In the course of my nearly two years as a blogger, I have returned to the subject of homelessness many times, and am reluctant to repeat what I have written even though much of it is relevant and also relates to what I am going to discuss here – the need for a coordinated homeless prevention strategy.
Nearly ten years ago, I was beginning to discover, along with others, for example when we went out as Street Pastors, that there were a number of homeless people, typically single folk, who we got to meet that were not getting the help they needed. Typically, such folk would turn up at the Council and be signposted to non-existent services and because of a lack of resource and money the Council did little more, focusing their efforts on those they had a statutory duty to house. The local homeless hostel run by HARP did provide some help but it was limited and often overnight accommodation was full. Some of the homeless people did not engage with the services that were available and this was not helped given the mental health and addiction issues many were experiencing. At the time the Council was considering closing some of their own homeless hostels and while no doubt there were reasons for doing so, from our perspective this did not make sense given people needed accommodation as opposed to having to survive on the street. At that time the Council was looking to produce its own homeless prevention strategy and was inviting any who could usefully contribute to do so. This included me and I did so and have sought to engage with the Council ever since. It also marked the beginning of an organization: Southend Homeless Action Network (SHAN) which I happen to chair, and from that point onwards trying to address the needs of homeless people became a major part of my own community activism.
Given that it is likely that we have more homeless people now than we did when the Strategy was produced (some eight years ago), it looks as if the strategy failed to achieve what was intended. While a skeptic like me might be expected to say that and pour scorn on an exercise that some would deem as a merely ticking the boxes to attract statutory funding, that is not be the case. The coming together exercise did at least identify many of the issues being faced and some of responses to addressing those issues achieved some success. It also got different agencies working together, which had its own benefits, for example that which brings together the Council, the main homeless service in the town (HARP) and the churches in making available a winter night shelter provision. We have also seen HARP grow in terms of the amount of temporary accommodation and other services that it is able to offer, and other agencies like Family Mosaic filling some of the gaps. Not least is the increase in the number of people who work voluntarily in trying to meet the needs of homeless people. This is evidenced by the number of soup kitchens and similar such operations that between them provide food for the homeless each day of the week. Yet the reality has to be faced that there are still more homeless people now than there were then and any claim that we can eliminate homelessness in the foreseeable future does not tally with the facts.
It should be borne in mind the problems the Council face in terms of meeting their statutory housing duties to the homeless are maybe unprecedented as the Government’s national welfare reforms and housing policies are starting to have an impact. The freezing of the Local Housing Allowance for the next 4 years will make it impossible for anyone on a low income or Housing Benefit to access affordable private rented accommodation in Southend. This coupled with a reduction in national support for affordable rented housing through the Planning system, a 1 % rent reduction for Registered Providers (including the Council) and having to potentially sell off high value Council assets is creating a perfect storm which the Council may well have not seen the like before. One is left wondering how these pressures are going to be resolved in the coming years and shows the need for radical new approaches if the Council are going to be able to meet its statutory homeless responsibilities and the large cohort of those concerned over the plight of the homeless are going to have a meaningful impact. What is just as alarming is that many homeless people, especially single people without identifiable care needs or who are not willing or able to engage with the statutory services, may not come under the umbrella of the statutory homeless and yet as those who engage with them can testify are every bit as needy. Moreover, many of the services that are needed, e.g. mental health and dual diagnosis, do not exist. Then to cap it all, there is a dearth of suitable affordable accommodation and support for those who need it when they have been accommodated.
My own helping the homeless credentials, besides chairing SHAN, is that I current chair one of the soup kitchen operations – Street Spirit, manage one of the church winter night shelters (CWNS) and get involved with and support other operations that seek to make a difference. I say this not to blow my own trumpet, for I have seen many going that extra mile and making considerable sacrifices in order to help homeless people, more than I. It does seem to me to cry out for more collaborative working involving the different interested parties, even if only on a need to know basis, although human nature being as it is, there have been regrettable conflicts between different parties seeking to help, a tendency to criticize others working in the field without be cognizant of all the relevant facts and good deal of naivety as to what needs to happen. Sometimes there have been break downs in communication and this is not helped when data protection considerations have to be applied. One practical need is to better coordinate the good intentions of the public when it comes to donating food, clothes and other essential items so homeless people can derive the most benefit. While the Council and police have unenviable jobs moving rough sleepers on from certain places (especially if acting unsocially) it begs the question where these people are to go and the claim they have been offered something suitable is often disputable, even though sadly such is the mental state or attitude of some rough sleepers that even if a reasonable offer appears to have been made they do not always avail themselves of what is on offer.
As I say, I have no magic solution or easy answer but my experience of life is that we first need to identify where we are, however unpalatable may be the truth is when it hits us, and then we need to decide where we want to be followed by a realistic action plan on how to get there. That I believe should be the key criteria in formulating any homeless prevention strategy and linked to this how we help people that are homeless to be housed. Given that those I work with in helping the homeless are unaware such a strategy exists (probably because it doesn’t) and they want to work smarter and with clear goals then this is the time for statutory and voluntary agencies to come together and produce one we can all buy into.