By Nobby Clarke – Founder of Coventry Winter Night Shelter and Coventry Emergency Shelter
I started a personal and steep learning curve about homelessness, when I set up the Coventry Winter Night Shelter back in December 2013. It is important to acknowledge just how much effort goes into helping those on the streets from a range of local people and groups, especially over the winter months. It is through these shared experiences that we understand the common frustration, that no matter what is being done the needs continue to increase. We see that homelessness is now affecting more people across the generations and from more ordinary circumstances than we may have experienced previously. Ultimately though, much will depend upon whether a person takes the view that homelessness is the result of the acts and/or omissions of the individual or that of the state, or a combination of both.
Who are the homeless?
What you see on the streets is NOT the full story of homelessness but IS a barometer of the issue……. just the visible tip of an otherwise hidden iceberg of need, the more you see the bigger the problem. We are NOT going to resolve this issue by focusing on those who we see begging, which merely causes us to deflect our attention away from the massive problem of homelessness in our towns and cities.
Homelessness including street homelessness is LESS about the complex issues of those we see and more simply the inability of someone to be able to sustain permanent accommodation. It is a national problem but with no national strategy or coordination with solutions being left to regional and local initiatives with heavy reliance upon the voluntary sector.
People finding themselves homeless need time. Time to establish themselves and help to slowly rise from their pit of despair, not to be burdened further by unhelpful interventions and enforcements. Many have given up walking through the revolving door of the limited help available, which eventually sees them back where they started with their feelings of failure reinforced.
What is needed, is an understanding that homelessness, like an illness, takes a period of convalescence and that recovery is far more than a set of keys to a front door. Having no address makes legitimate employment unlikely and leaves many prey to exploitation and abuse and with even less chance of recovery, if any complexities are not properly addressed. It sometimes appears that there are those who have this vision of someone on the streets tucked up in a warm sleeping bag with a cup of coffee, having cleaned their teeth and changed into their pyjamas, on their laptop, plugged into the shop door and connected to Wifi, searching for jobs and places to rent! The real story is of someone very cold snatching a few moments of broken sleep, continually nervous of those passing by and completely unconnected to anything and in no fit state to reasonably engage with anyone!
All that having been said, the real disturbing and hidden part of this iceberg of need is of children and families squashed into B&B’s, sharing rooms in hostels and sofa surfing (bed begging), the statistics for which are very hard to see as anything other than a gross underestimation of the problem. I would also argue, that the focus of attention on street homelessness is disproportionate to the overall issue of homelessness itself. Not only are these environments unsuitable for people to live in and detrimental to their health and development, especially for children but they come at a massive cost to Local Government who are already strapped for cash.
Much is talked about in the news about the shortage of housing and proposed affordable homes initiatives but it is far less the case that people are homeless for the lack of housing stock, than for the lack of funds to be able to procure and sustain the costs of that accommodation.
There are also some disturbing rules that bring extra misery to this situation. Terms like ‘No Local Connection’ operates across the nation and broadly applies to anyone who cannot prove a recent residency in the area and/or has no relatives there. This means that someone will be denied access to homelessness services and advised to return home. Then there is ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’, which broadly applies to anyone unable to claim benefits and cannot prove tax having been paid in the UK. This largely applies to many of our EU residents but can also catch out UK citizens returning after a prolonged period abroad with insufficient funds to sustain themselves. There are too many circumstances where people fall through the gaps of provision and find themselves destitute and unsupported and all too often we hear the cry of ‘does not meet the criteria’.
A new housing team has been recently developed in the City and it is encouraging to see more focus being given over to the issue of homelessness with the formation of a dedicated team to look specifically at homelessness prevention and to work directly with rough-sleepers. This gives far better access and more credible applications to more funding streams when they become available.
There certainly must be a drastic and wholesale change to the way in which homelessness is addressed as we face the choice between becoming immune to the problem, or fighting in every way possible to restore dignity to this vulnerable section of our community.
There needs to be a National Strategy which not only sets out the aspiration to end homelessness but which ensures (and properly funds) ALL Local Authorities to have a coordinated and cooperative approach to this issue.
The ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ and ‘No local Connection’ rules need to be abolished on the principle that if they are here, they are our responsibility.
Any strategy needs to have at its core, the principle that there should always be a willingness for agencies and partners to plug ALL the gaps and signpost to each other and not simply away from one.
Efforts should be made to gain the confidence and support of the public for any strategy, along with a greater level of understanding for what is being done and how they can help.
You can down load Coventry’s Housing and Homelessness Strategy 2019 from here.