Addressing Southend’s homeless situation

Southend has a growing homeless problem and Off the Streets is doing something to help. They are an enthusiastic, competent, committed group, sensitive to resident and guest needs. In the few weeks they have been running have given many rough sleepers dignity and overnight accommodation. They need suitable premises and thus far this is the best on offer. As a homeless activist for 10+ years, chair of SHAN and Street Spirit and manage one of the CWNS’s, I support their change of use application.”

I wrote the above, limited to 500 characters, in support of the Off the Streets application to the Council for change of use permission so they can continue operating from their new shelter. I doubt whether this will do much to help but as they say: “every little helps”, and I get it the nimbyism that opposes the application, while based on fear, has some validity. My purpose behind this latest “homeless” article (see my Homeless Reflections ebook for many more) was not so much to lobby on behalf of my friends from Off the Streets but rather to helpfully paint the bigger picture that is one that few folk have. Today’s Echo headline: “Drug taking and antisocial behaviour fears over Off The Streets’s plans for homeless shelter”, although rather sensational given I know of no such goings on, is one of a long string of homeless related reports, indicative that homelessness is a big issue for the town.

I find wherever I go these days the homeless situation in my town is a matter for discussion, and while some of that is because people know me to be a homeless activist, some don’t and yet struggle trying to reconcile their compassionate instincts and concerns and the fact we have a homeless situation that appears not to be properly addressed, with dealing with the fall out that comes from homelessness. If we have a conversation a number of reoccurring themes often come out. I try to present myself as a neutral. While I have some qualms over how the Council, Police and HARP, three key agencies in the field of homelessness, go about addressing these concerns, I also recognize they do a great deal of good and as a town we are far better placed compared with many areas of the country because of what they do. While I sympathise with the plight of the homeless, and have got to know many over the years, and treat many with a pastoral concern, I recognize many are their own worst enemy by not doing the things needed to improve their situation, and like many vulnerable persons are prone to be manipulative.

As for how to help, I say as a rule of thumb don’t give money (sadly many of the more in your face beggars are not genuine and grateful and, if they get money, spend what you give them to feed a habit). Moreover, don’t go on a guilt trip – do what you can and calmly walk away, and for sanity’s sake, recognize your limitations, focusing on what you can do. Ironically, while in the 10+ years I have been operating in the homeless field, help being made available has increased considerably, but so have the numbers of actual homeless. But do what you can whether by volunteering with one of the many community responses to homelessness, giving a homeless person the time of day (so important), giving something practical e.g. a cup of tea, sandwich and why not carry some chocolate bars, which if genuine will be appreciated, knowing what helps are available (while many know this, some don’t). Recognise, many have mental health or substance misuse issues, and while the system may be broken and people can be cruel and callous, the system can also deliver and people can be kind and compassionate. You also should be kind.

One of the issues often reported by the Echo is the state of the High Street and surrounding areas. Two areas touched upon are the demise of the High Street, which has economic and other consequences and the increase in numbers of those presenting as homeless. This cannot be denied as anyone visiting the High Street area can check out for themselves. The changing face of the High Street, including empty shops, should concern us all. Regarding the town centre, economics and homelessness are related and more homeless has a negative impact. Part of the Council initiative to improve the town centre and encourage the economy is to deter people presenting as homeless, away from the High Street, especially if they are begging. The police have an unenviable job doing this, especially when those moved on have nowhere to go.

Given my “neutral” mantra, I have now to choose my words carefully. Over the years I have heard successive Councillors (of different parties) justify moving the homeless on (the latest is the tent evictions from the Cliffs area) based on the notion they have offered them something in exchange for their moving on, and thus absolving themselves from public criticism etc. When I looked into this three years ago I came to the view that often what was offered as far as the person being given the offer was concerned was Hobson’s choice (which is no choice at all) and many of the homeless people I have spoken to have said much the same and some claimed they had not been offered anything. I suspect things have improved since then but I still question if the path being mapped out is reasonable.

This still leaves the question: what do we do for the homeless in the town? No-one knows what that number is and even the Councils own figures (nearly a year ago) gave it as 70+ and using a definition of homelessness that excluded sofa surfers. A lot of stuff goes on and as I often tell people, with soup kitchens on every night of the week, and other food distribution initiatives, no one needs to go hungry. Sadly there is a woeful lack of affordable accommodation, which can’t be blamed on the Council per se, and a lack of mental health, substance misuse, and dual diagnosis services, although significant inroads in all these areas have and are being made. My own interest will be from the start of December and for 16 weeks I will be managing one of the seven church winter night shelters, which will take 20 people off the streets and provide hospitality, but it begs the question what happens to the 50+ people still NOT off the streets?

This is where “Off the Streets” (the aforementioned VCS group) comes in. They have tried hard to find a place and have ended up with 505 London Road, which is threatened with closure if their change of use application is rejected by the Council and have gone about it in the right way. As far as I am aware, the Council has NOT offered anything more suitable, despite there being a number of empty shops etc. around the town centre under Council control. If they are to reject the application, which they may do if they deem the objections meritorious (as neutrals on the matter may agree is the case), then if we are in it together, what can they offer in its place? The Off the Streets initiative, while a drop in the proverbial ocean is still a big drop. It will go some way to address the Southend homeless quandary, and is why I am happy to add my support.

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