In the first of these two postings on homeless solutions, I started to address the issue of how best we can help those people who are unable to access suitable accommodation and to identify what help is needed. My experience is based upon what is happening and what could and should happen in my own town of Southend. I suspect the situation in Southend is a microcosm of what is happening in similar such towns up and down the country. Maybe things are better here because of the help that is available. But then again, if things are better then this may attract more homeless folk, along with the fact Southend is a seaside town that is situated at the end of the line.
While I see my own contributions as being limited, I see my own part in the big picture as two-fold:
- Speaking on behalf of those without a voice and facilitating networks which help.
- Supporting where I can, engaging with homeless help and providing pastoral support.
It is regarding the first of these I wish to turn my attention, although a lot of what I have to say has already been said in my writings and previous blogs and to many with whom I have spoken. It is not my intention to criticize those who do help, despite being recently accused of doing so. Agencies like the local Council and the major homeless charities (in Southend, it is HARP) often do an excellent job under challenging circumstances, but there are unmet needs and these need to be addressed. When one truly sets about advocating on behalf of the disempowered, as many homeless people are, and while working with what is already out there, one also has to point out what is missing, what is needed and what could and should be done, coupled with a bloody minded determination and an in it for the long term attitude in order to do so.
The interventions I have been particularly concerned with have been mainly non-political. Besides stating the obvious, that in order to get the help that is needed one has to raise awareness among the public that there is a need in the first place and of the things that can and ought to be done, there is also the need to address the underlying cause of homelessness. As I have previously stated, there are many causes ranging from debt, maybe resulting in house repossession or landlord eviction if the property is rented (which I will look at in a future post), loss of a job, family breakdown (between spouses and also children and parents), addictions of various sorts but especially alcohol, unresolved mental health issues and an assortment of unfortunate circumstances that could beset any one of us. Sadly, some believe being homeless is the fault of the victim, who merely needs to get his/her act together to escape the problem. When it comes to ridding the streets of these “irritants”, some say round them up and put them into what equates to a concentration camp.
While there are lots of places to go that help the homeless, and I will return to this later, there is a lack of accommodation available, meaning people have to sleep rough, ranging from literally on the streets and finding whatever shelter from the elements that might be available, tents and cars, “friends” sofas etc. In Southend there is a heavy demand on social housing and the chances of single homeless people, without significantly identifiable community care needs, accessing this are virtually nil. The situation regarding the private sector is not much better, and that is the only real alternative.
Besides not enough housing stock, especially that which is adequately suitable, what is available is mostly outside the price range of homeless people, who are further disadvantaged by not having a rent deposit, the stigma of being homeless and issues that make it difficult for them to sustain a tenancy. When it comes to benefits, and many homeless people because of their situation are unable to draw an income from paid work, the stark reality is that even when available it may not be enough. Recent welfare reforms have meant a diminishing pot of money from which to pay benefits, and while there remains a case for welfare reform and reducing costs, often the people who bear the biggest brunt are the homeless. While there are things that politicians can do at a local level, e.g. build more houses and make empty buildings available for the homeless, some of this can only be properly dealt with nationally.
Locally, a lot has been done to bring different agencies together to find solutions, but a lot more is still needed, and there continues to be a need for “joined up” working and information sharing in order to meet individual needs. In particular, there is a need to engage with mental health services, given the high incident of mental health issues among rough sleepers. It is important that if there are unused buildings under Council control, consideration should be given to making these available for use by the homeless, although I can imagine all sorts of reasons not to. I don’t know the precise current situation regarding council hostels but these need to be used for the purposes intended, i.e. accommodating the homeless.
While allowing use of empty buildings may be resisted, there is a strong possibility that homeless people seeking shelter will occupy such anyway, and just maybe a compromise solution is needed. When two weeks ago some homeless folk were evicted from an underground Council car park, where they had been sleeping for the previous six weeks, on the basis of a complaint(s) of anti-social behavior, what shouldn’t be ignored is that some of those folk (I have found) are cooperative and considerate, and when they were evicted it was a matter for distress for them; they had nowhere to go and went back onto the streets searching for a new place to sleep.
As a far as the Council is concerned, and many in the public are aware, the main charity that deals with homeless people is HARP. While I come across many rough sleepers, and some that do not like or engage with HARP for various reasons, most do! Considering the need, what HARP does provide is considerable and makes that all important difference when it comes to surviving on the streets. This includes not just food, clothes, blankets and toiletries, but access to the Jobcentre and medical help, and practical things like showers and washing. Given the costs and the needs HARP would like to meet, support by way of giving and volunteer help will always be appreciated. There are many other organizations that do provide material help: Soup 4 Southend, Street Spirit, Storehouse, St. Andrews Open House and the Salvation Army, to name but five.
Mention should be made of the support needs of rough sleepers. While services do exist, such as Citizens Advice, Family Mosaic, SEEDAS, CRI, and there is a lot of help that is available, my experience is that there are many that need information, support and advice that don’t get what they need, begging the question how do we fill these gaps? Such is the nature of rough sleeping there are many who do not engage with the services that are available, and this is a barrier when it comes to them moving on. These and other helps that might be of interest to homeless folk are included in the rough sleeper leaflet, which is continually being updated. While it has yet to be firmed up, it is hoped the churches will run the Winter Night Shelter from November to March. Southend Homeless Action Network meet regularly to consider homeless issues and how these might be best address. Meetings take place bi-monthly, to which all with an interest are invited.
I don’t have all the answers, but I am convinced more can be done. I know many who do help, and many who help without recognition or remuneration, other than having the satisfaction of being able to help one of their fellow human beings. I invite any who read this, whether you are part of a statutory or a voluntary group, or just a concerned citizen, to consider what you can do to make a difference.