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Friday, January 05, 2018

An unacceptable response to homelessness

There has been a visible increase in the number of street homeless right across the UK over the last few years. Even in Wales, where the Government has passed legislation putting the onus on local councils to prevent homelessness, it appears that the system cannot cope with the number and the circumstances of the many individuals presenting themselves as without a home.

The reasons for this are many and complex. I do not work on the frontline, nor have I engaged with those who do for a few years now, so I cannot hope to understand them all. Many of those on the streets will have developed mental health issues and/or alcohol and drug addictions that prevent them from living in a more sustainable way.

There will also be wider health issues arising from their lifestyle. Research by the NHS has found that the average homeless person has a life expectancy of 47, compared to 77 for the rest of the population, a startling difference of 30 years. The life expectancy for women was even lower, at just 43 years.

Changed economic circumstances arising from family breakdown, losing employment and/or wider health issues may well have contributed to people ending up on the streets in the first place. Everybody has their own story, but inevitably at a time of austerity, low wages, economic uncertainty and job losses in the public and private sectors, the numbers finding themselves homeless will rise.

How we deal with these individual tragedies is important. It is never as simple as just providing a roof over somebody's head, though that is the first crucial step. A lot of the people living on the streets will also require intensive support to help them with any mental health, drug or alcohol problems and to enable them to manage their changed circumstances. It is slow and steady work which requires investment in services and in the individuals and which can only really be taken one step at a time.

At present no government is committing enough resources to invest in all those currently living rough, never mind those living on other people's sofas or in temporary accommodation including bed and breakfasts. And in some cases, when a homeless person has a dog for example, they are not always able to find temporary accommodation for them.

For that reason, we are seeing more people begging in shop doorways and elsewhere, tents are being pitched on pieces of waste land and individuals are spending longer sleeping outdoors. The appropriate response is to give them practical help and to find ways to get them back on their feet. It is not to treat them like dirt by seeking to sweep them under a proverbial carpet.

It is for this reason that I find the actions of a number of local councils to be inexplicable. There is of course the high profile case of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, whose leader has reportedly called for police to take action against rough sleepers in the town ahead of the royal wedding later this year. Even Theresa May has had to speak out against these crass remarks.

But there are others too. Labour-run Oxford City Council for example has run into trouble after being accused of "unforgivable" behaviour for removing a rough sleeper's bedding and sleeping bag in the City. Whilst in Wales, Labour-run Newport City Council is considering a blanket ban on begging as part of a crackdown on anti-social behaviour:

Police though, say that begging is vastly under-reported, and cite the current restriction of “aggressive begging” as “very difficult to prove”.

I am astonished at how these councils are dealing with the problem. It is very uncomfortable to see people less fortunate than ourselves begging on the streets, but we cannot hide away from the problems that have put them in that position.

Our attitude to these situations define us as a civilisation. And in some areas we are not doing very well at all in living up to the compassionate and caring standards and values that must underpin any civilised society.

Let us offer help, not condemnation, sustenance not prohibition. And if we have to take a selfish attitude to this problem, then consider this: it only takes a small change in our own circumstances to put us on the streets. How would we wish to be treated then?
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