Inside Housing | The community taking on homelessness


15 November 2016 7:30 am

The community taking on homelessness

Housing minister Gavin Barwell’s Croydon constituency has a homelessness crisis. Now members of the community are taking matters into their own hands to find a solution. Martin Hilditch reports

For use in Inside Housing, 18 November 2016

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It is the wrong side of midnight and the A&E department at Croydon University Hospital is a picture of well-lit gloom.

A handful of patients sit on plastic chairs, silently contemplating the dramas that have brought them here in the depths of the night. Their peace is broken by the entry of a small group of men and women, all wearing identical blue cagoules that proclaim their arrival from the European End Street Homelessness Campaign in big letters on the back. It has been a disappointing night for the volunteers so far. They have been charged with engaging with homeless people on the streets of Croydon as part of a massive project that is the first step of a campaign to end rough sleeping in the London borough.

Thus far, they have traipsed around parks, alleyways and lock-ups, shining torches into dark corners like Croydon’s answer to the Scooby-Doo gang. Despite visiting many of the borough’s well-known rough sleeping ‘hotspots’, after a couple of hours they have little to show for their efforts beyond tired legs. They have popped into the A&E department for a comfort break, but it is about to provide them with a depressing insight into the realities of life on the streets.

Major campaign

Moments after walking through the doors, the group are approached by a young man with an amputated foot, who has come to A&E for treatment.

“I’m homeless,” he says. He is accompanied by a friend, who is also homeless, and has made his own trip to the hospital in recent weeks. “I had pneumonia,” he says. “I had three blood transfusions.”

I was genuinely shocked by some of the data – really, really shocked. It should be a wakeup call to the citizens of Croydon.”

Lee Buss, director of operations, Evolve Housing + Support

They strike up a conversation with Deborah Ives, head of operations at homelessness charity Evolve Housing + Support, who is leading the team tonight. Elsewhere, a young woman who says she was homeless up until a couple of weeks ago approaches and has a chat with one of the volunteers, Mary Blamires. She is concerned society tends to think all homeless people are alcoholics. “She said: ‘I just wanted to let you know we are not’,” Ms Blamires reports afterwards.

It is all a powerful reminder that when housing professionals talk about the strain and cost that housing problems place on other services, or when homelessness professionals discuss tri-morbidity (the combination of mental and physical ill health and drug or alcohol misuse), this is the back story. To put it another way, if you are looking to find rough sleepers, an A&

For use in Inside Housing, 18 November 2016
A&E department in the middle of the night is a very good place to start.

The group is part of a bigger picture, however. Tonight, Croydon’s streets are covered with a patchwork quilt of volunteers. Their work is the start of the CR Zero 2020 campaign, which is led by Evolve, Crisis, Expert Link, Homeless Link and Thames Reach, to end rough sleeping in the borough. This sprang out of a wider European End Street Homelessness Campaign, which is being developed by the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) and FEANTSA, the European network of organisations working with homeless people.

The Croydon project’s ambition is clear. But what learning has it picked up already? And can it really succeed in eradicating rough sleeping?

Fast forward a few days, and some of the answers start to emerge. Over the course of the week, groups of volunteers speak to street homeless people in Croydon and get them to complete in-depth questionnaires. The aim is to build up the most detailed picture ever of the men and women living on the borough’s streets, which contain the eighth-highest number of people sleeping rough in the UK.

People sleeping rough on our streets is probably the most visible indicator of the profound housing problems we have got in this country that it is my job to try to tackle.

Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon and housing minister

On a Saturday morning, just days after the last group of volunteers reports back, the information contained on the questionnaires has been analysed and the initial findings are to be presented to members of the Croydon community, including constituency MP and housing minister, Gavin Barwell.

The volunteers engaged with 64 homeless people over the course of the week (more than the 53 people recorded in the last street count); 42 of them completed a survey. Straight away, it is obvious the A&E department the volunteers visited earlier in the week has been a familiar destination for many of Croydon’s rough sleepers. In fact, half of the rough sleepers who completed a questionnaire had been in an A&E department in the past six months.

Collectively, there had been 53 attendances to A&E departments in that time, with 19 separate occasions in which people had been taken in by ambulance. There were a further 23 cases in which people had been in hospital as an in-patient.

For use in Inside Housing, 18 November 2016
Filling in a questionnaire

Grim events

The rest of the statistics make pretty grim reading, too. More than half of the respondents said they had been attacked or beaten up while on the streets. Weeks after this meeting, the Croydon Advertiser reported the story of a homeless man who has disappeared after a gang of “laughing thugs” attacked him in a doorway and set his belongings on fire.

And there are hundreds of other statistics, each with their own depressing back stories. Two of the six women who filled out forms were pregnant, 60% of the respondents had not been in permanent or sustainable housing for six months or more and 70% said there were no activities in their life that made them feel happy and fulfilled other than just surviving. Lee Buss, director of operations at Evolve Housing + Support, admits: “I was genuinely shocked by some of the data – really, really shocked. It should be a wakeup call to the citizens of Croydon.”

What of Mr Barwell, who says he has hotfooted it to the morning’s event “from my surgery, dealing with a number of housing issues”?

We are asking the entire community to work together to find a solution to chronic rough sleeping on the streets of Croydon.

Lee Buss, director of operations, Evolve Housing + Support

Croydon’s MP is certainly not shying away from the problem. “People sleeping rough on our streets is probably the most visible indicator of the profound housing problems we have got in this country that it is my job to try to tackle,” he tells the audience. He later adds: “I look forward to hearing what I can do, what the council can do and what the community can do to solve this great moral stain on our times.” He promises to resource any potential new responsibilities placed on councils as a result of the forthcoming Homelessness Reduction Bill.

The members of the Croydon community in attendance are not here to demand solutions from the housing minister, however. Instead, the aim is for local people, charities and businesses to take matters into their own hands.

For use in Inside Housing, 18 November 2016

Collective effort

“We are asking the entire community to work together to find a solution to chronic rough sleeping on the streets of Croydon,” Mr Buss explains. “Now we have the information, we need to do something with it. Croydon has the answers. I don’t mean Croydon the local authority – although they play a vital role. I mean us, everyone in this room.”

The next step is to form a “community solutions” focus group, whereby local people and organisations will work together to develop answers. This could involve asking existing services to work differently or developing new services or methods.

Only a few weeks later, Inside Housing drops in on the initial meeting of the group in a community centre. Members of local homelessness charities and drop-in centres have turned up, alongside local residents and council staff. Mark McPherson, director of strategy, partnership and innovation at Homeless Link and who is chairing, states that the purpose of the group is to “understand why people live on the streets”, “identify the things that stop them getting off the streets” and “find solutions”.

It might be that we don’t get some of those people in the room… But we can come up with an ask for them.”

Mark McPherson, director of strategy, partnership and innovation, Homeless Link

The group begins by working in teams to identify points of contact and sources of help for homeless people in the borough. A chart of faith groups, night shelters and drop-in centres emerges. Over the next few weeks the information will be pulled together into a “systems map”. The next step will be to pinpoint barriers in the system and “who do we have to influence to remove them”.

“It might be that we don’t get some of those people in the room,” Mr McPherson says. “But we can come up with an ask for them.” He reminds the attendees that all solutions have to be “about housing” – “the solutions must mean they are no longer living on the streets”.

It is early days yet, but the mood in the room is optimistic. Rough sleeping might be on the rise nationally, but the group here today are determined they can reverse the trend and, indeed, eradicate it in Croydon by 2020. So far they have attracted more than 100 volunteers, had the ear of the housing minister and collected more detail about the borough’s homeless population than anyone before. They are likely to have plenty of learning to pass on to the housing sector – and do not bet against them achieving the seemingly impossible while they are at it.

Campaign origins

The work in Croydon to end homelessness can trace its roots back to the 100,000 Homes campaign in the USA.

This was a national grassroots movement working to find and permanently house 100,000 of the most vulnerable homeless people in the nation – with communities taking the lead. It won a World Habitat Award, organised by the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF), in 2013.

David Ireland, director of the BSHF, says after the award win “there was a real interest in seeing if we could use some of the methods and adapt them into Europe”. This led to the birth of the European End Street Homelessness Campaign, co-ordinated by BSHF. Identical questionnaires have been filled out by homeless people in various cities, such as Barcelona and Valencia, and Croydon is the latest area to launch its own campaign.

Homelessness Link | Homelessness services face uncertain future as rough sleeping figures double

Homeless Link logo Homeless Link tagline

Homelessness services face uncertain future as rough sleeping figures double

Government figures published today show that the number of people who sleep rough each night in England has more than doubled since 2010. Homeless Link believes the numbers could have been much higher without the support, innovation and adaptability of the homelessness sector.

According to the statistics, 3,569 people were estimated by local authorities to be sleeping rough on any one night in 2015. This represents a 30% increase on the 2014 estimate of 2,744, and a 102% increase since 2010, when the figure stood at 1,768.

However, without the critical support and temporary accommodation offered by homelessness services across England, Homeless Link believes this number could have been much higher.

The South West has seen the biggest percentage increase in rough sleeping since last year (41%). This is followed by the East of England (38%), the South East (36%) and the West Midlands (34%), all of which have seen increases in rough sleeping above the national average.

Responding to the rise in rough sleeping, Rick Henderson, Chief Executive of umbrella body Homeless Link, said:

“It is understandable that many people will focus exclusively on today’s latest statistic, but it’s worth considering how much higher that figure might have been without the support and innovation of frontline homelessness services. When the right local services are in place to help people off the streets as quickly as possible, we know it is possible to turn this situation around.”

In 2012, the Government called on every local authority to adopt the No Second Night Out standard by developing services to help people off the streets quickly. This was backed by £20m in grants for local homelessness charities over three years. This funding came to an end last March, but before it did, 13,900 people were helped off the streets before they spent a second night out, while 29,000 people at risk of homelessness were helped before they slept rough. Overall, almost 64,000 people were helped.

While Homeless Link welcomes the Government taking steps to protect funding for homelessness, the future for many homelessness services locally remains uncertain. They face a range of pressures, including reduced local authority funding, substantial changes to the welfare system and a housing crisis in many parts of the country. When combined, these factors present a clear threat to our vision of ending homelessness through innovative homelessness services.

Rick Henderson went on to say:

“It is unacceptable that anyone has to sleep rough in Britain today – and even more shocking that the number of people in this situation has risen every year since 2010. Unfortunately, many homelessness charities have already seen their funding fall as demand for help rises.

“Homelessness is costly and damaging to individuals and society, but we know that when national and local government have the right vision and strategy in place and invest in the right services, rough sleeping need not be inevitable.”

Explore rough sleeping trends in your area since 2010 with our live tables on rough sleeping.

Rough sleeping - Data for Exeter
Rough sleeping – Data for Exeter 2010-15

You may also like Rough sleeping – our analysis
Our analysis of numbers and trends around people who sleep rough in England.


Homeless Link | Guidance on Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) and extended weather provision

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Homeless Link have published Guidance on Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) and extended weather provision.

The guidance is designed to support local authorities and agencies to provide appropriate responses during the winter and periods of severe weather. Local areas should have enough adequate provision to prevent rough sleeping at any time of year. However, the winter period provides different opportunities for engaging with entrenched rough sleepers and hard-to-reach groups and increased support is often available. –

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Exeter Labour Party | Homelessness in Exeter

The Conservative general election candidate for Exeter new interest in rising homelessness in our city is a surprising campaign issue for him to focus upon.

Figures released in February this year by Homeless Link , show more people are sleeping rough on Britain’s streets than when the coalition came to power, with one in fifty experiencing it in the last five years. This shocking rise in homelessness means there are 55 per cent 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.

In Exeter because it is a regional transport hub , has community support for services , and a range of specialised care built up over time , 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.

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.

The Conservative candidate has apparently not bothered to find out what is already being done.

As the Express and Echo reported (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. This 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.

Also The Integrated Care Exeter project – a joint initiative led by Devon County Council in partnership with the NHS, Exeter City Council, Devon and Cornwall Police, Exeter CVS, AgeUK Exeter and others – has also committed to creating a Community Health & Wellbeing Hub for homeless people.

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”.

The Con Dem coalition has a terrible record on housing. One of its very first actions was to slash funding for house building . 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 , high housing 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 , less 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

Despite what the minor parties say this General Election in Exeter , is a straight fight between Labour and the austerity wielding Conservatives. If you care about homelessness , and housing generally , the choice is clear , vote Labour.

Rob Hannaford
Labour Party Housing Spokesperson