Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
MacNaghten House as it is now - 'The Generator', a hi-tech bar and hotel for backpacking tourists.
MacNaghten House as it is now - 'The Generator', a hi-tech bar and hotel for backpacking tourists. Photo: Vanessa Jones.

ROUGH STREETS INITIATIVE 1

Much is talked about street homelessness; some flippant, some concerned. But, in real life, sleeping on the streets is a far more intense state of life than many realise (or would want to). This series of two articles takes a personal look at two street-level attempts to help out.

MacNaghten House

by Jerry Ham - manager of a hostel for the homeless in one of the rougher areas of London.

Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pp. 72-76.

MacNaghten House operated for 18 months as a hostel for 150 single homeless people in the heart of King’s Cross. Set up as part of the government’s Rough Sleeper’s Initiative it became the flagship of this initiative and also its strongest opponent. The project stirred deep emotions from all who were involved in it: from those who campaigned to prevent it opening to those who campaigned to prevent its closure, passions ran high and strong loyalties were created. For each and every person who was involved in the project there is an individual story to tell, a unique angle on an experience which affected over 900 people’s lives; as manager of the hostel my story is only one piece in a diverse and complicated jigsaw, but one which hopefully imparts some of the meaning and intensity of what I can only describe as the MacNaghten House Experience:

My motivation to run a hostel such as MacNaghten House grew out of a desire to work with people who were experiencing the harshest effects of homelessness in one of the most troubled areas of the capital city, King’s Cross. At the start of the 1990s the government had announced its plans for rough sleepers in an initiative which had the stated aim of ‘making it unnecessary to sleep rough on the streets of London’. To this end housing associations were encouraged to utilise government funds to bring existing empty buildings in to use as direct access hostels (those that offer beds to people straight from the street). From the beginning of this initiative it was known that money would be available only for a limited time period (between two and three years) but, by those associations who co-operated with the initiative, it was considered that doing something for a short time was better than doing nothing at all.

MacNaghten House was an impressive residential building purpose built to house 180 police officers in single rooms with full on-site facilities including a gymnasium, theatre stage and full-size snooker table. With a change in recruiting procedures it had become ‘surplus to requirements’ and was in danger of standing empty. Situated no more than 5 minutes walk from three main line stations, it was ideally placed to house those finding themselves homeless and destitute in London. That, at least, is how it was perceived by the powers that be in the DoE, the Metropolitan Police and the housing association for whom I was working at the time, managing another large hostel in the Victoria area.

In reality the issues surrounding the establishment of the hostel were far more complex: the building, large as it is, is nestled in the centre of privately rented flats owned by middle class and elderly tenants, all of whom felt comforted by the presence of 180 police officers and seriously threatened by the prospect of as many homeless people muling and puking in their backyards. Word of the project’s existence escaped to this community more than a year before its opening and a campaign to prevent its existence was embarked upon with zeal. Exacerbated by an abysmal (ie non-existent) public relations exercise the housing association responsible for the project soon found itself in deep water; public meetings, letters to Camden Council, the local press, M.P.’s and the housing association itself proved the organisational ability of an antagonistic local community and centred a tense spotlight on the project’s performance that was never to recede throughout its life.

A background of complex political manoeuvring and intense opposition was the legacy I adopted when I came in to the post as the project’s manager only 2 months before it was due to open. In a whirlwind of activity I attempted to establish the practical management base of the project - recruiting staff, setting policies, creating links with local agencies at the same time as trying to deal firmly and diplomatically with the grievances of the local community.

When the project opened on October 5 1992, local opinion had be assuaged to the degree that The Camden Chronicle ran the headline ‘New Hostel Wins Thumbs Up From Former Opponents’. The real work was now to begin with an intensity and momentum that was to keep over 50 members of staff at full stretch for the next year and a half. The ethos on which we ran the hostel was to house people from the street and give them the space and opportunity to stabilise their situation enough to make their own decisions about their future. To facilitate this the project offered support and guidance in a number of professional services such as alcohol and drug counselling, mental health, benefits and housing advice. Many of the 150 people housed had been leading extremely chaotic lifestyles and the in- house management of the project was essentially to prevent a seething cauldron of frustration, anger, confusion and despair from bubbling over into abandonment, violence or suicide.

In the early days of the hostel’s life the atmosphere was fraught and intimidating: staff were new and learning to deal with every crisis as it occurred; the resident group was unsettled and without loyalty to the project or each other and the force of opposition from outside lay like a coiled snake waiting to pounce at the merest opportunity. Within two weeks The Camden Chronicle ran the headline, ‘Junkie Dies On Town Hall Steps’ referring to the death of somebody who had been asked to leave the hostel for heroin use on the premises and died two days later on the steps of Camden Town Hall. On November 23, 1992, a month and a half after opening, a resident was found dead in her room, again from a morphine overdose. The worst fears of the local community appeared to be materialising: the resident group, working on the principle of everyone for themselves, were stripping the hostel of all it contained, the air was tense with danger and staff were exhausted, demoralised and frightened. On that day I went home emotionally drained and deeply worried. The pressure of the project’s troubled origin was like the urgency of a self-fulfilling prophecy demanding my valediction and I feared greatly for the lives of the residents and my staff; I was ready to cut the loss and close the operation before everybody’s worse nightmare came true.

Perhaps it was something no more extraordinary than the stubborn determination not to give in, the beleaguered hero’s fear of failure, or maybe it was something externally far more powerful than my own vain good intentions, but I became aware of a sense that this day would be a turning point and that if I could return to the project the next morning full of apparent confidence, energy and optimism for the future, that truly positive things could be gained from the chaos of our beginnings.

I have said that this is my story, and this is the way I like to tell it; from that day onwards events began to take a different course and slowly, slowly the hostel developed a community, an identity and a spirit which was to lead to some of the most courageous and truly remarkable expressions of life’s positive forces that I have had the honour to be a part of.

What was achieved between this time and the end of the project would be better told by the staff and residents who worked and lived in the project throughout this time; there is no adequate summary of the struggle for survival of so many souls, nothing that I could say that would do justice to the triumph and the despair.

Where I can return to my personal involvement in the hostel’s history is in the growth of a campaign that came to be known as the Resident’s Action Group (RAG). Conceived by somebody resident in another of the Rough Sleepers’ hostels, who later moved into MacNaghten House, the campaign focused the views and opinions of the resident group concerned by the fact that their current home was soon to be closing. Facilitated by CHAR (campaign for single homeless people) a core group of hostel residents organised a series of events which took their agenda to the public and to the government: regular meetings were held, voices were raised, parliament was lobbied and a march ending in Trafalgar Square coincided with the handing in of a petition to Downing Street. MacNaghten House became the campaign base for RAG although the efforts of the campaign members was to prevent any of the 1,200 bed-spaces opened under the Rough Sleepers’ Initiative from closing.

In some ways it all seems so straightforward to me now, the fact that RAG happened and spoke out for what it believed to be right. But the fact that it happened was not straightforward at all; here was a group of people used to being ignored by the system and without the usual expectations of their right to challenge the powers that govern us, and without easy access to the people behind these powers. At the time the campaign came into being no other hostel funded under the initiative was prepared to host the campaign and be openly critical of the government; the reaction against the idea of a group of residents speaking out for themselves was severe.

“Slowly the hostel developed a community, an identity and a spirit, which was to lead to some of the most courageous and truly remarkable expressions of life’s positive forces that I have had the honour to be a part of.”

To me the struggle to establish MacNaghten House as a safe and supportive home was worth more to the people who lived there than any temporarily funded, short-term housing policy; this experience had changed peoples’ lives. Paradoxically, I was also aware, perhaps more than anyone, of the overstretched commitment that staff were making to keep the project running and that its sustainability was questionable; although I wrestled with my conscience I for one knew that if the campaign was successful in achieving its ends and the hostel remained open, I would have to leave as my energy was all but spent.

The Residents Action Group didn’t achieve its objectives. MacNaghten House and many other hostels closed down between 1993 and the present day (one of the last closed only very recently), but the campaign was far from a failure. I argue this point regularly with the person who first dreamt RAG up, Harry Townsend. Harry (an ex-resident of MacNaghten House) and I are currently going round the country together conducting some research in to direct access hostels for CRISIS. We go in to existing hostels and day-centres and ask the client group their views and opinions of the environment in which they live. Harry is dismayed by the condition of peoples’ lives and the hopelessness of their situation, he is angry and frustrated because he knows how hard it is to make the government listen; when we see what we see, he thinks that RAG was all a waste of time. I know where Harry is coming from, but for myself I know that RAG was not a waste of time because it gave people self-respect and dignity and it gave people who are normally without a voice a chance to make their feelings known. I have seen what it achieved at MacNaghten House in giving people the opportunity to focus on something wider than the hell of their own lives; it created a spirit and an identity that lives on to this day.

It is a bit like Frankenstein’s monster; if you create it, don’t expect to control it. Through hostels like MacNaghten House the government awakened something in the people that they housed, a chance to be recognised and the right to self-expression. I saw MacNaghten House grow from chaos into a community and a community that mobilised itself to try and fight its creator. It is ironic that the community who fought to prevent the hostel opening, a middle-class ghetto with access to power, had nothing on the flair, the style and the sheer passion of the Residents Action Group. It is all a matter of time and perspective. The closure of the RSI hostels in central London has been a set back, over a year has gone by since MacNaghten House locked its doors and RAG was disbanded. The government is just about to announce the next phase of the RSI initiative and for the first time money will be spent outside the London area.

My argument with Harry is that the work of RAG should act as an inspiration to others, and in that way its benefits will not be lost. Time has moved on and for the people forced to live on the streets very little can be seen to have changed. But there is a pilot light burning on the back- burner somewhere and that pilot light is Harry’s anger, and the anger of others like him, who have been forced to experience the shame and indignation of being at the mercy of a system that doesn’t care; a government that opens hostels for short-term gain and then slams the door in the face of those it chose to house. That anger is the spirit of RAG and RAG is the spirit of a dispossessed people who have had enough of being pushed from pillar to post. I now value MacNaghten House as a symbol of that spirit and an example that Harry and I can use as we speak to people around the country of the positive seed that can be planted in somebody else’s dumping ground - whosoever’s backgarden it might happen to fall into.


Related Article
Rough Street Initiative 2 - two personal accounts of street-level attempts to help street homelessness - 2: Jim Carey on Artillery Mansions - Squall 11, Autumn 1995.