Homelessness and rough sleeping in #Exeter

One of the reasons for me to take part in last month’s Sleep Easy, other than to raise funds for YMCA Exeter to use on their excellent Supported Housing project (many thanks to all those how contributed to my total of £130) which will be used on their Supported Housing, was to raise awareness of the rising numbers of homeless people sleeping rough on the streets of Exeter.

Cllr Paul Bull
Cllr Paul Bull

Homeless Link is the national membership charity for organisations working directly with people who become homeless in England. We work to make services better and campaign for policy change that will help end homelessness.

They say quantifying homelessness isn’t straightforward and they have an introduction to the figures available, and insight into what they mean.

The Labour Government’s’ Rough Sleeper Initiative (1999- 2002) aimed to reduce rough sleeping by two thirds. This was achieved at the turn of the century when the focus then shifted towards sustaining low numbers and prevention services. This reduction was sustained and between 1998 and 2009, the successive Labour Governments reduced rough sleeping by 75%,

However, figures analysed by Homeless Link in February show more people are sleeping rough on Britain’s streets than when the coalition came to power, with one in 50 experiencing it in the last five years.

This shocking rise in homelessness means there are 55 % more rough sleepers in the UK now than when David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010. The figures showed  2,744 people were found to be sleeping rough on any one night in the country in autumn last year – up from 1,768 people in 2010.

rough-sleeping-graphic-2014

A month later, Homeless Link  looked a the latest Government statutory homelessness numbers and said that they highlighted the urgent need to tackle the housing crisis.

The increases in homelessness were due to tenancies coming to an end, as well as the use of temporary accomodation and households being placed in other local authority areas.

Here in Exeter, we have the ninth highest homeless count in the country , so the issue for us is an acute one.  Indeed looking at the figures per head of the population in relation to the number of  rough sleepers we are second only to London.

Some of this can be attributed to the city being a regional transport hub, and  has built up over time a range of specialised care.

Because of these acute service pressures, Exeter City Council  – working in partnership with others such as the police, health care professionals, and hugely valued partners in the charity & voluntary sectors – do their utmost to tackle these challenges.

There was a rough sleepers count in November 2014, and the results of this were reported at a meeting of the Exeter Board on 15 January 2015.

The total number of homeless people sleeping on the streets had been counted at 34 – a 48% increase over the previous year – with 50% having a local connection to Exeter.

Of the 34, two were female, 10 believed to have endured mental health issues, six with alcohol issues and two using legal highs and 10 entrenched in rough sleeping. The remaining 24 required assessment before placement and, of these, 11 had been identified as only wanting self contained accommodation but had very high support needs. The increase in female rough sleepers was a concern which was attributable, in part, to the closure of the Esther project for vulnerable women.

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The subsequent meeting of the Exeter Board (on 28 April 2015) received a report from Nicola Forsdyke, Exeter City Council’s Housing Needs Manager to provide an update as to the current position of single homelessness and rough sleeping in Exeter.

The circumstances around the homelessness and rough sleeping agenda change regularly. The issue of clients with Complex Needs is being picked up nationally with a new government consultation being released. The following projects give an overview of further development in this area expected in the next 6 months.

The report concludes with a series of projects give an overview of further development in this area expected in the next 6 months, including developing a new Exeter City Council strategy for tackling homelessness which will bring together relevant stakeholders to set out a combined vision for the future and a redesign of the Street Homeless Outreach Team [SHOT]

As reported in the Express and Echo (“Cash boost to help ease growing homeless problem in Exeter”, Online, 23 January 2015), the Labour-run City Council recently led a successful bid for a quarter of a million pounds to help tackle homelessness in the city and surrounding areas.

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Making Every Adult Matter [MEAM] is a partnership with Teignbridge, East Devon, Mid Devon and Torbay councils, and will include new work with the Prison and Probation Service, specialist case workers to manage complex clients, and enhanced accommodation in the social and private sectors.

Another new initiative, Integrated Care Exeter [ICE], has received £1.5M funding from Government. The aim of ICE is that services will be delivered through a single point of access so people have one place where they can go and get the information that enables them to make the best decision about their care.

Development of ICE has highlighted health needs of the homeless community and potential service redesign has been put forward including integrated health care options with SHOT, health clinics at Gabriel and St Petrock’s to address health inequalities and increase engagement opportunities and a multi agency approach to homeless hospital discharge cases.

In addition Exeter CVS , along with a number of partners in health and support services,  were awarded £441,853 from Public Health England to  Department of Health/Public Health England capital funds to improve recovery outcomes. They will re-develop Wat Tyler House as a Community Health & Wellbeing Hub for the city,. The plan is to work with people with multiple and complex needs based around a doctors’ surgery and combine the existing volunteering and learning centres with other health and wellbeing services.The MEAM partnership will be working closely to support the development of this.

The same meeting of the Exeter Board considered the report of Max Sillars, Senior Commissioning Officer at  Devon County Council on DCC’s contribution to homelessness prevention.

The report covers many great initiatives, so let me highlight just one, Snowflake, which consisted of day centre hours on a Saturday and a Sunday from the 20th December 2014 to the 29th March 2015. It was held in the basement at Gabriel House (GH) and was a partnership between the Street Homeless Outreach Team (SHOT) and the Gabriel House Support Team. The Snowflake Daycentre was staffed by two staff, from the Support Team, SHOT, and St Petrocks. A number of people had physical health needs and so a general nurse attended a few of the sessions each week. However, as there is no medical room at GH the nurse was only able to provide assessment and treatment.

A breakfast for each rough sleeper and refreshments were purchased each week and cooked by staff and volunteers, including current GH residents.

The approach was very informal and clients engaged in social activities and breakfast. Sessions were also geared towards providing housing, life skills, welfare rights and health advice.

Clients accessing Snowflake also were able to use the telephone and have access to the internet at GH.

A specialist mental health and substance misuse consultant has been attending the Sunday Snowflake sessions in order to compile a snapshot of mental health needs and substance misuse issues

However, homelessness does not just show itself through people sleeping on the streets. It should be defined as people sleeping rough, single people living in temporary accommodation, statutorily homeless households who are currently or imminently without accommodation , and “hidden homeless” households, such as those living in severely overcrowded conditions, squatters or “sofa-surfers”.

Its also very important to remember that homelessness can happen to anyone, the middle class stay at home mum forced to leave because of domestic violence, the young person out of care without proper support, the ex-service person traumatised by a tour of duty , the newly unemployed mortgage holder, or the private sector tenant displaced because they asked for repairs to be done. Indeed a large number of rough sleepers have suffered institutional abuse and therefore are reluctant to engage with “authority”.

We still have a chronic shortage of housing across all sectors in Exeter, including  new private housing in general, and most importantly of all much more affordable and social housing. This lack of infrastructure investment in the housing sector has been a significant reason why the economic recession caused by the international banking system , lasted longer in the UK , and was deeper.

In the context of rising homelessness, highhousing costs, low pay , zero hours contracts, low skills base, welfare cuts all have made it more and more difficult for people to keep a roof over their head.

Another big factor that we are trying to deal with in tandem with other key players in Exeter is the new scourge of legal highs, that have had a terrible effect on already vulnerable  people with complex needs. On this issue we have been left high and dry, with no adequate legislation to allow quick and assertive action.

Adding to all this is the fall out from the Con Dems harsh austerity policies that have devastated the public sector and made the job of tackling homelessness often an ordeal. In Exeter we have seen the NHS under strain , huge cuts to the police who have a big role in helping reach out to rough sleepers, waiting lists for drug and substance abuse help , fewer supported beds, and the list goes on.

Homelessness is a complex issue, there is much more work to do in Exeter, and there are no quick solutions, but our job has been made infinitely more difficult by the policies of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government.

Further reading:
NHS Devon Homelessness Health Needs Assessment [2001]
Exeter City Council Homelessness Strategy 2008-13
Exeter City Council Homeless Strategy – Action Plan Update [July 2011]
Exeter Labour Party Housing Manifesto [April 2015]

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