In my capacity of Chair of Southend Homeless Action Network (SHAN), I took three actions at our last meeting to consider for the next. Rather than over impinge on what will be a very full agenda, I have prepared this paper to help provide a baseline of where we are and how we got there. In the interest of neutrality, I will try to confine myself to the facts but if there is opinion and bias e.g. when it comes to selection of material or reaching conclusions, it should be noted this reflects my own understanding, rather than that of SHAN. See 190108 SHAN Notes v2 for the context of what follows.
No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF)
Ever since SHAN began, there has been an interest in and concern for residents who are what is now in professional circles seen as having “No Recourse to Public Funds” (NRPF). In those early days this often applied to asylum seekers whose status to remain in the UK had yet to be confirmed or had been denied, leaving the claimant to either appeal / re-apply or go underground. The issue was what services could be accessed and what benefits could be claimed and this was made difficult because most could not work legally in the UK and thereby support their families. These days this has become less of an issue as far as SHAN is concerned, where our focus is on homeless people, some of which, typically from Eastern European countries like Poland, may be allowed to remain in the UK but cannot claim benefits. A disproportionate number of these find their ways into Church Winter Night Shelters, for example. CWNS and voluntary organizations like Off the Streets do not make a distinction between NRPF and non NRPF when helping and accommodating guests. For other agencies, like HARP, that part rely on Housing Benefit in order to fund their services, this is an issue and is why they are less inclined to accommodate those who are NRPF. While there are other services needed in order to survive and thrive: health, education etc., what is offered to NRPF people depends on how far service providers are willing and able to offer them a service. We are grateful within SHAN for those with expertise as to what is allowed by law or not and for those willing to go that extra mile when it comes to helping NRPF foreign nationals who, for whatever reason, are unable or unwilling to return to their native country. But the concern raised that we have a significant number of NRPF homeless people in our town is a very real one. Some NRPF homeless folk are NOT foreign nationals. They either choose not to claim (not an easy process in a system not always sympathetic to their circumstances) or are disqualified.
Rough Sleeper Count
Every year, around November time, Southend Borough Council along with its partners are required to do a count on one night of the number of those sleeping rough within the Borough. It should be made clear that strict criteria is used to what makes a rough sleeper – it does not, for example, include those who are sofa surfing or living in squats. Last year the count was 72; this year it was 11. It begs the question, why such a big reduction and does this not demonstrate that moves to get rough sleepers off the street, e.g. as a result of extra targeted resourcing, is having an effect. This has given rise to heated discussions and varying opinions. It should be stated that the 2017 count was more as a result of intelligent guessing and the 2018 count was the result of actual counting, following on from intelligence leads. Neither count reflects the many times that number of people who are actually homeless. Another difference between 2017 and 2018 is the amount of emergency accommodation available has increased significantly. Besides extra units in HARP, there is now an additional emergency service. Off the Streets has begun operation, with 10 bed units. The Church Winter Night Shelter (CWNS) provision has been fuller this season than last and most sessions have been over subscribed (i.e. greater than 20 bed spaces offered). While “11” maybe a useful indicator of rough sleeper numbers reducing, partly due to the new strategies for reducing that number, it should be read for what it is: the number of people found to be sleeping rough when the count was taken. The number of homeless is many times that number and there remains much to do – we are a long way still from eradicating homelessness altogether, and a paltry count does not mean there isn’t a lot still to do. I should add: I am mindful of different agendas when it comes to tackling rough sleeping and homelessness, and given the narrow definition government employs the two are NOT the same. Sadly, we are seeing a steady increase in homelessness in recent years, reasons for which and what could be done I reflect on elsewhere. While the present government have given money to local authorities to tackle rough sleeping, reducing the number which may be counted does not get to the heart of the issue. Locally, while I have taken to task my own local authority, it should be said they have done more than most tackling these important issues, sadly ignored by many.
One of the big concerns raised by one of our SHAN members, who has taken time to spend time living among rough sleepers, is the lack of things to do while street homeless, especially at weekends when many services are shut down. This can and does add to the distress of those whose situations are already distressed because of their homelessness, and in some cases this leads to anti social behavior and more substance misuse. Discussion took place at the last SHAN meeting as to what might be done to improve the situation, including extra provision from ring fenced funding to reduce crime and anti social behavior. This is but one idea floated around but is yet to be acted on. In a conversation I had last Saturday with guests leaving the night shelter I manage (Ferndale CWNS) these concerns were reinforced. Due to our own limited capacity and resources guests were required to leave soon after 7.30 am, much as we could see the benefit of allowing them an extra hour in the warm. The next shelter (Whittingham CWNS) was due to open 7pm that day. It begged the question how to spend the 11 hours between shelters. It was mentioned that some chose to walk rather than take the bus service that has been laid on to Whittingham as it helped kill one of those hours. 57 West offered a much appreciated drop in service and a meal during the day, which some guests regularly avail themselves of. Mention was made of the library as being a safe place and out of the rain and cold. However, it was stated the library has reduced its opening hours and is nowadays taking a less sympathetic position toward rough sleepers. While it was acknowledged that some rough sleepers had been asked to leave for inappropriate behavior, others had been unfairly discriminated against. The matter of what to do at weekends if you are homeless remains a significant one. There remains a crying need for more meaning activity provision in order to help our homeless friends.