Sometimes one is presented with a complex situation where there is no clear, obvious way to resolve it, but as is often the case it is helpful to lay out what appears to be the main issues, realizing that these may not be the only ones and the need to differentiate fact from opinion. One also recognizes these can be emotive subjects and in writing I wish to throw light on the subject rather than create heat. Today one of these situations presented itself. This concerns some residences off Baxter Avenue in central Southend:
Alexandra Court – 20 flats plus two houses – general housing.
Elizabeth Tower – 60 flats – the first 3 floors of which are sheltered housing and are linked to Catherine Lodge.
Charlotte Mews – sheltered – believed around 21 flats.
Catherine Lodge – 60 flats – sheltered.
The Clusters – about 90 flats – general housing.
All the above were built by Springboard housing association in the 1980’s. My own observation from what I could see is these were well built properties in a pleasant landscaped setting and all part of thoughtfully designed estate. I understand that Springboard had a strong Christian ethos, and this was reflected in the way the estate was managed, which is in stark contrast to Genesis who later took over. I believe most residents nowadays are tenants of Genesis Housing Association, who have responsibility to maintain properties and charge a hefty service charge in order to do so. From what I can make out, there is a wide mix of residents, some elderly and frail; some having special needs and needing the support of carers; some with substance misuse and mental health needs, and these are too often not addressed as one might hope; but most are decent folk, simply wanting to live a quiet life in nice surroundings.
I understand there has been a long history of reports of anti-social behavior, sometimes caused by residents themselves who do so by becoming prey to the drug dealers and invite problematic guests in. One rather damming recent report is titled: Resident’s lives ‘reduced to survival.’ Regeneration in Southend? It relates to unresolved issues that have been ongoing for years. Then there is the proximity to where many of Southend’s homeless hang out and the buildings and nearby surrounding area have become a magnet for such people looking for a place to sleep. More recently, and as part of the town centre development plans, there have been moves to demolish these residencies (see here and here) and from what I can make out many are concerned what might replace them. The lack of planned social and low cost housing is also a concern.
The reason why I got involved is I have been asked for advice, given my knowledge of the town and its homeless scene, and some of the issues have been raised and discussed in the SHAN meetings I happen to chair. I went along to meet with some residents for a guided tour of the estate and for them to point out where the hot spots were and what were their concerns. It was a lot to take in but I was grateful to those who helped to raise my understanding and awareness of the issues that face residents, and also helping me gain further insights into homelessness and town centre regeneration.
I should deal with the homeless first as many I will know (for example they turn up at the soup kitchen I help in). Many are decent folk who are homeless as much due to circumstances where they have little control over and mean the residents no harm. Some are not like that however and spoil it for the rest by their anti-social behaviour. One issue is urinating and defecating although the lack of town centre facilities does not help. There are plenty of nooks and crannies where rough sleeper can and do sleep including the bin areas (we come across one there) as well as finding entry into the buildings and sleeping in stairwells etc. These are far from ideal but they are relatively safe and sheltered. For the more audacious, they might pitch tents in one of the green areas. Not necessarily to do with homelessness but part of the general problems, there is drug dealing, and several stories were related where this has taken place.
Obviously, all this is likely to alarm residents, especially when anti-social behavior is involved, many of which are elderly and vulnerable. The issues are made worse when there is no prompt action, e.g. when entry into buildings is made possible because locks are broken and are not fixed and when door shutting mechanisms interfered with to allow unrestricted access. Some have complained of being / feeling intimidated by the uninvited intruders. It should be added that the Baxter Avenue estate is not alone in facing these problems but seem to be bearing the brunt. Lack of action or slowness of response by those who one would expect to take action seemed to be what concerned residents most. There has been too much buck passing, procrastination and ignoring the obvious when solutions are called for. Yet there was a good deal of sympathy toward the nicer rough sleepers by residents, e.g. by giving food.
It will be easy to pontificate on what needs to happen next but I write more by way of a stake in the ground, setting out my store. Besides which, looking at the bigger picture, the issues are complex, but inaction shouldn’t be an option. Obviously, councilors have a part to play, given they have been elected to represent the residents. The Council and its officers have a part to play if their commitment to creating a better Southend has any meaning at all. While the Police has a role, especially when criminal activity is involved, and to an extent when there is anti-social behavior, they can’t be expected to move people on where there is nowhere to move them onto. While I saw good examples of community spirit, this is something worth building on. Stating the obvious, relaying the exasperation expressed by residents, Genesis need to get their act together. The challenge is getting them to do what they are not inclined to do. Not considered but not to be ignored is the legal position and, as a last resort, how recourse to law might get the desired result. Besides needing people who care to come to the fore, we could do with all the above parties coming together in order to work out solutions.