Can we achieve an end to rough sleeping in Brighton and Hove by 2020?

Last week I responded to a consultation by Brighton and Hove City Council on its strategy for rough sleeping.  I strongly support many measures in the proposed strategy, not least the ambition to ensure that, by 2020, there should be no need for anyone to be sleeping on the streets of the City.  However, I fear things are going backwards due to decisions being made nationally and locally.  Here is a copy of my overall response to the consultation, based on the presentation I made at the rough sleeping summit organised by the City Council in December:

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about the city’s approach to make sure no-one has the need to sleep rough in Brighton & Hove by 2020?

Over the past ten years we have had a very stable range of services, incredible co-operation between partners, notwithstanding competitive tendering, and we have managed to contain the number of rough sleepers. Without this partnership we would have 300 or 400 people sleeping rough today.

Earlier this year BHT published a ‘call to arms’, to ensure that by 2020 no one would have to sleep rough in Brighton and Hove. The ambition in the Council’s strategy echoes that, and it is something I warmly welcome. A year ago I really believed that the 2020 ambition could be achieved.

If I was responding to the consultation a year ago it would have been a very different response, focusing as I would have on innovation and good practice, ideas that would inspire, and opportunities that we had.

But over the last year various decisions have been made, locally and nationally, which will impact on pathways to independence, and I question now whether the 2020 ambition is realistic.

The decision over the summer to change provider for the street outreach service, welcoming St Mungos Broadway into the City, was a brave one, not least following on an earlier decision to change providers in substance misuse services by bringing in another organisation also without a base, or established relationships, or knowledge of the situation locally. I have long been an admirer of St Mungos Broadway but I am still waiting to hear from them about their plans for Brighton and Hove, how they will achieve the 20% reduction in rough sleeping year on year, and what progress has been made to date. I appreciate it takes time to settle into a new contract in a new town, but time is not a luxury we have when faced with the crisis in rough sleeping that we have.

But it is not just down to St Mungos. I think it is important that we all ask how we can support St Mungos to achieve the great challenge they have committed themselves to. It is in everyone’s interest that they succeed, not least the men and women who are sleeping rough on the streets of our City.

We need to challenge politicians to do their bit in what is very challenging times. I feel there is a danger that this strategy is being developed in a vacuum. Lots is going on around us that will impact on our collective ability to deliver the ambition.

Decisions being made at a national level make our task harder. For example, the announcement in the Autumn Statement to cap from April 2018 all rents in social housing at Local Housing Allowance levels will make unaffordable much accommodation in the City, including the new homelessness project being proposed by the City Council together with many hostels, rehabilitation services, and mental health projects, particularly for those under the age of 35.

From April 2018, the exemptions that are currently applied to much supported accommodation will no longer apply to anyone moving into those services after April 2016 – unless the government changes its stated policy.

This will apply to the very services that are central to moving people off the streets and which provide pathways to independence.

BHT’s own review found that from April 2018 there will be affordability issues for those under 35 in 70% of our 404 bed spaces in Brighton and Hove. For those over 35, there will be affordability issues in 47% of our accommodation – and we offer amongst the most affordable accommodation in the City.

I hope the City Council will consider how to use its commissioning function address this affordability issue in the very services that provide pathways to independence.

There is some uncertainty over the future of some of the accommodation that is affordable, not least shared accommodation. If, for example, the City Council does not commission a substantial quantity of shared housing in the mental health tender that is currently out, we might as well give up any pretence of wishing to tackle rough sleeping for those under 35.

Wrap around services such as those provided in shared accommodation can and do offer an appropriate environment for some, and for those under 35, from 2018, there will be nothing else that they will be able to access.

The contribution of the third sector should not be underestimated. Rather than the £1 million quoted in the Position Statement document, BHT alones levers in over £4.5 million into the city, and that does not include the value of volunteering, peer support and client involvement.

My hope is that the City Council, at all levels, particularly those preparing tender specifications, is to return to the partnership approach that until a year ago characterised the relationship between us. Without us, the providers, particularly colleagues who know and understand the client groups and who have a successful record in delivering change, any hope of retaining pathways to independence will be lost, and once lost we won’t be able to get them back.

There are some excellent examples of commissioning but it feels as though commissioning is, at times, being done in a vacuum without appreciating the consequences on the ambitions of politicians.

If politicians don’t get their way, if commissioners get it wrong, and if St Mungo’s does not manage to deliver the 20% year on year reduction it is being funded to achieve, this Rough Sleeping Strategy will be little more that of academic interest.

In practical terms, our time would be much better spent discussing how we will support 300 or 400 men and women on the streets, how their health needs can be met, how they will be fed, what happens in extreme weather.

I don’t want that future. It is the opposite of what I have worked and campaigned for 30 years.

I hope we will return to the local spirit of partnership that we have had. We can still achieve the 2020 ambition and those rough sleeping can move off the streets and into housing, training, work experience and employment. Let’s not lose our ambition.

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