Homelessness – controversies and conundrums

People who read my writings in my blogs and on social media will know I sometimes come out with some pretty controversial stuff. While homelessness is an emotive subject where everyone it seems holds strongly held views, I try to steer a middle path, concentrating on what I can do to make a difference and working with a variety of agencies, including those who hold widely differing views to me.

It is not because there aren’t areas of controversy for, after all, if we are to reduce rough sleeping there needs to be a lot more affordable accommodation made available and better services to prevent rough sleeping and get people off the streets – and to an extent that is a political matter, although in my experience a vibrant voluntary and community sector that focuses on homeless related issues can make all the difference, and it is this that is my main area of interest.

I write on the verge of election and while homelessness has not been high in the list of issues that have been debated, it is an important issue. Despite efforts to lower the number of rough sleepers, rough sleeping has increased. According to Homeless Link, this has almost doubled since 2010. To what extent this can be blamed on the Conservatives, who have been in effective control, or whether things would have been better under Labour, is a debatable point and one I am not prepared to adjudicate on. Labour manifesto commitments and plans to end or reduce rough sleeping and provide much needed prevention services e.g. addictions and mental health, appear encouraging, but the perennial question is how to pay for it? For the sake of balance, the Homeless Reduction Act 2017, supported by and funded under the Conservatives has made a difference. This has been evidenced insofar our council have been able to employ more front line staff and there has been a reduction in homelessness.

Another problematic area is where rough sleepers sleep, and there remains a significant number (how many no-one knows for sure, and defining rough sleeping is a moot point) of those affected. While it is hard to imagine with this Winter weather, a number locally (Southend) choose to sleep in tents on the cliffs. Some things never change including cliff tent dwellers and them being moved on by the Council, who claim to have given fair warning, offered alternatives and done things by the book. I am loathe to take sides; I am neither on the side of the rough sleepers (mostly decent folk but with some anti-social elements) nor the Council when it tries to take the moral high ground. I would like to know about what is offered and why these offers are turned down and what alternatives, e.g. making available more temporary accommodation to those who need it. The cliff dwellers are merely doing what I would do if I were homeless.

Last week saw the start of the Church Winter Night Shelter (CWNS) program. I am still involved but after five years have stepped down as one of the managers. Early indications are this is going well and complements HARP’s emergency night shelter program (along with their other accommodation for the homeless) and the Off the Streets year round shelter. As I write, I find that only six of the seven nights have been covered, and that is a concern. As often happens there is rumour and criticism that is often unfounded. Some don’t like the fact guests need to first register with HARP, but there are good reasons. While most guests are perfectly amenable, some aren’t and risks need to be assessed and rules need to be explained. CWNS is a huge undertaking and is all credit to the participating volunteers.

We come to this season of good will – Christmas. Understandably and creditably, many peoples’ thoughts turn to helping the homeless and bringing seasonal cheer, and I find myself trying to encourage those who do while explaining the raw facts. Christmas time is often NOT the time homeless charities need help – it is the rest of the year. As for time and stuff, it needs to be the right time (and not just at the convenience of those who offer) and the right stuff (many charities like soup kitchens don’t have the logistical capability to handle many clothing items for example). Of course money is nice and I can think of a number of initiatives that would appreciate gifts.

I often reflect that some who see the wide plethora of homeless needs go all out to help and burn out in a short time. The key is to do what we can and say no to what we can’t. I agree rough sleeping is a disgrace but then it is unlikely to fully end in a short time, or any time come to that. I salute many in my home town of Southend who help either as volunteers or as part of their job by going the extra mile. Knowing what to do for the best is often not a straightforward proposition but as members of the human race it is right that we do our bit and heart warming when we see compassionate responses.

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