One of the stories in today’s Southend Echo is titled: “Southend is being swamped by rough sleepers from other boroughs” and begins: “SOUTHEND is being swamped by rough sleepers from other parts of Essex because they receive so much help from the borough’s charities, a councillor has revealed. While we have large numbers of residents willing to give help to those in need, some neighbouring councils are said to be taking advantage of this generosity and fuelling a growing problem for the town”. The article continues by quoting two local councilors, who articulate some of the problems that have resulted from this influx.
My point now is not to argue with the councilors, who in fairness make some fair points, including to do with the added pressure on already stretched services, but rather expand on what I told the reporter when she contacted me inviting me to give an opinion. There has been a reoccurring theme that when homelessness arises on one’s doorstep it is deemed a problem, which to some extent it is. Instead of tackling the root cause of the problem, the tendency is to push it onto someone else to deal with, who often do the same thing, leaving me and my “do-gooder” friends picking up the pieces. I should add: while “swamp” is an exaggeration, Southend’s rough sleeper population has noticeably increased of late.
Strangely enough, yesterday I met with my SHAN colleagues (see here) to discuss homeless matters in the town, and among the many fruitful conversations that took place, two obliquely related to this story and what I want to say now. One is about a block of flats in the town being infiltrated by rough sleepers (mainly in order to escape from the cold). Unfortunately, among those who do so are anti-social types and some of the residents are distressed. It seems that none of the people who one might expect to take action are doing so and this was conveyed to me by a resident who I know is more sympathetic to the plight of rough sleepers than most. When I shared this, we agreed even if we did manage to get someone to take responsibility and clear the problem from this particular block of flats, those who are thrown out would likely do something similar elsewhere and we end up shifting the problem to just down the road.
My second conversation is about a petition that is making its rounds on social media, calling upon the Council to make available empty buildings to take in rough sleepers from off the street. I understand the petition has more than 10,000 signatures and will soon be presented to the Council, although I am doubtful if they will do much and, at the risk of upsetting those promoting the petition, I recognize there may not be much that can do. But along with all of us from the top down they can always do more. For example, the letter I help to draft on behalf of 70 community leaders, sent to the Leader of the Council and the previous CEO (see here) in January, expressing concern despite night shelter provision many rough sleepers are still consigned to the streets, and urging action around youth homelessness, has not yet received a satisfactory response.
There is a certain irony in this whole affair. It has long been recognized that Southend is a dumping ground for the homeless by other authorities unwilling to deal with the problems arising when residents become homeless. If there is a criticism of Southend Council, it might be said by way of trying to get balance, they must be doing something right, otherwise other Councils, as wrong as that may be, do send their rough sleepers to Southend. I have sometimes criticized the Council in the past for not doing enough but in reality they do a lot more than most. The success of the Church Winter Night Shelter program, soon to resume, is in part due to Council support. When it comes to giving rough sleepers a hard time and not cooperating with charities trying to help, as some authorities do, they are probably a lot better than many, and being involved in the activities I am e.g. soup kitchens I know from personal experience this to be true. It should be further added that there are a number of matters over which the Council have little control that have a bearing on homelessness: a lack of suitable accommodation, a lack of support services e.g. re. mental health and a broken welfare system in operation, to name but three. This brings me to the VCS.
VCS = Voluntary and Community Sector with a significant part played by Christian led groups. Its considerable contribution to helping the homeless activities both creates a problem and provides a (partial at least) solution. Because there is so much “out there” that is designed to benefit homeless folk, Southend becomes a victim of its own success and authorities that are less blessed are more inclined to send people to Southend and as a result of information passed among the rough sleeper grapevine some will come to Southend on their own volition. The solution is the VCS can feed, clothe, support, show compassion (but sadly and usually do not accommodate) and that is often appreciated by those who are beneficiaries. It would be wrong to NOT provide these services in order to deter rough sleepers from Southend. Our duty is to show compassion whenever the opportunity arises, even if sometimes it means reading some the riot act and exclude those who pose a risk or act unsocially. Some rough sleepers have no local connection etc. is an irrelevance; for they are our brothers who are in need!