Observer column: 15 December 2017
Dreaming of a Home For Christmas
Season's greetings: it's that time of year again. But amid the present-buying, stocking-up with festive food, and decorating our homes, spare a thought for those with no home to decorate. Homelessness has become a national crisis. And while not all people without homes end up on the street, some do - and their numbers are growing.
Households accepted as 'priority' homeless by Hastings Council have more than doubled in number over the last three years. Well over 700 households will be accepted during 2017/18. Rough sleeping has increased similarly. In Hastings, the number sleeping on the street on any one night has risen from 12 to 40.
But this number would be far higher, were it not for the response from the council and others to assist rough sleepers. Seaview, a local charity that helps vulnerable single people and the street community, makes first contact with anyone living on the street through a twice-weekly council-funded outreach service. The local Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) also funds services at Seaview, to bring together different agencies offering help to find accommodation, support to maintain a tenancy, mental health treatment, and drug & alcohol recovery services. There are also activities and classes, and a warm place to socialise in a safe environment.
Seaview can also give rough sleepers a ticket for Snowflake Shelters, run by volunteers in church halls and community centres, providing overnight accommodation and a cooked breakfast during the winter period.
The Council leads a multi-agency team with Sussex Police, Seaview, Hastings Voluntary Action, CCG, and others to coordinate services for people living on the street, identify individuals and offer support. A group of 20 workers from different agencies also meets monthly to coordinate support for individual rough sleepers, identified during Seaview's outreach sessions.
This work is part of an East Sussex Rough Sleeper Prevention Programme, led by Hastings Council, building on the 'No First Night Out' project in London. A project officer works across the county to identify individuals at high risk of rough sleeping, who are referred to a council Rough Sleeper Prevention Coordinator.
There are other agencies too who work with rough sleepers and the street community, offering various kinds of support, food, and shelter. These include Brighton Housing Trust, Emmaus, Homeworks, STEPS, Xtrax, The Links Project, Hope Kitchen, Salvation Army, and St John's Ambulance, as well as the council's housing advice and accommodation services.
So there's a lot of support on offer for rough sleepers, and those at risk of rough sleeping. But all these services cannot hold back the rising tide of homelessness. While rents soar above housing benefit payments, while people get evicted because of cruel benefits sanctions, while shorthold tenancies offer only six months' security of tenure, and while there's nowhere near enough social rented housing available, homelessness and rough sleeping will grow. To change that needs big changes to national policies.
Whatever you're celebrating this time of year, be it Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule or Saturnalia, why not donate to Seaview, Snowflake or any of the local charities working with street homeless people? It's easy to do, using a 'donate' button on their websites. All of us should be able to enjoy the festive season without the fear, insecurity and distress that goes with having nowhere to live. It won't solve the homelessness crisis, but it might make someone's life just a little more bearable.
Council Leader's column