Working in the homelessness sector as I do, my first response to Mary Wakefield’s Spectator article on rough sleeping was inevitably defensive. How dare they? Don’t they know we house and help thousands of people in London each year? Can’t they understand how complex it is and that they way things are presented is not always correct?
But after some time to reflect, I came to see that, yes, the system in which Broadway Homelessness and Support and I operate, can be imperfect. It is time-consuming, complex and sometimes hard to access. We are better at reaching people who are new to the streets than long-term rough sleepers like the mother and son described in the article (which is sort of logical considering the fact long-term rough sleepers often need so much more support and assistance). Our referral systems to hostels are both thorough and complex, but this is not to say making good assessments is wrong. Everyone needs to ensure those most in need or those who are most vulnerable receive services that cannot stretch to meeting the needs of everyone.
Put simply, we have to ensure people do not ‘queue-jump’ to access resources that are made available on the back of emergency shelter accommodation. It is in some ways inconceivable to think people will sleep rough to access housing, but that is our experience. In parts of the country the response to rough sleeping can be 72 hours or more, especially in some rural areas where there are no emergency response services for homeless people. In London this is not the case and services do exist around the clock: this is something I believe everyone working in the homeless sector can be proud of.
But while I get the drift of the article I do feel it to be unfair. I can be the first to criticise the Greater London Authority and indeed the Government for lack of provision. However, both locally and nationally the resource put into helping people off the streets in the current economic climate has been more than we could have hoped for over the past few years. The GLA and the Mayor of London, in particular, have gone out on a limb for people sleeping rough when they did not have to do so. The Mayor also understands that tackling homelessness is not just about tackling rough sleeping and that we must maintain and enhance those services that prevent people sleeping rough in the first place or help to keep people from returning to the streets.
Unfortunately, he can only delegate authority for this to local authorities while watching for the results. It is safe to assume that while the early strides are positive, he, too, is looking for further improvement in the years to come.
In short, homelessness is a critical issue for London today, and it will become ever more so with each passing month. Rough sleeping is too important an issue – for those people who end up on the streets and for all our general wellbeing – not to get the facts right about individuals, about systems and about the services on offer in the capital. Some of your readers will become homeless in the next 12 months. I hope when they do that they realise people do help and the system, while not perfect, is there to be accessed and is truly working. And, I also hope, that they too can come to us for help.
Howard Sinclair is Chief Executive of homelessness charity Broadway.