(This is the text of my column that first appeared in the Brighton Argus on Saturday 14th January 2017)
Twenty five years ago, those ending up on the streets were usually care leavers, ex-military, women escaping violence and abuse, people with mental health problems and/or addictions.
Today the picture is almost the same. Only the numbers are greater, and there is a new group: those becoming homeless because of the end of assured shorthold tenancies and the lack of alternative, affordable homes.
There is a perception that the numbers on the streets has grown significantly over the last three years. I don’t believe that to be the case.
The recent count of rough sleepers suggested a 100% increase in their numbers over twelve months. As Cllr. Clare Moonan, who is leading the work in the City Council to end rough sleeping in the city by the end of the decade, said recently, “At first glance, the numbers seems to show a large increase on last year’s estimate. The reality is that we now have a more accurate reflection of the situation in the city.”
She said that the most recent figure of 144 rough sleepers was based on a count compared to 78 people in 2015 which was based on an estimate, not one that we at BHT ever thought was a credible number.
Three years ago the shared information between homelessness organisations in Brighton had the number between 130 and 140. In 2016 the numbers fluctuated between 140 and 150.
Across the country, street homeless people have become more visible and ‘encampments’ have become common place in many prominent streets. This has resulted in increased levels of public concern.
In 2016, around 1,200 men and women presented as street homeless in Brighton and Hove. 45% were local people.
The single greatest cause leading to street homeless is the loss of rented home, either because the landlord has brought a six month tenancy to an end, or the break up of a relationship.
Many of us have personal resources, financial and social, to fall back on so that we don’t become homeless. We might have cash in the bank or credit on a card. We may have friends and family who will help us, putting us up for a while until we sort something out.
But when the goodwill of friends and family has been exhausted, and faced with no alternative, some sleep in cars, others in tents, some in a shop doorway.
Those not from Brighton tell us they come here for many reasons, a memory of a happy childhood holiday, the image of the city as seen on television, or its reputation for night life and, yes, drugs.
I can’t recall anyone ever saying they came to Brighton because we have great homelessness services, even though we do.
If we are seeing twenty or so people ending up on our streets each week, why have we not seen a huge increase in actual rough sleeper numbers? In Brighton and Hove we have excellent services and great co-operation between them, ensuring that as quickly as people end up on the streets, they and others are helped to move away from rough sleeping.
Last year, for example, Brighton Housing Trust’s First Base Day Centre was open for 288 days. We helped 306 individuals to end their rough sleeping.
Then there is the work of others, including the City Council which deserve much credit for their leadership, and many other organisations including the Clocktower Sanctuary, the two YMCAs, Project Anti Freeze, and St Mungo’s.
St Mungo’s was awarded a contract by the City Council in 2015 to deliver a 20% year on year reduction in the number of rough sleepers. As yet, in spite of many successes, the number has, unfortunately, remained stubbornly consistent.
At times like this, when temperatures are at freezing point, there is understandable greater concern about people who are still on the streets. Several churches open their doors during the winter, providing shelter for twenty five rough sleepers each night. During severe weather, BHT is funded to co-ordinate emergency shelters where people can escape the harshest elements.
Throughout the year, there is plenty of support. At First Base, for example, we provide somewhere dry and warm where rough sleepers can get breakfast and lunch, showers and laundry facilities, access to health services and, critically, the assistance to move permanently off the streets.
BHT provides a range of other services, all designed to prevent and end rough sleeping, including the Brighton Advice Centre in Queens Road, specialist mental health accommodation projects, a very successful addiction treatment service, a 52 bed hostel, and services to help people into training and work.
Homelessness can be prevented and it can be ended. But the high cost of housing in the City, and the shortage of new council and other affordable housing, makes that challenge particularly difficult.