Homelessness – Britain’s shame

I tend not to read newspapers these days and the Daily Mirror would be low down on my preferred list when I do. But listening to the Thursday February 7th 2019 Radio 4 Today program discuss a report occupying the entire first seven pages of that day’s Daily Mirror, on Britain’s homeless crisis, I decided I would go out and buy a copy of the newspaper and check out what was headlined as “Mirror Shock Report – Britain’s shame” where reporters in different places around the UK reported on what they found investigating the stories of some of those sleeping rough in Britain’s streets. And what they did find was harrowing and heart breaking, even for one who is under no illusions that what is reported is but the tip of the iceberg.

I had little doubt based on my own experience of particularly working these past 10 years in the area of homelessness that what the Daily Mirror had unearthed was true and disturbing. Its report represented responsible journalism and other than having a go at the Conservatives, when I consider all political powers in recent years are to blame concerning what we see, I agreed with its findings. One of its banners contained the words “Scandal of Britain’s Homeless” and, while I try to avoid emotive language, I had to concur what the Mirror reporters had unearthed (and what I see on a regular basis) was a scandal. Its editorial summarized well what its reporters had found: “Wherever you go in Britain, from town centres to small villages, you will see people sleeping rough on the streets. This is a national scandal staring at us in plain sight … their stories are of people who have struggled with addiction, people with mental health problems and people with nowhere to turn. They are scared lonely and destitute. Many tell of how they have been assaulted, had their tents stolen, and had been let down by the services supposed to support them. There are also stories of kindness and great compassion …”

The title of the editorial is “There is a way to end the despair”. While I disagree with its simplistic conclusion that the rise in rough sleeping “all flows from the cuts imposed by this Tory government”, I was intrigued by its final conclusion: “the Housing First strategy pursued in Scotland is transforming lives by giving people a secure home and support for addiction and mental health problems. If Theresa May’s government is serious about tackling rough sleeping it should follow this approach”. I do concur that providing more affordable accommodation and better support services remains a key part in dealing with and eliminating homelessness and have put finding out more about “Housing First” on my to do list.

It got me thinking about my own approach to tackling the final challenge of the editorial: “now we need to give them hope”. Regarding politics and religion my approach is low key as I argued in my recent article: “Homelessness, religion and politics”. It is one area I can and do make a difference and I would rather leave political pontificating to others and seek to forge partnerships with disparate entities in order to win the proverbial end game of bring homeless people to a better place. I also tend to pace myself and without being callous focus on present hard realities and what I can do. In my own town, Southend-on-Sea, where almost all of my work is based, I am aware we better off than most places because of the services that are available, including a formidable voluntary sector. Yet during this past week, in my involvement with the Church Winter Night Shelter program, we have been full and over full most nights and have even turned people away and this despite some homeless folk choosing not to engage with the program and a significant rise in emergency bed spaces compared with last year. I am also mindful of some of the fantastic work done in my town by soup kitchens like One Love, other shelter programs like Off the Streets, social landlords like Hope 316, churches like 57 West, outreach projects like the Storehouse, quasi statutory / charity bodies like HARP, and even to give them credit, our local Council, as well as a large cohort of concerned citizens ‘doing their bit’.

“We are where we are and we do what we do” remains my watchword and all with the intent on making a difference and doing so mindful of limited resources and operating in a broken system. But the Mirror is right to use the word “scandal”. The thought of people just up the road sleeping rough, often feeling there is little by way of immediate prospect out of their predicament, is a scandal and therefore unacceptable. Without creating guilt trips, and while we do well to make our politicians etc. accountable and address the issues that lead to homelessness that local groups can’t deal with, our response should surely be: “what can I do to make a difference?”

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