Framework's view on Nottingham 'homeless camp'
Hardly a day has passed since Christmas without someone asking me what I think about the tents that have appeared on Station Street in Nottingham. Since New Year’s Day their occupants have begun to move to a second ‘homeless camp’ near the Broadmarsh Centre.
As regards homelessness, what really matters is not what I think but what many of us know. It is certainly rising. Rough sleeping, for instance, was 55% higher in November 2014 than in November 2010 across the country as a whole. Anecdotal evidence suggests the trend is accelerating, and I expect the November 2015 official figures (when they are released) to confirm this. So why is this happening?
A severe national housing shortage is one factor. But single homelessness, and rough sleeping in particular, are more complicated than that. As the camp organisers have pointed out it is frequently associated with mental health problems, alcohol & substance misuse, domestic violence and other complications. This is why the opening of warehouses, factories and empty office buildings does not of itself offer a solution.
Sadly, central Government has developed effective programmes in the recent past, only to ignore the evidence and abandon them for no good reason. The best example was Supporting People – which delivered joined-up services for ten years after the second millennium until its national funding was dissipated in the name of localism. The large, sustained reduction in homelessness and rough sleeping between 2003 and 2010 was no coincidence. Neither is the subsequent increase in both.
It should go without saying that Framework regards homelessness as unacceptable in a civilised society. More than that – it is preventable for less money than it costs to address the problem once it occurs. Anyone pointing this out would normally have our strong support. So why don’t we offer it to the camp organisers?
The answer is that we are supporting those people living in the tents who genuinely need it. This caveat is necessary because some occupants (a majority of those our outreach workers have been able to see) have other accommodation that is currently available to them. This takes a variety of forms, some of it supported or temporary in nature. The best advice we can give to a person with access to a bed, a roof over their head, central heating and clean running water is to use them. Such facilities are, at worst, a good starting point for successful resettlement to permanent housing. They can be a lifesaver. Vulnerable people with serious health conditions should not be encouraged to sleep in tents when better alternatives exist.
The camp organisers say that some of those they are seeing have been asked to leave their family home, social or private tenancy through no fault of their own. Again, the best place to signpost these people in the first instance is not a tent on Cliff Road. It is Nottingham City Council’s Housing Aid Service on Lower Parliament Street. I accept that the legislation on statutory homelessness is complex and local connection may be an issue, indeed Framework has argued the case for legislative change in both respects. But even if the Council can’t help, we or another voluntary organisation may be able to do so.
It is suggested that some people find themselves sleeping rough because hostels and supported housing providers can’t cope with their drink or drug problems. As far as I am concerned and speaking only for Framework services this is not the case.
What we don’t tolerate (but do sometimes have to cope with) is persistent anti-social behaviour that may culminate in aggression or acts of violence towards staff and/or residents. Our services are staffed by people who demonstrate their care and commitment on a daily basis. Our duty to them and the wider community means that sometimes, in extremis, a person is asked to leave.
Nottingham City Council supports a range of specialist provision targeting different needs, carries out its own assessments and makes referrals in the light of them. We and other providers maintain a healthy, and on occasions robust dialogue with the City to try and ensure the allocations are appropriate – in other words that people access the services that best meet their needs. Specialist supported housing is complemented by a continuing commitment to street outreach and homelessness prevention work in Nottingham. This, it has to be said, does not exist in other places.
Consequently, the rise in rough sleeping that Nottingham has recently experienced is less severe than in other cities. Incidentally, and to correct something erroneously reported, the figure is not ‘consistently in single figures’. It varies from the low single figures to the mid and occasionally high teens, with a small upward trend in the average over the past twelve months.
The camp organisers say it is not a protest. The commissioners of services in the City, who are doing their best in very difficult circumstances, will be heartened to know this. If there is to be a protest, it should be conducted responsibly and pointed in the right direction. The decisions being taken by some local authorities to de-commission vital front-line services, whether entirely or in part, will cause homelessness to increase. They will also intensify the local connection issue.
At the heart of the problem is a pretence that homelessness and rough sleeping are being tackled effectively at a national level. On the contrary, the damage already being done will be exacerbated by a new government policy to cut dramatically the level of Housing Benefit payable to people living in supported housing. Its impact will be to make all such provision unviable from April 2018, de-stabilising the lives of some 400,000 people across the country. This is really something to protest about.