For 4 of the past 5 years, I have joined YMCA Exeter on their Sleep Easy campaign.
I’m lucky – for the other 364 (or in the case of this leap year, 365) days I do sleep easy on a comfortable mattress with my own roof over my head.
But others aren’t so lucky.
Rough sleeping is the visible evidence of a much bigger problem – homelessness.
And recently released figures show that rough sleeping has doubled across England over the past 6 years.
Doubled under this government, after Labour had so worked to reduce those numbers.
Each and every night over 3,500 people are rough sleeping, that’s 30% on the figures for 2014 – we see them on our streets,in shop fronts, in parks.
But they are elsewhere, hidden and invisible – sheltering from the elements under cars and according to the latest reports, in recycling bins.
14% of adults experienced *hidden* homelessness in 2015 – that’s sofa surfing, staying with family or friends, B&B, etc.
44% of homeless have been diagnosed with a mental health issue.
None of this has come as a complete surprise. Charities that tackle homelessness warned us of this impending crisis.
And still they warn us – about the policies that the current government are pursuing now and into the future.
Whether it be the shared accommodation rate of Housing Benefit on under-35s
Or the planned removal of s106 affordable housing for rent – and instead replacing it with a requirement for Starter Homes for those fortunate enough to have a deposit and pay a mortgage on a property sold at 80% of market price.
None of this takes account of the drastic cuts to the safety net of social security.
So where does that leaves us in Exeter?
By hard bargaining, Exeter City Council is delivering affordable housing – each and every new development has a requirement for 35% social housing normally for social rent (= 50% of market rent) rather than the more expensive *affordable* rent (= 80% of market rent). That means that 1800 are in the process of being built or are in the pipeline, on top of the 600 delivered in the past 5 years.
And the *official* figures show that the number of rough sleepers has dropped – official figures from the street count suggest 27 rough sleepers across Exeter in 2015, down from 34 in 2014.
However, in reality it is thought there are at least 50 rough sleepers across the area.
There’s already good work happening in partnership with homeless agencies across the city.
We’ve just seen the end of Safe Sleep Exeter – where St Petrock’s and Gabriel House opened their doors each night.
St Petrock’s centre re-opened at 6.30pm each evening and enabled up to 10 rough sleepers to come inside, enjoy hot snacks/drinks and a film, before bedding down for the night. This service was run in co-ordination with BCHA’s Gabriel House, the city hostel, which was able to offer a further 15 bed spaces and was funded by Exeter City Council.
I’m pleased to say that 20 rough sleepers who accessed St Petrock’s during the scheme have either been made offers of accommodation or re-connected to their local area where accommodation is available to them.
And now St Petrocks are trialling an Early Bird rough sleeper service and will be opening the centre an hour earlier, at 8am, to enable rough sleepers access to showers/toilets/laundry and hot drinks before our regular sessions begin. This Early Bird service is run with the help of Julian House’s Street Homeless Outreach Team.
And in just 3 weeks time, Wat Tyler House on King William Street will re-open as the Exeter Wellbeing Hub – a £0.5m venture to bring together more than 25 agencies under one roof with the aim of helping address the full range of issues faced by the chaotic and challenging lifestyles of the street attached and rough sleepers.
The City Council had a cross-party – and indeed with Teignbridge joining us, a cross council – support for Task and Finish Group.
We heard evidence from a range of partners – possibly the most chilling statement coming from Steve Barriball of Citizens Advice Exeter that most of us are only 2 pay cheques from a night on the streets.
The Task and Finish Group have come up with a draft Homelessness Strategy which is now out for public consultation.
The strategy sets out both councils’ aspirations for the next five years to prevent homelessness and improve experiences of those who become homeless locally.
There’s a bold aim at the heart of the strategy – to bring rough sleeping to an end.
It is also a call to action to local stakeholders to help us deliver and develop further moving forward. The themes reflect the broad range of work that we do to address homelessness.
Working in partnership is key to the success of the strategy. We will continue to engage with the larger national organisations to provide context, as well as maintain and develop conversations with local organisations to help align our values and objectives to work together in resolving homelessness.
The strategy doesn’t have all the answers- but it seeks to find some of the solutions.
And there aren’t any simple solutions, either
There is lots of hard work happening here in Exeter – like that of YMCA Exeter – and across the country.
Agencies, partners and local authorities working together to offer help – but often that help is refused.
Who know’s what barriers those street attached and rough sleeping have that mean they decline the help offered.
But I want to ensure that help is continually and constantly offered.
Me sleeping here tonight isn’t going to end rough sleeping.
But I hope by sleeping easy I can help raise awareness – of the plight of those on the street but also of the range of help that is also there, each and every night.
Sponsor me at my Just Giving site or by texting PBEX47 £5 [or other amount]to 70070
Kit Buchan: Gimme shelter: stories from London’s homeless [Observer News Review, 06 March 2016]
Rough sleeping has risen by 30% in the past year in the UK and the highest numbers are to be found in the London borough of Westminster. We ask some of those living on the streets to tell us their stories…
Amelia Gentleman: Rough Sleeping returns to the street in full force [Guardian, 10 March 2016]
Higher rents, cuts to council services and migration from eastern Europe have contributed to a sharp increase in the number of homeless people on the streets of the capital.
Patrick Butler: Uncomfortable glimpses into s worsening housing crisis [Guardian Analysis, 10 March 2016]
While rooflessness is the most visible form of homelessness, low-paid families and the young are increasingly among the hidden victims of the housing crisis.
Editorial: Left out in the cold by austerity [Guardian Analysis, 10 March 2016]
The sharp rise in people bedding down on the streets has been driven by welfare cuts. They are unacceptable evidence of the price vulnerable are paying for austerity.
Guardian Society: One night on the streets: a portrait of homelessness in Britain [Guardian Society, 11 March 2016]
The Guardian sent reporters to five cities on Thursday night to report on how the people at the heart of Britain’s homelessness crisis are coping. Here are the stories of Josh Halliday, Jessica Elgot, Kate Lyons, Steven Morris, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, Amelia Gentleman and Mark Rice-Oxley.
Amelia Gentleman: Rising number of people are sleeping in bins, refuse collectors warn [Guardian, 12 March 2016]
Waste firm Biffa says problem is ‘massive’ with bin lorry drivers given safety guidance to avoid crushing rough sleepers.