Observer column: 11 September 2015
Many local people have noticed more rough sleepers in some parts of Hastings. This is an increasing problem nationally. Since 2010, the numbers of people sleeping rough in London and the south east have trebled. So what can the council do to tackle this?
Most homeless people are not rough sleepers, and not all rough sleepers are homeless. I recently helped a rough sleeper who had simply lost his key. Sometimes, people sleep rough because their accommodation is unsafe or threatening. But most are homeless. There are currently around a dozen people sleeping rough in Hastings on any given night - up from just two or three five years ago. Around half of rough sleepers in Hastings have no local connection.
Homelessness is best prevented before it happens. The council helped over 2,000 potentially homeless households find accommodation last year. But we're also involved in several rough sleeper support services, and commission overnight outreach work from the Seaview Project two or three times a week. Outreach workers record who is sleeping rough, where they're from, and offer them assistance, including emergency accommodation. Last year, 64 people were helped into permanent housing in this way. If they're from outside of Hastings, they're usually helped to re-establish links to their home area. Additional outreach services are planned. All rough sleepers who've been in town a few days are known to support workers - Hastings has been commended for being a forward-thinking council for this.
People often sleep rough because of personal trauma. Relationship breakdown is the commonest cause. They're often young and increasingly likely to be female - two pregnant women were sleeping rough in Hastings recently. They often have untreated mental health problems. But rough sleeping is dangerous - apart from assaults and hypothermia, rough sleepers are at risk of being 'helped' by people offering drugs and alcohol, creating a downward spiral of substance abuse, unemployment, homelessness and poverty that's very hard to escape.
A few councils have considered using new Public Place Protection Orders to tackle rough sleeping, by giving the police powers to 'evict' anyone sleeping rough. But this seems the wrong approach - helping them back into housing is both more humane and more effective.
So it's important that local services are co-ordinated and properly regulated to offer the right kind of support. If they're not, there's a danger that 'naive' rough sleepers will be introduced to addiction and alcoholism, rather than being helped. And this applies also to anyone offering food - homeless people should not expect lower food hygiene standards than the rest of us. But what really helps rough sleepers and homeless people is helping them find homes. All local services should focus on this. And if you want to help, Seaview and other established local charities are always in need of volunteers.
No-one chooses to start sleeping rough, it's forced on them through personal circumstances. But at the moment, things are getting no better. Escalating rents, benefits cuts, poor mental health care and a shortage of social housing will continue to shatter lives. It will be up to councils and charities to keep picking up the pieces.