Rough Sleeping – You won’t SARA your way out of this problem

Rough Sleeping – You won’t SARA your way out of this problem


Rough sleeping

Rough Sleepers – you can’t SARA your way out of this complexity?

The complex challenges of homelessness and rough sleeping have so far been met by many cities through a mixture of services (including the police) ‘engaging’ with the victims of this social problem to provide support. For those who fail to ‘engage’ with this support a contentious model of enforcement based on Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) is being considered.

The use of and the problems associated with PSPOs is worthy of a separate blog. However, I can share what my contention , based on over a decade of experience in dealing with these and other types of complex social problems, will be – that traditional police and council approaches to tackle this kind of problem just don’t work – you won’t SARA your way out of this one.

That isn’t to say there isn’t another way forwards though. For those of you who follow me on Twitter you’ll have seen me tweet on how I’ve either been practicing or advocating others to follow methods of enabling teams, organisations and communities to be all they can be based on a model of Asset based Community Development (For more information go to ABCD Institute). One method of enabling change within ABCD is known as Appreciative Inquiry (AI) – a way of enabling change and problem solving that looks to what works and the future, not what is broken and in the past.

My journey to being an ‘AI Practitioner,’ started in 2006 with a realisation, in my role as a Neighbourhood Inspector, that we were trying to approach complex problems rooted deep within communities from the wrong direction. Back then (and still?) communities and the complex problems within them were viewed as ‘things’ that could be objectified and solved using concepts such as SARA.

SARA is a well-known problem-solving tool that has been advocated for police use by academics and the College of Policing (in its various incarnations) for decades. It outlines a process of problem solving that treats a problem as a ‘thing’ that a process can be applied to in an almost scientific way:

S – Scanning: where the problem is identified and described in specific way, which then leads to:

A – Analysis: where the root causes of the problem are identified and the strengths and weaknesses of possible solutions are identified, which then leads to:

R – Response: where the best solution (s) are implemented in a SMART action plan (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time Based), which then finally leads to:

A – Assessment: where the process is evaluated to ensure it meets its original aims, as well as to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the response.

While I’m not suggesting that this model shouldn’t be adopted for ‘simple’ problems such as burglary or vehicle crime, I am suggesting that applying it to complex problems rooted deep within communities such as homelessness and rough sleeping is doomed to failure (unless you’re operating in a culture where every force initiative or operation is, ’doomed to success’).

In my first year as a neighbourhood inspector I tried to apply the SARA model to an issue which involved 12 persistent rough sleepers who were causing daily problems in my town centre with their drug and alcohol fuelled anti social and criminal behaviour. We were trying to apply a linear model for problem solving to chaotic and complex lives (I’d describe them now as ‘Wicked Problems’ – the subject of another blog) with: enforcement; removing the benches they sat on during the day and making the areas they slept in at night less welcoming, being the popular responses.

After a series of ‘courageous conversations’ initiated by my officers, we decided to take a fresh approach, one adapted from an academic methodology to formative evaluation based on the theories of constructivism (see Fourth Generation Evaluation for more information). Instead of focusing and analysing what was ‘broken’ within this small community of individuals, we started conversations with them where our questions were about what was ‘right’ (or in FGE speak, their ‘claims’ ) within this group and the lives of its individuals.

What we went through is worthy of a separate blog, but to sum up our approach, it was based on: generating discussions with the individuals concerned where their past, their values, what they held dear to them and their relationships with others were explored.

What we discovered through this process was how we were dealing with men who had for a number of complex reasons had fallen from the centre of their community and families to the edge and beyond. For the most part they didn’t like what they had become and more than anything else they missed the relationships that had once made them whole.

We talked about what a more positive future would look and feel like and through months of relationship building we reached a point where (with the support of other professionals who were prepared to do some ethical rule breaking around drug and alcohol, mental health and housing policies) we were able to provide most of them with a fresh start.

Interestingly, the members of the community that initially favoured ASBOs and enforcement as an response option were now those who supported this fresh approach. So much so that they came forward with offers of physical (clothing, furniture, Christmas dinner!) and pastoral support (helping them into adult education and offering them a welcome place in their community). Was there something here about the values espoused by all involved in this process being congruent with the values that community and the individuals within it aspired to?

Although at the time we didn’t know it, what we were doing was a form of Appreciative Inquiry, where instead of treating the individuals concerned as a problem that we could fix, we had adopted an approach where we recognised something positive that existed within the people concerned by asking questions that explored the best of what was, what is, and what could be in their lives. As for the connections we made within communities during this journey? I later found out that the process of catalysing and enabling connections with other members of the community also had a title, that of Asset Based Community Development.

As opposed to the SARA based problem solving model we inadvertently used the steps Cooperrider and Whitney (2005, p.13) describe as, ‘from problem solving to appreciative inquiry: 

  • Appreciating and valuing the best of what is
  •  Envisioning what might be
  • Dialoguing what should be’ 

Since then I’ve gone on to discover how Appreciative Inquiry can be built into other methods of problem solving and community engagement such as Asset Based Community Development. It’s also a powerful vehicle to enable organisations to develop – I recently facilitated a Community Safety Partnership’s Strategic Planning Conference using appreciative inquiry with some incredibly powerful results (I’ll blog more on this at a later date).

And in case you’re wondering what happened to the cohort of homeless individuals we were dealing with? Here’s their story:

The problem was solved and without having to embrace our old friend SARA!


Cooperrider and Whitney (2005) Appreciative Inquiry – A Positive Revolution in Change






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