(This is the text of my article that first appeared in the Brighton Argus on Saturday 25th November 2017)
“Something must be done”, is a common response to the sight of men and women sleeping on our streets. Understandably, such calls get louder and more frequent in the cold weather.
Rough sleeping in Brighton and Hove is obvious for all to see. It is not on the scale of London or many cities in the United States where the numbers are in the tens of thousands in individual cities, but nonetheless it is appalling to see. In Brighton there are up to 150 people sleeping rough each night.
Most weeks I hear of new initiatives being proposed or new groups being developed to solve this challenge. Those involved often believe that no effective work is being done. In reality, a lot is happening. This week came the welcome news that the Council is opening a winter shelter.
I believe that there are over thirty organisations working with homeless people in the City. We at Brighton Housing Trust (BHT) work in partnership with some wonderful organisations such as St Mungos, the YMCAs, the Clock Tower Sanctuary and Off the Fence who are making a real difference, from helping people to end their rough sleeping to making life a little less unbearable for those on the streets.
Individuals, driven by an understandable need to do something, would be wise to get involved with or support one or more of these organisations, rather than attempt to set up something new.
I am very proud of the work my BHT colleagues do, almost always in partnership with other agencies. BHT’s Advice Centre in Queen’s Road prevented 126 households becoming homeless between April and June this year, and a further 158 between July and September. BHT’s First Base Day Centre prevented 61 and 65 individuals from losing their accommodation in the same periods.
At First Base people get the basics for survival and basic dignity – hot drinks and meals, showers, toilet facilities, clean and dry clothes, essential advice and information and, and critically, help to move off the streets and into supported or other accommodation. We also refer them to appropriate health services and, wherever possible, into treatment, if they are addicted.
Care-leavers, ex-military personnel and those escaping violence and abuse have always been disproportionately represented amongst rough sleepers, like those with addictions and mental health problems. However, more recent political changes, such as the sale of council houses alongside a failure to replace them, successive governments’ focus on ownership rather than affordable rental options, as well as welfare reforms leading to cuts and sanctions, have all taken a terrible toll.
When it comes to helping people to move off the streets, the uncomfortable truth is that alcohol and drugs play a major role in keeping some people on the streets. Addiction leads tragically, to some deaths.
The services provided by BHT’s Addiction Services and others, such as the St Thomas Fund, make a big contribution by helping homeless people into recovery, alongside self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
We need politicians and other opinion-formers to call, unambiguously, for treatment services that will help homeless people with addictions to come off and stay off alcohol and drugs. The housed have at least a chance of recovery in their own homes, usually with the support of AA or NA. Affluent middle class addicts can buy private treatment. Homeless people need effective residential rehabilitation services with support to come off and stay off. It works and we need much more of it.
In the short term we are faced with the immediate prospect of people sleeping on the streets during the coldest months of the year. For many years, BHT has run cold weather shelters in the worst of the weather. We insist that these are properly staffed and managed. Various other initiatives have been suggested, from the use of empty council buildings to a marquee. All these proposals have merit but in my view they must be properly planned and staffed in order to maintain safety, not least for women and young people.
Last week BHT launched a report on women and homelessness (copies at www.bht.org.uk). It clearly sets out the risks faced by women in mixed gender services, even those that are well-staffed. An ill-planned, inadequately staffed shelter can be more dangerous for women, and some men, than sleeping on the streets.
No doubt some people will be angry with some of what I have written above. By all means agree or disagree. These are my personal and sincerely held views, based on many years working for BHT, and being advised by colleagues and, above all, clients. I aim to encourage debate on this and other difficult ethical issues. There is no monopoly on truth and by debating we can hope to find better ways to prevent rough sleeping, and to make a real and sustained difference to the lives of those people who find themselves on the streets.