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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.