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Rough sleepers: It’s complicated

Nicola Miller
Nicola Miller

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing, goes the saying, but I hate the cold. It makes me feel physically unwell, no matter how appropriately dressed and that is why I did not join the chorus of delight when it started snowing in December.

Forefront in my mind was the plight of rough sleepers, out in all weathers, cold, damp, and vulnerable to the less savoury aspects of our local nighttime economy.

West Suffolk Councils are doing their best to help, working with Rhys Walters, a newly-appointed rough sleeper prevention and support officer whose previous, personal experience of homelessness informs his practice. They have also opened a temporary night shelter at Northgate Lodge in Bury St Edmunds with the support of the Garland Street Baptist church. Appeals for food, bedding, toiletries, and other essentials helped stock the shelter although there remains an ongoing need for long-life food. The shelter, working with rough sleepers across West Suffolk, plans to remain open until March although the council is working towards opening a permanent winter night shelter.

The causes of rough sleeping and homelessness are complex and it should not be assumed that finding someone a home will resolve the issues that led to their homelessness in the first place. For people with mental health problems and a past dogged by abuse or trauma, the responsibility of their own home can be overwhelming and without ongoing support, their housing may fail. As Rhys says: “Of the 24 rough sleepers that I am working with in the town, many possess some form of mental health and/or substance misuse issues. A compassionate approach which recognises them as an individual is fundamental in encouraging these men and women to gain access to the local agencies that can help address the barriers that exist to leading more independent and productive lives.”

Not every rough sleeper will want to use a shelter for a myriad of reasons although rough sleeping is not a choice in the true sense of the word, for those people who want to believe that people freely choose to be without a home. For women in particular, enclosure in a shelter may not feel safe whilst the open streets offer at least a semblance of escape from challenging people or situations. If you’ve experienced a traumatic childhood, the concept of ‘home’ may not be an especially positive one. The kind of outreach programme which Rhys is engaged in takes time to build trust between homeless people and the services that may have failed to meet their needs in the past.

A council spokesperson said: “The winter night shelter continues to be well used although there are still spaces each night, and sadly even though some of those rough sleeping have been referred and accepted for a place in the night shelter, there are some who have not turned up and have instead slept out for the night.

“That is why the council is committed to working with our partners in mental health, substance misuse, probation and other services, to continue to try to prevent homelessness and to help those who are rough sleeping get the support that they need.”

The councils have been working with a range of partners including the police, probation service, Turning Point and the NHS’ Marginalised Vulnerable Adults Service, to identify and prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. Since January of last year, the councils have assisted or prevented more than 450 households from becoming homeless which, if you want to be financially hard-nosed about human lives, will save taxpayers even more money across the medium to long term instead of the more immediately measurable, short-term savings which health and social policy seems obsessed with.

The financial challenges facing councils and the slashing of mental health and social care services have taken their toll: the increasing presence of rough sleepers on our streets and liminal spaces acts as a litmus test for the efficacy of government health and social policy and it is failing our most vulnerable people. But I have been moved by the efforts of West Suffolk Councils and other agencies to mitigate the worst effects of austerity despite the financial constraints they work under and moved by the response of local people to appeals for help.

It is good to be reminded that in the civic and political world are to be found humans working really hard to do their best in difficult circumstances.

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