Homeless on Southend cliffs

I have just re-read the two page Southend Echo (8/7) spread titled “Investigation into what has made those with nowhere else to live, take to the town’s beaches and countryside for shelter”, having first time round felt some irritation that we have let this happen, moved people on even when they had nowhere better to go and are not providing sensible solutions despite claims to the contrary. The two sub-titles – “Council may be forced to move rough sleepers” and “Homeless people are living on cliffs in Southend” are both apt. The Echo rarely gets it entirely right but this time is to be congratulated on its reporting, which is informative, comprehensive and balanced, following its “Homeless on sea” reports the previous week.

So where do I go from here? The report is self-explanatory and succeeds in offering various perspectives and cites several examples of the stories of folk caught up in what most would agree as being a far from satisfactory situation. As one letter writer wrote in response to last week’s story, what do we expect when there is an operation to move people away from the town centre? By sleeping in tents, folk can get some quality sleep and, provided sensible precautions are taken, do so in relative safety (although that is a moot point). While our Council does more than most when it comes to helping rough sleepers, it still doesn’t do enough. To move people on when they have nowhere better to go is unacceptable and irresponsible because it pushes the problem somewhere else, which is symptomatic of a sick society, and to claim these folk are being offered adequate help in effect amounts to being economical with the truth.

For those who care to trawl through my several homeless blog postings over the past 18 months, ought to pick up that each situation is different and often complex and unintended, and even when people are willing to engage and do not have issues (like alcohol and drug abuse, mental health and anti-social tendencies), sadly a minority, they still cannot find accommodation because there is a shortage and landlords and who can afford to be picky, and adopt an approach of reducing risk, including imposing deposits, guarantors (and agent fees) etc., even when the homeless person can pay the rent, often as a result of being in receipt of benefits etc., and are as likely to be a responsible tenant as anyone else. I have spoken to a number who do sleep on the cliffs or beach and I have little doubt they do so not by choice, despite the sterling work being done by the “official” funded services: HARP, Family Mosaic and St. Mungos etc. and the practical and compassionate services provided by less official, volunteer led services: Storehouse, 57 West, Warrior Square Soup Kitchen and Street Spirit etc.

One of the stories picked up in the Echo report concerns a Lithuanian couple I know quite well. Putting aside the issue of European immigration (and this from one who has in the past supported UKIP) they do have the right to stay, are restricted regarding receipt of benefits, and do work and engage with services if they can. Yet they are homeless and sleeping in a tent on a cliff. I have no doubt that similar deserving cases can be found if people cared to find out, despite not having the big picture. That couple happened to be regular visitors to the Church night shelters during the worst four winter months. It beggars belief that people think by withdrawing that provision for the remaining eight months, twenty bed spaces will miraculously appear. This is on top of the number who don’t engage or have issues, which the shelters can’t handle.

The Echo, as is its custom, signed off with a question to its readers, “what do you think?” I think the report is a good and timely one, albeit disturbing. I don’t think ignoring the problems identified is a good thing, both on humanitarian and economic grounds. I do think it is all our problem and one we should all be prepared to own as part of our being members of the human race. I do think (I know) there are a lot of folk out there helping the homeless for free and this on top of those who are paid to do so, and their goodwill somehow needs to be harnessed and, if at all possible, we get to sing from the same hymn sheet. One of these put forward a “wacky” idea of why not use the waste ground at the far east of Southchurch Park as being perhaps a more appropriate site to pitch a tent, especially if the aim is not to spoil the town’s image for visitors and placate residents. I checked this out today and thought that notwithstanding a raft of practical issues to consider, not least those to do with the anti-social lifestyles of some of the rough sleepers, why not indeed!

The Echo ran another homeless related story in its 8/7 edition, although I should point out the link to the cliffs story is tenuous at best. It is about the murder of a man living in a church run house that helps homeless people who have troubled backgrounds. I happened to know this man. Like my Lithuanian friends, he also was a guest at the church winter night shelters. He was renowned for his courtesy and we played chess together. I am shocked and saddened. The point is the extent of the vulnerability of many of our rough sleeper friends and, while help is limited and more is needed, help is still there to be had. There is a need to act smartly, co-cooperatively and humbly, for the need is great. Realise too, there are cons, manipulators and energy drainers out there, as well as big egos, burnt out do-gooders and loose cannons. Yet there is a mission to be undertaken and I would invite folk to join in that mission.

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