Category Archives: Guest Blogs

Tackling the national crisis of rough sleeping and homelessness

Cllr Sharon ThompsonBirmingham 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 /   @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

We’ve recovered but there’s more to be done across the city

Leader of the Council Cllr John Clancy and Chief Exceutive Mark Rogers answer a question posed by the BBC asked earlier this week

Has Birmingham recovered from the 2008 recession?

The short answer is yes we have, but there is much more to be done to make sure an economic boom based largely on the city centre is replicated in inner city areas and suburbs, spreading out wealth and opportunities to all citizens.

The transformation of the central core is stunning, but a greater challenge is rebalancing growth across the entire city, and making sure that growth is inclusive and brings benefits to all. That means a 40-ward economic growth strategy, not a one ward strategy.

Take a stroll around our fast-changing city and you can’t fail to notice cranes on the skyline and scenes of unprecedented activity as we galvanise plans to create jobs and homes.

Work is racing ahead on the huge Paradise scheme, a £500 million project to transform Birmingham’s historic civic heart, creating quality offices, a four-star hotel and, crucially, providing 12,000 new jobs.

Metro trams are at last running through the city centre, linking Snow Hill to New Street Station, delivering an estimated 3.5 million passengers from the Black Country into the heart of Birmingham’s shopping district. And funding is in place for further extensions to run trams to Centenary Square and Five Ways, and eventually eastwards to Birmingham Airport and the NEC.

Other development schemes are coming on at pace including transforming the vast area between the Bullring and Digbeth’s wholesale markets – the £500 million Birmingham Smithfield plan. This will be one of the largest urban regeneration schemes in Europe and promises to deliver an exciting sustainable space with 2,000 homes.

Underpinning all of this activity is an economic game changer of unparalleled significance – the arrival of HS2 in 2026, which will position Birmingham city centre and Birmingham Airport as a gateway to both the UK and European high-speed rail network.

We are, of course, not simply sitting back complacently and waiting for the day high speed trains pull into Curzon Street. Almost £1 billion of investment is being committed to redevelop a part of Birmingham that is set to be transformed by the arrival of HS2 in the city.

We’ve published the Curzon Investment Plan, an ambitious 30 year strategy to unlock and regenerate 141 hectares of land around the HS2 station, which will create 36,000 jobs, 4,000 new homes, and unlock more than half a million square metres of commercial floor space by connecting the east side of Birmingham to the rest of the city and beyond.

Don’t take our word for it: Birmingham is getting better, and we’ve got the proof.

To start with, we’re by far the most popular destination for people moving out of London. More than 6,000 people left the Capital last year to begin a new life here.

The Greater Birmingham area is becoming a magnet for foreign firms to relocate. There were 81 Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) projects last year, bringing jobs and creating wealth – the best record of any of the English Local Enterprise Partnerships.

With an economy worth £23.2 billion Birmingham’s workplace based Gross Value Added is the highest of any city outside London. With 13.5 per cent growth rate since 2011 it is also one of the fastest growing core city economies in the UK.

Birmingham, the city of a thousand trades in Victoria times, is maintaining that tradition of entrepreneurship and the cradle of small businesses. Some 20,200 new firms were registered here during 2015 – more than any other city outside London.

With a quality of life ranked as the highest of any UK city outside of London, it is little wonder that tourists want to spend time in Birmingham enjoying a vibrant arts and culture scene as well as the best shopping experience outside of the Capital.

So, all of the elements are in place to grow a better Birmingham, for everyone.

And as the city’s population grows we know we must make sure decent jobs are available close to the new homes we have to build. Birmingham must become a place where we grow a large number of vibrant satellite areas of industry and business activity.

The city centre is already a world beater. The challenge, which we will meet, is to make sure the rest of the city reaps the rewards.

Making Birmingham THE skills city

Councillor Brett O’Reilly, cabinet member for jobs and skills, talks about how we can all Step Forward to improve skills in the city.       Brett OReilly waist up 1                              

Skills levels in the Birmingham city region will have a major impact on future economic growth and we are facing a significant challenge to increase skills levels of those both in and out of work, not just to provide economic growth, but to pursue inclusive growth, that reaches out all citizens in all parts of our city, and ensuring that nobody is left behind.

The figures are stark and make uncomfortable reading. Nine per cent of Birmingham residents have no qualifications, compared to a core city average of five per cent. Just 57 per cent of Birmingham residents are qualified to level 3+ (A and AS level and equivilent) compared to 62 per cent for core cities.

So in order to mirror the core cities average we will need to ensure 11,000 of our working residents gain qualifications; get over 21,000 more employed residents qualified at level 3+; and nearly 14,000 more employed residents qualified at level 4+ (from HNC and equivalent).

But behind these statistics lies the story of what we are already doing as a city to improve things – and I deliberately say ‘city’ rather than ‘city council’, as we can only do this together. Other than in schools and adult education, the local authority is not a direct provider, so we need everyone who delivers or invests in skills and training to invest in a shared city-wide vision.

Despite significant cuts, there is still a significant amount of money spent on skills in the city but it needs to be spent intelligently. Our Skills Investment Plan sets out a vision and aspiration, looking to create 70,000 new jobs by 2020, having an employment rate of 67 per cent and a reduction of 15,000 people claiming welfare benefits.

There are a number of initiatives that will drive this forward, including the Birmingham Jobs Fund and the Youth Promise Plus, and today I have been at a careers event talking about Step Forward, which is an initiative that will promote the benefits of skills development for our workforce, both economically and socially.

Working in partnership with the public, private and third sectors, as well as the LEP, we will be campaigning directly with employers to encourage the upskilling of the workforce, co-ordinating support and guidance available so people can choose the right qualifications for the career paths they want to take; whether it is future proofing with transferable skills, or training for the emerging industries of the future, we are calling on everyone to Step Forward and make Birmingham THE skills city.