Observer column: 21 September 2018
Next Friday, I'll be spending the night at the Stade Open Space, sleeping in a cardboard box. This will be the fourth annual Big Sleep event, raising money for the Seaview Project, a local charity that works with rough sleepers.
Rough sleeping has been increasing across the country, with southern coastal towns the most affected. There are two and a half times more rough sleepers In Hastings than there were three years ago, with around 40 on the streets on an average night, although most do not have a local connection. But rough sleeping is only a small part of the total homelessness problem. There were 503 applications to the council for homelessness during 2017-18, and even that is only a small portion of the total, as most homeless people don't register with the council at all. Only about half of those applying qualify for emergency accommodation under national rules. While the number of homelessness applications has stabilised over the past couple of years, the length of stay in temporary accommodation continues to increase, because of the shortage of suitable permanent accommodation. Hastings Council now spends a million pounds a year on providing temporary accommodation for homeless households. So we're also leasing and buying private properties to provide both temporary and permanent homes, to reduce the use of expensive bed and breakfast accommodation.
Hastings Council has for some time employed a specialist housing officer to work with rough sleepers, as well as funding an outreach worker via Seaview to make contact with and offer support to all rough sleepers in Hastings. The council has also co-ordinated a multi-agency team to provide support and accommodation services for rough sleepers. A project funded by the local Clinical Commissioning Group also helps rough sleepers by offering support for drug and alcohol addictions, mental health care, social care and housing advice.
Over the past year and a half, Hastings Council has been co-ordinating a county-wide rough sleeping prevention project, working with insecurely housed people with high support needs to prevent them from rough sleeping. The project worked with 260 individuals in 2017/18, over 80% of whom were prevented from rough sleeping. More recently, Hastings and Eastbourne councils were successful in a bid to get an additional £600,000 to pilot a 'housing first' approach to rough sleepers. This will aim to get rough sleepers into accommodation where their needs can be assessed, and where support can be provided to help with health and addiction problems, claiming benefits, and maintaining a tenancy, and getting a job. It's an expensive, resource-intensive process, but without this kind of support, many rough sleepers end up back on the street again.
So the Big Sleep draws attention to the increasing problem of rough sleeping, and the plight of those who find themselves forced to sleep rough. This is, of course, nothing like rough sleeping. You're in a secure compound with security guards, the toilets are open all night, and the cardboard box is palatial. It's fun too - this year's musical entertainment, open to all, is provided by Bobby Fuego's Fat Fingers of Funk and the Haystingers, from 8pm - 10pm.
Ending rough sleeping will take major changes to government policy, to provide sufficient rented housing that's genuinely affordable. In the meantime, charities such as Seaview are essential to help rough sleepers, making their lives a little better, and helping them into accommodation.
Council Leader's column