I wanted a response, I got a response; reassurances about policing the homeless

I was quite taken aback by an article in last week’s Yellow Advertiser and I wrote to the Essex Police and Crime Commissioner as a result. My letter is here.

I received this response:

Dear Cllr Ware-Lane
Thank you for drawing my attention to the article in the Yellow Advertiser about homelessness in Southend.
You might want to know that I discussed the matter promptly with the Chief Constable of Essex Police, and I understand that he has written to the editor of the Yellow Advertiser to ensure the position of the force is not misunderstood.
I’ve personally talked with several Southend officers and I know that they have a sympathetic understanding of the challenges of homelessness.
I think it’s important that homeless people are treated respectfully and professionally by police and partner agencies, and I have stated this publicly in my latest blog piece for our website.

http://www.essex.pcc.police.uk/2014/02/working-with-everyone-in-our-communities/

Working with everyone in our communities
I’m very proud to be Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex: we live in a diverse and vibrant county where many different communities and groups live side by side, generally in a spirit of respect and compassion.
There has recently been some publicity about police and partner initiatives working with homeless people in Southend.
People become homeless for a variety of reasons, most often not by choice. Family breakdown, loss of a job, sometimes a mental health problem such as an episode of severe depression or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after military service – there are many factors and types of vulnerability that can lead to a life on the streets. These same factors and others can also lead to the misuse of alcohol and drugs which sometimes can add to the challenges of homelessness.
I am pleased that Essex Police is working closely with Southend Borough Council, the Homeless Action Resource Project (HARP), with charities and mental health associations, and with the Southend Multi-Agency Anti-social behaviour Response Team (SMAART) to provide support to homeless people. Sometimes police officers will need to act to enforce the law or prevent crime from happening, and sometimes officers can and do help individuals find support to improve their lives with partner agencies and charities.
Homeless people often find themselves in vulnerable situations, and can be victims of crime. For those who may be suffering with mental health problems, I note that a pilot project is currently being run across south Essex involving specialist mental health nurses working alongside police officers to provide early support and intervention. I welcome this initiative, and have asked for evidence of its impact to be gathered and compared with the experience in north Essex which is not part of the pilot project.
We live in a great county, where Essex Police and partner agencies are doing their utmost to keep our communities and businesses safe whilst also offering support to some of the most vulnerable amongst us.

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Thank you again for raising this matter with me.
Yours sincerely
Nick Alston, Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex

How many homeless people are there in Southend?

I am pretty sure that no-one can provide an answer to the above question, not an exact and accurate one anyway. There are a number of reasons for this, all pretty obvious. The homeless are rarely counted in official statistics, they often avoid engagement with officialdom (very few, for instance, bother to register as voters), and a fair view are invisible as far as the system is concerned.

There are many reasons for homelessness. It is not all about addiction, alcoholism or mental health issues. Some are fleeing abuse, some are just too poor for a proper roof over their head, some lose their homes, divorce is occasionally a cause. I am sure those who understand the issue far better than me can give a far longer list of reasons why people are without a home. It rarely is a deliberate choice.

The homeless are not always visible. Whilst we all see people camped out in shop doorways or in bus shelters and the like, there are those who are homeless and yet have a roof over their heads. Numbered in this latter group are those who sofa-surf and those accommodated in hostels or bed and breakfast establishments. This group are at least warm and dry at night, although likely to be living in overcrowded conditions and without anything resembling permanence. There are also squatters, whose tenure is always vulnerable, especially since the changes in law (which now criminalises those who squat).

I get a sense that homelessness is on the rise. This is not a scientific assessment of the situation but rather a gut feeling based on observation. For years (tempting to say Labour years) the numbers of those living on the street in Southend seemed few in number, and declining; the last few years has seen their numbers appear greater.

If asked to guess an answer to the question about the numbers of homeless I would have ventured “somewhere between fifty and a hundred”. As a proportion of the population of the Borough of Southend-on-Sea this is a very small percentage. This town, in common with many eastern and south-eastern seaside towns is a magnet for the homeless.

I now strongly suspect that my former guesses are way off.

HARP (Homeless Action Resource Project) have some numbers on their website. They assist between 60 and 100 people a day. I am unsure how many of these are unique visits.

The Southend-on-Sea churches organise a winter night shelters program (it starts again this Sunday – 17th November). Last year they helped 155 guests, of which 29 had been helped the previous year.

The only number I have for the hidden homeless is from some research for Crisis and they estimated between 310,000 and 380,000 across the whole country in 2003. I cannot imagine the situation has got any better, and I am unable to extrapolate what this means for my borough.

Homelessness is not a new feature of a country now run by Cameron and Clegg. However, some of their policies are made the situation worse. I am hesitant to put a figure on the numbers of homeless people in Southend, but I am far from reluctant to suggest that the situation is worsening.

Street Link

streetlink

Meeting the invisible

I often claim to have knocked on every door and attempted to speak with every resident in the ward I represent. Actually, I usually preface this assertion with ‘almost’ because some are difficult to reach, if not near impossible. Aside from the moving target nature of the task (there is churn amongst the residents that can be quite high in the areas with a significant rental sector) it is a quite slow task. The sheer number of doors and residents mean that with limited resources this is a slow task.

I am aware that my ambition to have at least spoken with everyone ignores an important fact. Since my door knocking is done with electoral roll in hand one can see that only those on the roll will get the chance to sample my humble doorstep technique. So, those who are not registered may not see me, although I still manage a number of these too, and I will always encourage registration among the disenfranchised.

Yet despite all this there still is one category of people for whom the political process in any of its guises is an unknown country, and these are the vagrant. Vagrancy is far from a large problem in my town, but it does seem to be creeping up. It is also mentioned by a significant number of residents, largely because of the nuisance that some vagrants make of themselves.

I was reminded of all this on a visit to a homeless hostel. I should point out the distinction between vagrancy and homelessness which simply boils down to rough sleeping. There are many homeless who sofa surf, use hostels, use hotels and guest houses, or impose on friends and family. These people, in many ways invisible to politicians, are nonetheless dependent on decisions taken by politicians. They are not vagrant in the truest sense of the word, although an element of vagrancy may be imposed on them. I am also aware that some will be forced (and, perhaps, choose) to alternate rough sleeping with temporary covered solutions. Most often this is sofa surfing, the phenomena where a friends allows someone to ‘crash’ for a few nights before they move onto to another tolerant friend.

Say the word ‘homeless’ and often negative images come to mind. Squatters, so reviled in the right-wing media, are one manifestation. These are often painted as freeloading vandals who are somehow getting something for free at the expense of the rest of us. Tramps are another, and anyone familiar with George Orwell’s work will be familiar with his tragic and moving descriptions. Beggars are a third image, and often a cause of complaint.

My meeting with the homeless met none of the above categories. Young single girls, one a mother, were what I was confronted with. Articulate, uncomplaining, and thoughtful in explaining their circumstances. No sense of entitlement, looking for a helping hand so that they could begin to make their societal contribution. This small example of homelessness included a five month old baby girl. Against all expectations they were willing to engage with this politician and understood that voting mattered. They were seeing the system from the bottom, and made aware that decisions taken by people like me really mattered to their lives.

I like to think of myself as someone who champions the underdog, fights for the dispossessed and the victims of prejudice. I do not think of myself as complacent, yet I realised that I might be. For all the theorising there is nothing like meeting the homeless and realising that whilst beggars and vagrants may be a nuisance, young families are also parts of this equation.

Street link

I get the occasional resident mention rough-sleeping, and it feels to me like there is a small but perceptible increase in this in Southend. This is another sign of a failing economy and the cuts to support services.

There is a new web-based service that allows people to report rough-sleepers – http://www.streetlink.org.uk/tell-us-about-a-rough-sleeper

This is not about punishing these unfortunates, but rather offering help and support. For more information read here.

Help end homelessness

Please consider signing this petition – Let’s End Rough Sleeping By 2012

I am signatory number 122

Whilst you are at it, take a peak at Homless Link

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