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Homelessness: We need more national action to tackle this growing crisis

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.

Cold weather provision for rough sleepers in Birmingham

Cllr Sharon Thompson, Birmingham City Council’s ambassador for addressing rough sleeping and homelessness, outlines the measures in place to support rough sleepers in the freezing cold weather.

Since the end of November our cold weather provision has been in place and will remain in place until the weather improves.

We also have a Severe Weather Emergency Provision (SWEP) protocol, which is initiated in Birmingham whenever there is a yellow weather warning in place, or whenever temperatures have a real feel of zero degrees or below. The criteria for initiating the provision in Birmingham go beyond the Homeless Link guidance, as we base our activities on actual temperatures.

SWEP opens up rest rooms across our supported hostels.  It is particularly aimed at the most hard to reach rough sleepers to prevent them from being out in the most severe weather.  It provides a hot meal and breakfast and an opportunity to try and engage with those accessing the provision.

Access to SWEP is co-ordinated by Midland Heart, who deliver our commissioned outreach service.  This service is known as HOST (Homeless Outreach Service Team).

The SWEP can be accessed in the following ways:

1. Via the HOST – anyone can refer individuals to this service by:

  • Phone 07483 981912
  • Website: .You can use this website to send an alert to HOST about a rough sleeper.  The first time you use this website you will need to create an account.  This takes approximately 30 seconds and it is easy to use. 

2. Via Salvation Army – this service operates as an out of hours service for HOST.  It is only to be used outside of the core hours for HOST listed above.  Anyone can refer individuals to this service by phoning 0121 236 6554.  Please note that the Salvation Army operate a limited service and will signpost individuals to accommodation rather than outreach.  They will base their decision on accommodation based on current availability; location of the rough sleeper and their known risk factors.  This may involve referring them to Birmingham City Council Temporary Accommodation.

3. Via SIFA Fireside, 48 Alcock Street, Birmingham, B9 4DY – this is accessed by individuals by attending the centre and during its opening hours.

4. Via attending at the hostel – individuals can attend the accommodation providers commissioned by Birmingham City Council and request accommodation.  However, this may be subject to spaces still being available and rough sleepers may be sent to alternative providers, if already full.

In addition to the above, there are a number of voluntary providers who deliver overnight shelter provision, for example, As Suffa and the Church Night Shelter.  Midland Heart will link in with them as appropriate.

There will also be an annual Christmas Shelter, which will be open from 23rd -27th December run from St George’s Hub, Great Hampton Row.