How to engage with Homelessness
We all have had the dilemma set before us, of a homeless person on the street asking for help, and unsettling us.
Even if they do not directly say it to us, if we have a home to go to at the end of the day, and it appears they do not we can feel guilty and wonder ‘someone should be doing something’. We may ask ourselves what can we do to help? We might offer some small change, or buy some food and drink, hoping that will make something of a difference, even if we suspect that it is but a drop in the ocean. BUT That act of giving can also be controversial, surrounded with suspicions that the charity offered is the result of being duped. As a result some local authorities are trying to discourage ‘begging’, or vagrancy as it used to be known. In areas now of Dorset some localities have brought in Anti-Social banning orders to disperse ‘vagrants’ and prevent clusters of people in need visibly collecting and being an embarrassment on the area, as they may perceive it.
However, Rough Sleeping can also only be the tip of the Iceberg regarding issues to do with Homelessness, being the visible manifestation of a largely hidden problem for society at large.
HOW DO PEOPLE BECOME HOMELESS?
Which takes us to consider how we define and address homelessness?
One can argue that homelessness is actually not having a permanent settled affordable place to call home. So people might be in temporary accommodation, off the streets, but be homeless through not having a place to call home. This is where much of the substantial debate is to be had.
One local politician was recently reported as commenting that Homelessness in his Borough is a Lifestyle choice. Most informed people would realise that it is far, far more complicated than that. There is a link below to a section on the Shelter website as to how people become homeless, which can be for a vast number of reasons. More recently this might be because their Universal Credit is lower than their former level of benefit was, they can’t afford their rent and they are evicted. Sometimes it’s because of family breakdown, including domestic violence, young people being thrown out of the family home, possibly for no apparent reason, people leaving institutions such as prison or the army and having nowhere to go.
Whatever the reason, they are highly unlikely to be homeless through choice!
Sometimes people are stuck in addictions and behaviours which prevent them from making the best use of the help offered to them. Organisations trying to help will sometimes talk of ‘tough love’ to help transform people in long term ways - and the attitudes of people observing can sometimes not help. In the discussion to which the link to the panel conversation is provided, is a lovely ironic comment offered to YMCA that their new affordable units seemed to be empty during the daytime, and what a waste that was; to which Y-Cube managers pointed out that the new residents were actually all at work those day time, and making a go of their life. The observers offering the critical comment had to amend their expectations, as they had not expected people to be helped out of dependency.
So, addressing homelessness will mean finding creative ways of meeting the need, and not necessarily going for the obvious means (giving cash), which may in fact unintentionally create dependency, and help the one helping more than the one helped. It can mean finding out what already is happening and joining in as one is able. There are many opportunities, and agencies who can assist. Everything, large and small, can help. But for those with capital, even with modest sums, there are ways of pooling that and enabling things to happen.
Volunteering time with the voluntary sector organizations is also always welcomed, and usually training and support will be given. So don’t feel daunted when you see the need in front of you.
There is much that can be done, and who knows maybe in a decade or so, we might achieve the end of Rough Sleeping as the Government hopes, and be some way towards reducing incidence of the hidden homelessness as well.
WHAT YOU CAN DO…
So that’s all very well but what can we do when faced with the homeless person before us?
Well, it turns out depending on where we are in Hampshire or Dorset quite a lot.
The places where gathered homeless people are concentrated have a number of schemes in place, which one can join with in action and support.
Churches in Portsmouth, for instance, run 3 Foodbanks, several cafes and soup kitchens (so it is said that a homeless person can get a hot meal somewhere in the city each day), a Hostel and most recently a night shelter scheme (via the Salvation Army and Society of St James) which now has financial support and practical help from the City Council. This will use some of the recently promised Government money to tackle Rough Sleeping across the UK. This in itself is the result of the passing last year of a Homeless Reduction Act, which sets up a statutory responsibility for Government, local and national, to act on this issue. In part this Act came into being from campaigns nationally by bodies like Shelter and Housing Justice. So one can campaign, and now use reference to the provisions of the Act to force action. Responsible bodies are already acting of course, but the picture is patchy across the IBEX region.
How do you find out what help is already available?
A new publicly accessible website https://streetsupport.net/ is operating in Southampton, Portsmouth, Bournemouth and other areas, which is building up links and information on what help is available in these places.
A person on the street could be guided to these. There are other networks as well. Dorset has a Rough Sleepers Partnership telephone advice helpline (Tel. 0300 5000 914).
Most local authorities have designated staff (Portsmouth has an official called the Poverty Reduction coordinator, who among other things enables a network meeting for the cities Foodbank centres) seeking to resource and enable provision.
The job titles and roles may vary across the different local authority areas, but each has someone tasked with all this.
They often are very eager to get Church and Voluntary Sector engagement in these matters, and welcome all good and creative ideas.
A good principle though is always to find out what is already happening and if one can join in with such efforts.
Often there is sharing across the projects as well, so there is not unnecessary doubling up. Again in Portsmouth it is not unknown for the different Foodbanks to share surplus stocks of items with other Foodbanks, and Soup Kitchens.
What if people are just begging?
There is good reason to believe that people who are begging are not necessarily homeless. In some places there is evidence of begging being “organized” with rotas and coordinators (gangmasters?) who are also in for a piece of the action.
So, importantly, if you wish to financially help homeless people, but feel uncomfortable in giving to a person who may or may not have a convincing story as to their need, any or all of the organizations mentioned above would accept donations.
Many churches with cafés for instance, will have collecting tins for loose cash and envelope donation schemes.
There are conversations happening about setting up schemes (similar to one in Nottingham in the East Midlands) where libraries, churches, schools, and other public places have secure collecting boxes and tins for people to donate what they would have given an individual, which then is collected with the sums given to local organizations working with the homeless.
Nightstop New Forest
One organisation locally with a slightly different approach is New Forest Nightstop. Nightstop is a national concept, whereby homeless people can actually be lodged with families, rather than going in to hostel accommodation, nightshelters or whatever. The national concept is for a specific age-range of younger people, which is 16 to 24 year-old, but the New Forest is version does not have the upper age limit of 24 years. https://newforestnightstop.org.uk/
The potential host families need to pass all the security, DBS checks and so on that you would expect, but the advantages of the scheme are manifold: potentially vulnerable individuals are placed in to an environment where those hosting them are likely to care and to be sympathetic.
This is not to say that the people working in nightshelters and the like don’t care – obviously they do or they wouldn’t be there. But going in to a private home is likely to be less intimidating, the people who are offering their home more supportive and sympathetic, if only because they have a far smaller number of people to deal with – probably just one individual. Two things which strike us about this scheme are that:
Churches could well be a source of households which might take this sort of responsibility on board.
There may be room for the scheme to be developed across our area more widely.
What is the real need out there?
So far we have focused on the obvious need presented by rough sleeping, which is often the starting point for many people who feel concerned, or even guilty, about the situation. It can seem daunting. And in many ways it is. Each year on one night of the year there is an official head count of those sleeping rough on the streets, which is published by the Office of National Statistics, who verify the numbers and methods used. According to this count (which some will dispute its accuracy, and indeed the report itself advises caution) in the IBEX region’s Local Authorities we have in all 241 rough sleepers, which was an increase of 3% on the last count. This though disguises some concentrations.
The three areas with the most are Bournemouth (48), Portsmouth (42) and Southampton (29) and Weymouth & Portland (18). Other areas are largely single figures. Why though, the caution? Well there may have been people who normally are on the streets, who were – say – in a hostel that night, or hospital, or sleeping on a friend’s sofa. So some would take these figures and double them. And then as that last example signifies, these figures are only for those on the streets, and do not cover those who are (so called) Sofa Surfers, or in a Hostel, or B & B temporary accommodation. In many ways the Rough Sleeping is the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.