Harder to help homeless, charities say

07 November 2014

It is getting more difficult to help people off the streets. Madeleine Davies investigates

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BRIAN is hoping to move to Cumbria, across the Pennines from where he grew up in Sunderland. He might take up sea-fishing, which he used to do as a child, and will see more of his family. He also hopes that leaving London, where there are "more bookies than there are shops", might help him kick his compulsive gambling problem. It has dogged him since childhood, and has resulted in a peripatetic lifestyle.

"Being in employment is very dangerous for me, because I tend to use my money before I pay my rent," he explains. "I like working. I've always worked on buildings, but with [my] gambling, it's very dangerous."

Since 1991, when he split up with his wife, he has lived in London, spending about third of the intervening years on the streets while passing through numerous properties, rented from the council, housing associations, and private landlords. He once spent three years in a house in Walthamstow, but one day, after taking on some casual work, he found that, without warning, his benefits had been stopped. "I could have gone the next day and reclaimed it, but I didn't; so I managed to lose that property through rent arrears."

Then there were the years spent in Sedgley, Dudley, during which he went into rehab for his gambling. After the people he met through the programme moved away, he started gambling again, owing money to people who came knocking on his door. A £50 loan ballooned to become £60,000.

"When you are a gambler, if someone offers you money, you take it! They would come when you had nearly finished paying off your loan, and say, 'Would you like another loan?'" he says. "They would always give you more, even though they knew you were not working."

Azim, aged 41, also found himself on the streets after breaking up with his wife. He came to Europe from Algeria, aged 16, and has, he says, always "worked and saved". For a while, he stayed with a friend, who eventually found a girlfriend and asked him to leave. In Birmingham, he stole trousers and shoes: "I was so dirty, and thinking, 'My life is finished.' I wanted to kill myself."

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The police advised him to return to London. Not seeing his daughter for a year-and-a-half - she is nearly two - has left him with terrible depression, he says. He can't sleep, and struggles to work. He has been told he will have to go to court to secure access to her.

Both Brian and Azim are clients at the West London Day Centre, which provides health, housing, and education services for rough-sleepers in Westminster. There is a drop-in service every morning from Monday to Friday, and access to case-workers. Brian has been found a studio flat in Edmonton, and is being helped to make the transition back to the north. Azim, who struggles to read and write English, is receiving help to complete the forms necessary to begin the fight for access to his daughter.


IT IS becoming more difficult to find accommodation for clients, says Karen Mwaniki, a senior project worker. In April, the Caritas Social Action Network reported that, in more that 450 agencies for the homeless, 32 per cent of people who felt able to move on from hostels and shelters into rented accommodation were unable to do so, ow-ing to the lack of affordable housing.

Ms Mwaniki says that a significant number of clients are not UK nationals, and a tightening of the rules has made it difficult to secure housing benefit for those without a resident's permit or worker status.

There are also challenges for clients aged under 35, who are now eligible only for a room in a shared house. Clients aged over 35 who are working but lack a deposit can also struggle, she says, because landlords want people on "secure benefits".

This month, the Housing Justice network of church and community night shelters published information about the 1577 guests who stayed in its 24 shelters, hosted by 450 churches, synagogues, and mosques. This suggests that 34 per cent of guests moved into accommodation - about 26 per cent into a hostel or the private rental sector.

The Revd Annie Kirke, a pioneer of missional communities in the diocese of London, co-ordinates the Westminster Churches Winter Shelter (WCWS), in which six churches work in partnership with the West London Day Centre.

She reports that they have overcome the perception in local government that churches are "just do-gooders [who are] exacerbating the problem". She recalls being asked: "What if homeless people are lying, and the Church is being complicit in this behaviour?"

Despite its success stories, Housing Justice remains concerned about the barriers to resettlement. Alison Gelder, its chief executive, estimates that in London only five per cent of shared properties are actually affordable for the under-35s, even though they are eligible for only a room.


THE impact of the Government's welfare reforms on homelessness is being tracked by Homeless Monitor, led by the University of York and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. A report published last December suggested that, after falling sharply for six years, the number of cases of homelessness accepted by councils rose by a third between 2010 and 2013. About 22 per cent of these cases were precipitated by the loss of private-sector tenancies.

Welfare-benefit cuts, as well as constraints on housing access and supply, are critical to overall levels of homelessness, the organisation says. On the so-called bedroom tax, or "spare-room subsidy", it reports that, "in many parts of the country, social landlords simply do not have sufficient stock available to transfer tenants [who are] willing to move to smaller accommodation."

Statistics leaked from the Department for Work and Pensions suggest that average rent arrears for benefit claimants in a pilot of the Universal Credit have doubled to £942.

Although she would like to see the Government intervene - in part by capping rents - Ms Gelding argues that churches can't sit back and wait for it to do so. "There are an awful lot of buy-to-let landlords in church congregations," she says. "If those people could see it as their Christian duty to take the lowest rent they could manage on, and accept benefit payments, that would make a difference."

Housing Justice suggests that Christians should consider renting out spare rooms, renovating empty homes, converting church buildings, and using church land to build affordable homes. Its pamphlet Faith in Affordable Housing provides practical guidance on this latter point.

The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, who chairs Housing Justice, says: "Anglican dioceses are also landlords. We're encouraging them, if they are looking at developing bits of land, to consider housing as a priority, and ideally affordable housing."

Ultimately, however, the Government must take action, the Bishop says. "We simply have not, for 20 years or more, provided the number of homes that are needed. There are brownfield sites all over the place that are not being built on."

Those who simply sit on land should be penalised, he argues, while private landlords, who were "understandably worried" about taking on tenants from vulnerable sectors of society, could be incentivised through deposit guarantees.

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THE Government has not been inactive. Although it has refused to set any overall targets for housing supply, house-building is at its highest level (137,780 in the past 12 months) since 2007. It is offer-ing housing-providers a govern-ment guarantee on the debt they raise to deliver affordable homes; and it aims to support the delivery of 200,000 new affordable homes by 2019. It has identified public-sector land that could be sold and used to build 100,000 new homes. A total of £400 million has been allocated to tackling homeless- ness over the course of this Parliament.

For Brian, though, back at the day centre, the emphasis on bricks and mortar misses the point. "They put you in somewhere, and there's no back-up," he says. "People are on the street because they've got problems, and if you don't deal with the problems, they usually end up back out on the street again. . .

"If you're sitting looking at four walls all day long, it makes life very difficult for you. Actually, I'm gambling even more than before now that I'm in somewhere, because . . . there's no connection with anybody."

This month, Independent Age and the International Longevity Centre reported that more than 1.2 million older men reported feeling socially isolated.

Charities such as the West London Day Centre attempt to help people make the transition back to ordinary, communal living, but the task is a large one. "Living on the street causes people to develop all sorts of coping mechanisms," Ms Kirke says. "They grow a tough skin."

But, with the right sort of support, this can be righted: "Even two years on the streets can be undone in just three months, through a group of people being loving, attendant, and present."

Some names in this article have been changed at the request of the interviewees.

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