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Rough sleeping may be down, but homelessness is far from solved

Jackie Bliss, HARP Chief Executive

Our Chief Executive, Jackie Bliss, shares her thoughts on the latest rough sleeper figures announced by central government on Thursday 31st January 2019.

Whilst it was encouraging to see the number of rough sleepers counted in Southend last November drop by 85%, compared with the estimated 72 the year before, I feel it’s important that people understand how these figures are obtained and what they mean.

On the morning of November 23rd 2018, between midnight and 5am, representatives from Southend Borough Council, HARP and other local agencies ventured out into Southend to well-known rough sleeping spots. Between the agencies, there is a lot of shared intelligence on these "hot spots", which include secluded areas away from the town centre. That night, having searched the area pretty exhaustively, nine people could be found bedded down. Another two were also known to be sleeping rough but could not be found, so they were added to the count making the final official figure 11. This was significantly down from the 72 which had been estimated in the autumn of 2017.

Rough sleeping is the sharp edge of homelessness, and we are only too aware that this represents only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to total numbers of people who are actually homeless. So a reduction in people found to be sleeping rough doesn’t, in itself, mean that the underlying number of people lacking appropriate housing has also fallen, or that Southend’s homelessness problem has been solved. However, there can be no doubt that it is a positive step forward to see far fewer people risking illness and death by actually sleeping in our streets and parks, or on our beaches.

There is no way to say that the figure counted last November is definitive or 100% accurate, and we fully accept that there could have been additional rough sleepers that night who were either unknown to the agencies who participated, or whose location on that night was unknown. It is also relevant that the night of 22nd/23rd November last year was particularly cold, therefore people who had previously been rough sleeping may have found temporary accommodation, perhaps “sofa surfing” with a friend or relative. The rules of the count require local authorities and their partners to exclude people who were known to be sleeping in squats or sofa surfing, as the count is intended purely to identify those people who are sleeping outside overnight.

If the number of rough sleepers counted last November was, as some people believe, understated, there is a way in which you can help us to get a more complete picture for future counts. That is to ensure that you use StreetLink to report the whereabouts of anyone you know or suspect to be sleeping rough. Please do use this and encourage your friends, families, workmates or anyone else you know to also do so. We know that people sleeping rough frequently move around the town, and it will help us and the other agencies tackling homelessness enormously if we always have the most up to date information about where these people are on any night.

So putting the count into the context I have described above, HARP believes the figure of 11 people included in the government’s latest published statistics to be broadly accurate for that particular night when the count took place. Most importantly, we feel that the number of people sleeping rough has definitely dropped significantly since the 2017 estimate, when 72 people were thought to be sleeping rough in Southend. This is partly due to some vital new services which were launched in the latter half of 2018.

One such service was set up by the voluntary group Off The Streets, with their nine bed emergency night shelter, which HARP has supported and worked in partnership with. Another was HARP’s own Extended Emergency Service, which regularly sleeps up to 12 people each night on blow-up mattresses in our Bradbury Centre. HARP has also started a much needed and long desired outreach service, which enables us to engage with people on the streets directly, working closely with outreach workers employed by other specialist agencies in Southend. This outreach initiative aims to build trusting relationships with rough sleepers no matter how entrenched they have become, and to begin the process of working with each one, to address whatever issues have contributed to their homelessness in order to help them to overcome those.

The November 2018 count took place prior to the Churches Winter Night Shelters opening in early December. This hugely valuable service - run by dedicated volunteers - provides a further 20 or more homeless people with a place to stay overnight (and much more than just a bed) during the coldest winter months, away from the streets. All of this is in addition to the 38 emergency beds which are operated all year round by HARP, not to mention our current 151 units of supported accommodation. We increased our number of supported bed spaces by 20 between October last year and Christmas, and are in the process of securing another 20 to 25, which should become available over the coming few months.

So, although it’s true that “only” 11 people were counted that night in November, we are all too aware that there were, in addition, a large number of people in temporary, unstable or makeshift accommodation on that night. And on top of those, lots more were accommodated with us or in other hostels, taking those all important steps to try to overcome the causes of their homelessness. Getting people into temporary accommodation is just the start of the journey away from homelessness - once people are housed, the real work can start.

Clearly, these people still need our (and your) support, help and compassion. In the calendar year 2018, over 1,200 local people came to HARP because they were homeless or at risk of homelessness. This demonstrates that many, many local people are still struggling to keep a roof over their heads. It is also worth bearing in mind that HARP only works with single homeless people, not with families, so we aren’t able to comment on levels of homelessness affecting families in Southend.

In summary, therefore, the lack of affordable housing combined with low levels of wages prevalent in jobs based in Southend - together with other issues which contribute to homelessness such as inadequate resources to deal with mental health problems before they escalate - these issues are not solved simply because of a fall in the number of people sleeping rough.

So we believe this improvement in the numbers recorded last November is cause for muted optimism, but not yet celebration. The work that has been done over the last year - much of which would not have been possible without the investment in services provided by central government - has allowed some great progress to be made with a number of previously hard to reach individuals. However, we are far from out of the woods, and many more people will need support as the housing crisis deepens, austerity continues to bite, and individual situations become more precarious.

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