Today the government has announced an ambitious plan to end rough sleeping within a decade. It is easy to be cynical, particularly when for years we’ve been fed a narrative that there’s no reason for people to be sleeping rough; that ‘it’s all their own fault’. But I for one want to welcome the government’s new-found commitment to tackling this scourge on our society. And I also want to acknowledge that the government has sought to listen to exactly the kinds of people and organisations it should be listening to when it comes to drawing up their strategy. So their plans do broadly tackle the problems that exist in parts of the system – dealing appropriately with mental health and substance misuse problems; ensuring that rough sleepers are identified and signposted to appropriate support; making sure that there are clear pathways into secure accommodation.
But as other colleagues have said today, this is a first step, not a comprehensive solution. Part of the issue that isn’t addressed by today’s announcement is the funding of homeless hostels – those schemes which actually accommodate people who have been rough sleeping. The government will say that it addressed this part of the issue in its statement last week, backing away from its plans to radically destabilise funding for the short-term supported housing sector. But in reality their announcement last week just left us with the current situation: it didn’t actually help move us forward towards a comprehensive solution to the rough sleeping crisis.
Rough sleeping has increased dramatically since 2010 and if we want to reverse that increase we need to understand why that has happened. The answer, unsurprisingly, is draconian funding cuts by successive governments since the financial crash of 2008. To get an understanding of why these matter I want to give you an example of how the system used to work, and how it works now. Prior to 2009 the YMCA in Birmingham, for example, operated a rough-sleeper hostel with a client-to-staff ratio of 8:1. Alongside that, there was a multi-disciplinary street outreach team that contained not just housing workers, but also substance misuse and mental health professionals. When those street outreach teams identified a rough sleeper they could prescribe the necessary medication and refer them into a treatment programme there and then. They could then be referred on to a place like YMCA. Knowing that they were being treated for the their problems and had access to the medication they needed, meant that we were confident that any risk they posed to themselves, our staff, other residents and the wider community could be managed. The fact that we had staff who were also trained to deliver specialist support – and had them in sufficient numbers to deal with any incidents that did arise – meant that we could generally be confident that we would be able to accommodate them.
Skip forward to 2018 and the situation has changed dramatically. The multi-disciplinary teams have gone. This means that rough sleepers have to take their place in a queue to be referred to mental health services and specialist substance misuse support. The waiting list to access these services can now be up to three months. So when the housing workers come across a rough sleeper and try to refer him or her into a hostel, no medication will have been prescribed and no treatment programme will be in place. But on the other end of the line will be a hostel manager who is now trying to operate a hostel with a client-to-staff ratio of 18:1 – more than double what it was a decade ago. But more than that, those staff will no longer be paid to provide support. Since the reduction and removal of Supporting People funding, most of the burden of accommodating rough sleepers now sits within the housing benefit budget. But housing benefit cannot legally be used to provide support. It can only be used to fund housing management services (the cost allocating properties, the collecting the rent, dealing with tenancy breaches etc.) and the cost of providing and maintaining the building itself. This means that landlords are restricted both practically and legally in the kinds of clients they can house. If someone needs dedicated, trained support to address their issues then, by law, we shouldn’t be accommodating them.
Today’s announcement helps move us some way towards addressing part of this problem. It looks as though we may see the reintroduction of multi-disciplinary street outreach teams, for instance, which have a crucial role to play. But we need to recognise that the funding that has been lost since 2009 will not being replaced by the £100m announced today. And until it is, the likelihood is that rough sleeping will continue into the next decade and beyond.
Alan Fraser, CEO YMCA Coventry & Warwickshire and YMCA Birmingham