logo just doesn’t seem right.