Living as we do in this city centre constituency where the enormously wealthy live cheek by jowl with some of the poorest, most disenfranchised in our society, I believe we are confronted more regularly than most by the issues surrounding rough sleeping.
Many of us may be particularly familiar with rough sleeping in the Westminster half of our constituency where some of England’s oldest, most well known churches such as St Martin-in-the-Fields and Westminster Cathedral, have historically provided vital services to the homeless. It is in this half of the constituency too that many people arrive in London for the first time, particularly those from recent EU accession states (A8 nationals from countries who joined the EU in 2004 such as Poland, and A2 nationals from the 2007 accession of Bulgaria and Romania) whose coaches are destined for Victoria. Indeed in January last year, I helped secure Westminster City Council an extra £100 000 of Home Office funding to assist in dealing with those A8 and A2 nationals who had fallen into rough sleeping and who required help in returning home.
But what of the Square Mile with its sparkling offices and sharp suited workers? With only a residential population of just under 8000 and a transient working population which all but deserts the area at weekends, one would be forgiven for thinking that many of the social aggravators that encourage rough sleeping would not exist there. Not so. The City’s many silent alleyways and the yards of some of its forty seven churches provide some of the safest and most quiet resting places for those sleeping rough in the capital; a haven away from the drunken crowds of the West End and the complaints and disapproving eyes of a large residential population.
At the end of May, my parliamentary researcher joined the City of London Police on their operation to help count the number of those sleeping rough in the Square Mile. Since 1996, local authorities have been asked to provide annual estimates of rough sleeping in their statistical returns to the government and they are now encouraged to conduct at least two counts a year in areas with a substantial number of rough sleepers (twenty or more on a single night).
Homelessness charities are keen to point out the flaws in basing policy on the statistics provided by the counts, but if nothing else, such counts help to identify those who need support and provide an overall impression of whether rough sleeping is increasing in an area and what types of people require assistance.
The City’s last count had been in April and was the first conducted with new partners, Broadway, a homelessness charity created in 2002 with a strong track record of delivering outreach services in the capital. Broadway had won the City’s outreach contract from St Mungo’s – an indication both that competition has a place in the charitable sector and that the charitable sector can have a valuable role in local government.
The April count had produced surprising results – at 63, the number of rough sleepers recorded was far higher than anticipated. 92% were male, 94% were white and nearly 40% were from the EU. With the high result, Broadway and the City were keen to recount one month on to see whether the situation on the ground had changed.
At 11pm on a damp May night, thirty or so people – a mixture of police officers, Broadway volunteers and other partners – gathered at Snow Hill police station in the City to help conduct the count. Divided into teams, each group was given a specific area of the Square Mile in which to count and set out just after midnight – the time of the count is critical as many rough sleepers do not bed down for the night until late.
By 2.30am the count was complete and 48 rough sleepers had been identified, 46 of whom were male, 90% were white, 44% in the 36-45 age bracket and 29% of whom had been sleeping rough for over five years. Interestingly, 56% were classed as being from the EU.
Helping those from A8 and A2 countries has become an important component of Broadway’s work in London and they are assisted by partner agency, Barka UK. The Barka Foundation was established in Poland as a response to increasing social problems during the transformation years. Barka has since established a UK branch to help repatriate those who have fallen into unemployment, alcoholism and homelessness on the streets of London. Migrants coming to work in Britain for the first time can fall into rough sleeping due to hurdles in finding and keeping work – the language barrier, a lack of clear official advice, irregular and insecure working conditions – and securing accommodation. Furthermore, A8 and A2 migrants are only entitled to benefits once they have completed a certain amount of work in the UK and therefore there is no safety net (many would say rightly so) when they fall on hard times.
Following a count, Broadway returns to the rough sleepers, builds a relationship with them and tries to enable them to find secure accommodation and support. After April’s count, 18 of the 63 people identified were housed and three were returned to Poland. Hopefully similar progress will be made following May’s count.
Though we face fresh problems in dealing with the growth in migrant homelessness, I think many of us will appreciate that real steps have been made in the right direction in taking people off London’s streets over the past couple of decades. In 1990 the Conservative government made big strides in tackling London’s growing rough sleeping problem by establishing the Rough Sleepers Initiative (RSI) which saw an increase in advice and outreach work and more hostel, temporary and permanent accommodation places. In a sign that we were going in the right direction, the Labour government has continued the work of the RSI. We must ensure that the issue of homelessness continues to be a priority, not simply by intervening when people have resorted to a life on the streets but by tackling social breakdown and giving more thought to how we treat people such as our ex-servicemen, a worrying number of whom can fall into homelessness after leaving the Forces.