Cllr Sharon Thompson, Birmingham City Council’s cabinet adviser for homelessness, outlines the measures being taken to tackle the homelessness crisis.
With unseasonably cold weather affecting much of Birmingham recently, increasing numbers of rough sleepers have been on the frontline facing the freezing temperatures.
Since 2010, rough sleeping has increased by 169% nationally and is a major issue in Birmingham. With challenging times ahead of us with the roll out of Universal Credit, the Homelessness Reduction Act and changes to supported housing, they also give us opportunities to make an impact on preventing homelessness and supporting vulnerable citizens.
We are inputting into national and regional initiatives to help shape the national picture to reflect the needs of Birmingham.
Encouragingly, 2017 figures are showing that these coordinated interventions made through partnership programmes and action taken by the Council are making an impact.
The work achieved by the Homelessness Partnership Board is one of the key reasons for this change. Established by the Council last year, with over 30 individuals from across different sectors, the board is responsible for implementing Birmingham’s newly approved Homelessness Prevention Strategy and driving a coordinated system of change for homelessness.
The Homelessness Prevention Strategy seeks to tackle and prevent homelessness at the earliest opportunity. Signed off by every cabinet member, it is recognised that homelessness is not just an issue for Housing and Health.
Homelessness in Birmingham is a priority and one which has seen the Council facing a big culture change in its approach. Part of this includes enacting the following projects that have been specifically created to help tackle the issue:
- A Corporate Directorate Board has been created to ensure the entire council considers and prioritises homelessness.
- We have established a multi-agency co located Street Intervention Team to respond to rough sleeping and associated activity.
- We have taken the lead on developing the regional bid for Housing First pilot in the West.
- The leader of the council, cabinet members for homes and housing, community safety and equalities and the ambassador for addressing homelessness, have all written to the Chancellor to raise concerns about the issues surrounding Universal Credit and housing allowances.
- In conjunction with West Midlands Combined Authority, we have launched, ‘Change into Action’, an alternative giving scheme which supports specialist charities and Street Link teams that work to change the circumstances of rough sleepers.
For the first time in four years, 2017 figures do not show a sharp increase in the number of rough sleepers. However, to begin the drive towards eliminating homelessness, it needs to remain a primary focus for us at the Council.
I look forward to the challenge of working with our fantastic partners, local groups and volunteers to ensure that all the schemes in place continue to progress to help drive the positive trend we’re seeing that will step-by-step help to eradicate the problem of homelessness in Birmingham.
Homeless people in Birmingham are just one click away from connecting with with local landlords thanks to a new website Homeless Rooms Birmingham .
Birmingham City Council is working with the creators of this new scheme in a pilot to help homeless people make the right move into long term accommodation.
The idea for Homeless Rooms Birmingham came from social entrepreneurs Mark Peters and Lee Blake. After speaking to prospective tenants (mostly young people) who were searching to find a place to live in the city, they found that the expensive deposits and high fees charged by some landlords and estate agents were putting accommodation way out of these young people’s reach.
On the Homeless Rooms Birmingham website, people can search for decent quality accommodation, offered by landlords who accept people as tenants without deposits, admin fees or high rents. There is also advice to help prevent a person from becoming homeless, or support a person to move on from a hostel.
Councillor Sharon Thompson, Ambassador for addressing rough sleeping and homelessness at Birmingham City Council, said: “Homeless Rooms Birmingham is an innovative way of helping homeless people make the move into long term accommodation. We are keen to see this scheme for increasing access to supported housing get off the ground, so we are match funding monies that they raise via their Crowdfunding campaign. “
Cllr Ian Ward, Leader of Birmingham City Council, added: “We’ve seen a dramatic rise in homelessness and rough sleeping across the country in recent years and Birmingham is no different. So we’re looking for creative ways to tackle this crisis and we work closely with partners to find solutions to support those at risk.
“Homeless Rooms Birmingham is the latest new initiative, following the recent launch of Change Into Action – an alternative giving scheme created in partnership with the Mayor for the West Midlands. We will also be introducing a Housing First pilot, to offer people entrenched in homelessness permanent homes and help them get their lives back on track. These are all part of our vision to eradicate homelessness in Birmingham.”
— LeaderofBirmingham (@BrumLeader) December 20, 2017
I spent some time with Birmingham’s Street Intervention Team earlier this week to learn more about the work they do and the challenges they face.
Established earlier this year, this multi-agency team is taking a co-ordinated approach to tackling rough sleeping – a growing national problem that a committee of MPs (the cross-party Public Accounts Committee) has labelled a ‘national crisis’.
As we saw with the tragic death of Paul Williams on our city streets last weekend, the rising number of people sleeping rough across the country are extremely vulnerable. Shockingly homeless people are more likely to die young, with an average age of death of just 47 years old.
In one of the richest economies in the world, that’s a disgraceful statistic and in far too many cases, street sleepers are the victims of austerity and huge cuts to public spending. The time has come for government action.
What struck me as I spent time with the Street Intervention Team was that varied nature of the work. I heard about help for people with addictions, the tracking of individuals across the city centre, the work undertaken to identify accommodation and the help offered to deal with mental health issues.
The team uses real-time data and information to deal with problems as quickly as possible and has established a real network of intelligence and co-ordinated support.
The most recent statistics available (for October) show that they moved 31 people into accommodation that month, encouraged 21 people to attend a substance misuse clinic and delivered 213 health interventions.
Behind those figures we find human and often very moving stories that underline the vital importance of work carried out by the team.
I heard about the woman who had been sleeping rough on and off for 10 years and had become increasingly worried about her safety on the streets. She also expressed concerns about being indoors and the team had to take a softly-softly approach, meeting her on a daily basis to gain her trust, find out what she wanted and help her to make that first step. She eventually moved into accommodation in early September and the team continued to work with her (at her own pace) coming up with an effective plan.
The team’s willingness to understand there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution is clearly key to working with and understanding the vulnerable people tragically sleeping on our streets.
The statistics above are heartbreaking and the people who make up those statistics have a right to dignity and compassion. No two cases will be exactly the same and the partners on the Street Intervention Team clearly understand that, tailoring their approach to suit individual needs.
Birmingham is not unique. Nationally the number of rough sleepers has soared from 1,768 to 4,134 since 2010. That’s a 134 per cent increase at a time when the safety net for the most vulnerable people has been significantly damaged by austerity-driven cuts.
And rough sleeping is just the very visible tip of the iceberg.
A damning report by the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed that there had been a 60 per cent rise in households in temporary accommodation over the last six years, affecting 120,540 children.
Government measures are believed to have exacerbated the problem, with the report stating that local housing allowance reforms are ‘likely to have contributed’.
Then of course we have the botched roll-out of Universal Credit that many fear will further exacerbate the problem. Various cabinet members and our ambassador for addressing rough sleeping and homelessness Cllr Sharon Thompson have written several urgent letters to the government in recent months warning the roll-out will put more people at risk of homelessness.
Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey perfectly summed-up the situation when he said: “This is a direct result of decisions made by Tory ministers… a drop in affordable homes, cuts to housing benefits and no help for renters.”
Now you might expect an opposition spokesman to make such a point, but reflecting on the growing crisis, the cross-party Public Accounts Committee report was also damning, labelling the government’s attitude to tackling homelessness as ‘unacceptably complacent’.
MP Meg Hillier, who chairs the committee said the Homelessness Reduction Act announced in October would ”no doubt help”, but that it cannot be successful unless it is matched by a renewed focus across government on tackling both the supply and affordability of decent housing.
In Birmingham we’ve built more homes since 2012 than any other council in Britain, while Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust is seen as a trailblazer for other local authorities.
But the extra homes needed for our growing population will not simply appear overnight, so in the meantime, the fantastic work carried out by the partner organisations of our Street Intervention Team is desperately needed.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t need the team; we wouldn’t need the growing army of compassionate volunteers who work tirelessly to help feed and clothe the homeless in England; we wouldn’t need the food banks that for many families are the difference between managing and going hungry.
Sadly all those interventions are absolutely essential in 2017 because too many people are being let down by a failing government, meaning local government and others must pick up the pieces.