What to do about homeless people sleeping in tents?

Last week I was approached by three people, separately, in need of a tent, at the Street Spirit soup kitchen, which I am involved in. As a rule, we don’t give out tents and instead focus on our core operation of feeding the typically circa 60 folk who come to us each week, and besides which we are mindful our giving out tents might upset our local council, who have supported our operation, but who pick up the pieces (which I will get to) when problems arise from people sleeping in tents, typically in open land that they happen to own. It happened we had one tent and we had to choose who to give it to.

Since being involved with the homeless, going back more than 10 years, it is often struck me that the solutions to the predicament of having to sleep rough are many and varied, and some homeless folk are quite innovative but because of safety and convenience concerns rarely does where rough sleepers end up sleeping match the opportunity of being able to sleep in a safe place you can return to each day, with minimal hassle. Sometimes this is accentuated when the homeless person has a money, alcohol or mental health problems, which many do. We have noticed in recent years an increase of people sleeping in tents, which are often available and not too expensive, typically in the sea front area, invariably on Council owned land. We are often asked if we have a tent to spare.

Often it gives rise to problems. I am writing neither to defend the Council nor attack them, not knowing all the facts. The same goes for those sleeping in tents, although for most it is a solution to a common predicament. I am aware too often one irresponsible person can cause problems for the rest and, as for residents seeing people sleeping rough, can be disconcerting, HOWEVER … During the week another soup kitchen, One Love, that does similar things to us on different days, reported that some of its guests had their tents taken by the Council without warning (possibly including the one we gave out earlier). For a report of what happened, check out BBC Essex podcast (36 minutes in). After a helpful interview with the One Love Chair, a letter was read from the Council explaining their decision. I have to confess, while I am loathe to criticize an easy target and also a partner, I found their response unconvincing, especially regarding engaging with services which either do not exist or the homeless people do not engage with for good reasons.

If I were homeless, the idea of sleeping in a tent I would find to be rather appealing as perhaps the best of a number of not entirely satisfactory alternatives and notwithstanding the risk from zealous Council agents or nasty people who derive satisfaction from adding to the distress of those who resort to sleeping in tents. The lack of suitable accommodation in the town (over 70 homeless according to last November’s Council organized rough sleeper count) is of concern, despite the efforts of HARP, other night shelters and social landlords to take in people from off the streets. While the homeless paradigm is complex, where there is a lack of accommodation, homelessness is a national and local disgrace, and so is taking tents away from the vulnerable when there is no suitable alternative.

Update 27/09/18: Since posting this article, I have met and had exchanges with people, variously involved and on both sides of the debate: whether or not to allow tent dwellers on Council owned land and other venues, e.g. the High Street and / or an alternative site. I recognise outreach is taking place, due process concerning eviction notices etc. usually happens and offers are being made of help albeit with restrictions, and I realise it is complex matter and that mental health and substance misuse are challenging matters, as well as the unwillingness to engage by and the anti-social behaviour of some of those affected. Some of those involved in outreach services speak of their frustration when rough sleepers turn down reasonable offers of help. While I do not wish to alienate the very people I need to partner with, I fear still not enough is being done and I can’t escape the view I came to three years ago that the people “the authorities” are trying to move on, with or without accommodation or other help on offer, see themselves as being offered Hobson’s choice.

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