The latest figures for those sleeping rough on our streets show that yet again there has been a rise. Government statistics show that more than 4,000 people are sleeping out on our streets on any one night, a 16 per cent increase on the previous year.
There is a clear correlation between the rise in those sleeping out on our streets and the deficit reduction programme introduced by the Coalition government in 2010. Homeless Link, the national membership body for those working to end homelessness, estimates that there has been a 134 per cent increase in rough sleeping since 2010.
At The Passage’s resource centre, which provides diverse services to meet the needs of those either on the streets or at risk of ending up homeless, we often feel like an Accident & Emergency department, dealing first hand with the human face of the impact of cuts to services. We too have seen a change. We are seeing more and more people who, due to prolonged cuts in social-care funding, previously would have been picked up by prevention services that would have stopped them ending up in crisis and on the streets.
While these figures are a national scandal, it is important that we also get behind the statistics to see the human stories behind these numbers. The sight of someone sleeping out on the streets is one of the clearest symptoms we have that something has gone terribly wrong in that person’s life. Somehow in the winter this sight evokes even greater poignancy.
While we may not have personally suffered physical homelessness, we have all suffered inner homelessness: depression, bereavement or simply feeling at a loss. At those times we know that it is the love, care and support of those closest to us that stops us falling further. The writer Rhidian Brook captures it perfectly: “In the end the thing that catches someone’s fall from grace – is someone else’s grace.”
The Passage is blessed with superb staff, supporters and volunteers, whether it is people giving their money (often when they have very little of it), donating their time or remembering our work in their prayers – in many cases all three.
I am constantly amazed at the compassion society shows to those who do not have a place to call home. I believe that for many who help in our work it is this recognition that, in another life and in different circumstances, it could have been them on the streets. Indeed, in the age of zero-hour contracts and a fragile housing market, so many find themselves even closer to those streets than ever before.
So is it purely a matter of central government ensuring proper funding is given both to prevent rough sleeping from happening in the first place and providing a safety net if it does? That would certainly help, but even pre-2010 we were seeing increases in the numbers sleeping out.
As a society, we are judged on what we see happening on the ground: in the communities where we live and the areas where we work. As with any problem, nothing is ever solved by working in isolation. The only way that we can tackle the scandal that is rough sleeping is by all of society working together: central and local government, other statutory services, the Church and the wider voluntary sector.
The poor will indeed always be with us. We see this in our everyday lives too: our friends and family members, our work colleagues and those in our congregations suffering from financial poverty, depression and loneliness.
At The Passage we know how complex dealing with mental health or addiction issues can be. But we also recognise how challenging (and common) loneliness is. Projects like our Home for Good scheme try to make sure that those who were once on the streets and are now in accommodation are supported, and linked into services within their community, in order to build circles of positive friendship, and not to return to the streets.
Yes, more statutory funding is needed. More innovation too, such as the homelessness prevention legislation currently going through Parliament. We also need more coordination across all sectors, voluntary and statutory.
Across both sectors I see so much compassion and practical action from individuals that demonstrates a real belief that “I am my brother’s keeper”. Surely in the 21st century we should, as a society, be able to transform that individual belief into a collective belief that we are responsible for each other, and ensure that no one ever has to sleep out on our streets.
Mick Clarke is CEO of The Passage. For more information about The Passage visit passage.org.uk or call 020 7592 1856
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