Counting rough sleepers and what to do now it is hot?

Two “homeless” stories struck me in the past week:Ross Kemp wants to change how we count rough sleepers in the UK” and “What to do if you see a homeless person struggling in the heatwave. Since I began blogging on homeless related issues some six years back, I reckon I have covered many / most homeless related issues (check out my “Homeless Reflections” e-book), yet reading articles like these two makes me realize I have not covered all angles and more importantly many issues remain unresolved.

During the past week, while sitting in the High Street during a particularly hot spell, I was approached by someone who politely asked me for money. Given my policy is NOT to give money in such circumstances, I politely declined. I then thought about my own practice as a homeless activist and called the man back and explained my decision and suggested ways he could be helped. He pointed out that he had no water and wanted money to buy a bottle. While I carry water in my car, which was nearby, and gladly would have given to him, it was not a practical solution. I should mention, incidentally, that thanks to generous donations, many of the local soup kitchens etc. are able to give bottles of water and other helpful items to homeless folk. Soon after my chance encounter, I came across the article mentioned earlier on helping people in the heat.

There was a certain irony reading it and some of the helpful tips as a few days earlier I was verbally attacked by a homeless person because I had turned her away (for good reason I should add) from being accommodated in one of the church winter (homeless) night shelters, during a particularly cold spell. In fact the original rationale behind the program I was involved with was to offer emergency accommodation during the coldest months of the year when homeless folk were particularly at risk. What we are now being reminded of is that not only are people sleeping rough on the streets at risk due to the cold, they are also at risk due to the heat. Dare I say it, but there are many other risks faced too homeless folk face, not least being subject to abuse and attack and as I also found out recently when giving out eight sleeping bags, heavy rain too.

It brings me to the Ross Kemp Big Issue article and another article from the same paper (which homeless people sell to the public on the streets as a way toward self sustainment) titled: “There are more people sleeping rough in London than ever”. At the beginning of the year I wrote an article that included reference to the local official rough sleeper count that takes place every year (see here). I pointed out the irony, as much due to the different methods and criteria used, that in 2017 the count was 72 but in 2018 it had drastically reduced down to 11, when a few weeks later my own night shelter that had subsequently started up was taking in 20 homeless guests. In a sense I am happy to let those with an interest apply the “lies, dammed lies and statistics” conundrum to counting rough sleepers, but I do care when falsehoods are used to propagate the myth that the issue is going away when it definitely ain’t.

Mr Kemp’s description was stark and matter of fact, even if offering little in the way of platitudes and solutions, but he was pointing out something that those of us working at the coal face can verify: there are more rough sleepers than many realise. It is true a lot is happening to get people of off the streets, but the reality is more needs to happen, including at governmental level in providing more affordable accommodation and better support services. If there is money to be thrown at alleviating the problem as a result of enacting the Homeless Reduction Bill last year, then give it to the good guys e.g. Off the Streets, 57 West, the Isaiah Project and Hope 316.

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