Tackling the national crisis of rough sleeping and homelessness
Birmingham City Council’s ambassador for homelessness and tackling rough sleeping, Cllr Sharon Thompson, writes about rough sleeping
Last week’s news about the country’s latest figures for rough sleeping will have been no surprise to anyone. Visit any city these days and you will see people huddled in shop doorways, subways and flyovers. We know homelessness is on the increase and we know more and more people are sleeping rough too. We have a national crisis.
In Birmingham our annual snapshot for the government involved 50 staff, volunteers and local councillors from all parties one cold night in November. We worked through the night and across the city to count people sleeping rough and offer support. We worked through the night to make sure we were identifying rough sleepers and not the many more desperate people who gather to beg for food and money but who are not in fact rough sleepers.
Councils up and down the country did the same so that the government could get a good picture of how cities compared with each other and with themselves a year earlier. Nationally this snapshot showed there had been a 16% increase on the previous year. Locally the figure had increased from 36 in November 2015 to 55 in November 2016, a substantial jump but a figure that was still below the national average of 0.18 rough sleepers per thousand people. A useful snap shot, but just a snapshot.
Our outreach workers know where rough sleepers are and the figures were not a surprise. They know that since the count the festive period will have seen many more people out on the streets.
The rise in homelessness is partly down to austerity and the chronic shortage of housing in this country. In Birmingham, the council run Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust is the biggest house builder in the Midlands. BUT, even with the biggest house builder we still have a huge waiting list for social housing in the city and many landlords charge exorbitant rents for rooms such is the pressure.
Public sector cuts across the board are also a factor. Pressures on our health services, particularly mental health and addiction programmes, mean people aren’t always getting the help that they need. And cuts in benefits have added to financial pressures. Too often things spiral out of control before people can get the help that they need.
So who becomes homeless? And of those thousands that are homeless, who sleeps rough and why?
Everybody’s story is different but many are the same. Family break up. Addiction to alcohol or drugs. Unemployment. No money. Mental health problems. Ex-offender. Escaping domestic abuse. No home.
During one of the TV interviews I gave last week, the reporter said – “55 rough sleepers. That’s not much for a city this size. Can’t you find space for them all?”
I wish it was that simple. The truth is that we have enough space for all our rough sleepers and our daily outreach staff work hard to encourage them to use both our accommodation and our specialist services.
We have hostel beds, a drop-in welfare service and drop-in food service. We have additional cold weather provision and specialist health services. Our outreach staff work with voluntary groups, the police and business wardens across the city to break down barriers and encourage rough sleepers to take up our beds and services. But 44% of our rough sleepers have mental health problems and 74% of our rough sleepers have substance addictions, so it’s not just a question of a bed and some food. It’s a big commitment for someone already living a chaotic life on the streets to join a programme to help their addiction.
Some people take up an offer of support straight away. Others need many months of conversations and cups of tea to build up enough trust to take the first step away from what has become their home and their community. And the longer people sleep rough, the harder it often becomes. What starts off as unbearable can too often become a way of life.
That’s why I’m pleased we’ve received a £400k new rough sleeper’s grant with our partners in Solihull which will help us to assess and support people in those first days of sleeping rough and why I welcomed the £1.7m homelessness prevention trailblazer grant which we can use to address some of the reasons why people become homeless in the first place.
It’s also why the budget proposals to save £10m from the supporting people budget of £24m over the next two years will still mean that £6m is set aside for homelessness in 2017/18.
But as well as safeguarding budgets and applying for new grants, we also need to listen to rough sleepers and recognise when there are barriers and what we can do to adapt our services to make it easier for people to accept them.
With increasing numbers of rough sleeper couples, we’ve started to provide couple spaces since November.
We’ve also known for some time that many rough sleepers have dog companions. Unfortunately, with the exception of one hostel in the city, most places have found it difficult to accommodate dogs and faced with a choice of abandoning their friend or getting a bed, many rough sleepers have understandably opted to stay on the streets. In October that changed. I am really pleased to say that one of our providers has been able to provide space for rough sleepers and their dogs, and that it has gone so well they are going to expand their dog spaces. That’s a real breakthrough and shows that we are listening to rough sleepers in the same way that we should listen to all our citizens.
Councillors across all parties have also been running special advice bureaux for homeless people across the city. This is also a real step forward and will ensure we talk to people who are too easily ignored and disenfranchised.
So what’s next? We will do our own count again in the Spring and we will keep talking with the voluntary groups and the service providers we commission to find out what is changing and what is needed. We will also keep listening to rough sleepers.
I’d also like you to do these three things –
- If you see someone sleeping rough, contact Streetlink 0300 500 0914 / http://www.streetlink.org.uk/ @Tell_StreetLink who will contact our team with full details so that specialist outreach workers can assess and offer support
- Give money to registered charities rather than to people direct
- Contact me if you have any ideas and suggestions