It might seem inhumane, that on a cold, windy, wet night like tonight (Saturday 9th January), on the day that the Argus reports the deaths of three homeless people in Brighton and Hove over Christmas and the New Year, that I oppose the opening of empty buildings for homeless people to sleep in.
The call to open empty buildings is understandable, and is a testimony to the fact that there are many people in Brighton and Hove who are outraged that there are people sleeping on our streets.
The Argus is right to say these are three deaths that shame the city. One death should shame the city. I would go further, one person sleeping on the streets should shame the city. I repeat in every interview and in every talk I give that in one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world, we should be able to do so much better when it comes to homelessness.
This post doesn’t look at solutions to rough sleeping. I have commented regularly about that. Rather I want to say why I don’t agree with merely opening empty buildings.
I would be extremely concerned if empty buildings were opened without due thought and preparation. The last thing I want to see is people crammed into an empty building, without basic fire protection arrangements, a fire breaks out, and a dozen people die.
When BHT is asked to open a severe weather shelter we do so in buildings that are safe, and with staff who are trained and experienced. The number of people we accommodate in any one building is limited so that it is a safe environment, not least for women.
Having a number of people concentrated in an enclosed space can, in some circumstance, bring greater risks than even being on the streets (obviously not in the most extreme weather). A concentration of people with severe mental ill health, high levels of alcohol use, drug-related paranoia, and the terrifying realities of legal highs, should not be under-estimated. There are considerations to be made about basic amenities, not least for women, and the safety of women. Vulnerable men and women can be exposed to greater exploitation, abuse and violence in confined spaces. Proper staffing is essential.
Many years ago BHT was asked to provide proper winter shelters. We did so and it was incredibly successful. But then we have at least three months lead in time to identify a suitable property, make some basic alterations, ensure basic fire safety arrangements were in place, and recruit and train staff. And here is the crux of the matter: it was not cheap, and it won’t be if we are to do it properly.
A final thought, before BHT took over the Regency House Hotel (now the Phase One Project), clients said that they preferred, even in winter, to sleep rough rather than to stay there because standards were so poor and it was not safe. The Regency House Hotel was dubbed ‘the hospice for the homeless’ where between 1996 and 2000 there were an average of three deaths a year from suicide, homicide and drug overdose – a very high death rate from just 59 residents. We have managed it as the Phase One Project since 2002, and we have done so with the safety at the heart of everything we do, and the wellbeing of our residents our primary concern. It has cost several million Pounds to refurbish and staff. There have been deaths – in total three between 2002 and 2015 including the tragic murder of a resident away from the building and unrelated to the service.
Opening buildings is obviously attractive, especially on a night like tonight, but if we are to do it, it must be done properly.