‘Our job is to convince the homeless that they do have a place in the world’

THE face of homelessness may have changed over the years but the problems haven’t.

While most of us can head back home after a hard day in the office, for the homeless and vulnerable who don’t have a home or families to go to, the end of each day can often bring the trauma of not knowing where your next meal is coming from and where you are going to sleep that night.

Although it’s hard to put an accurate figure on the total number of homeless people in this country, figures released by the Government earlier this month showed a nine per cent increase in the number of homeless households. According to these figures, 12,860 people were accepted as homeless by local authorities from April to June this year, just under a nine per cent increase on the same period in 2011.

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The number of people without a roof over their head because they have had to leave rented accommodation is the highest for 14 years and Homeless Link, the umbrella body for homeless charities, says this rise is being fuelled by the recession and the spiralling cost of living.

This follows a recent report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warning of a looming “homelessness disaster.” It predicts around 1.5 million extra 18 to 30 year-olds will be priced out of buying their own homes within eight years, which will flood the rental market and could see homelessness among the under-25s rise to 81,000.

It is an issue that refuses to go away and in Leeds a new initiative, called “homeless mapping”, has been introduced aimed at ensuring homeless and vulnerable people in the city get the help they need. Led by Unity in Poverty Action and Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust, it involves 10 organisations and nine churches offering practical help such as medication, food and befriending services.

John Walsh works for the York Street Health Practice, which provides medical support for vulnerable and homeless people in the city.

He says it’s the first time so many different groups have become involved in a project like this. “The idea was to have a list of names and addresses of groups and organisations so that from Monday to Sunday vulnerable and homeless people always had someone to go to,” he says.

“We knew when agencies 
closed at five o’clock on an evening that community and faith-based groups were opening their doors to provide very basic things like food, clothing, or someone to talk to.”

In the past, these groups operated independently, but Walsh says by working together the different statutory bodies and voluntary groups know who to contact when somebody comes to them in need of help. It’s about creating what he calls a “coalition of care” to address the needs of the city’s homeless population.

“It’s not just about providing the very basic needs like food and clothing, it’s also about offering them a place where they can find friendship and support and feel safe.

“In the past, if someone came to see us and said they had no food then we would ring round and try and find food for them and we might be successful and we might not be. Now with the map we know who is most likely to have food and also be able to offer some care and support.”

The support that people need hasn’t changed much, but the type of people who find themselves homeless has broadened. “If you go back 20, or 30 years you were talking about an indigenous homeless population and the issues revolved around mental health, social disorder, drink and drugs. But now half the people we see are in the asylum system and many of those are destitute asylum seekers who can’t get housing and they can’t get benefits.

“So perhaps the picture of homelessness has changed but in terms of the challenges for homeless people they are always about making those steps to recovery. It’s very rare for people to do this on their own, they need support to help turn their lives around and these organisations on the homeless map provide that and they often provide it at a time when a person is at their most vulnerable.”

Dave Paterson, a project co-ordinator with Unity in Poverty Action, says homeless and vulnerable people come from all kinds of backgrounds. “If you’re evicted from your home you then try and find accommodation in your social and family network. If that fails you try and find emergency accommodation at somewhere like St George’s Crypt and if that fails you’re out on the street. But trying to measure all that isn’t easy because something like rough sleeping is hidden away so you don’t get the whole picture.”

He says homeless people often have complex needs and admits there are fears about the potential impact of future government cuts. “There are concerns about how the welfare reforms will affect the most vulnerable. I heard recently that we are only 15 per cent into the cuts and they are going to continue until 2016, so that is a concern,” he says.

“One rule that has already come in effects 25 to 35 year-olds. Previously, they could access single based accommodation but now you have to be over 35, which puts more pressure on younger people because it means they have to access shared accommodation as housing benefit won’t cover it.”

Homelessness can hit people of all ages, from teenagers to pensioners, and the concern is that more people could start slipping through the net. “What we will see if the economy doesn’t pick up is more people from better backgrounds who end up being homeless,” says Paterson.

“I think there’s a lot of this going on already but people are finding that sofa, or family they can stay with. People from better backgrounds tend to have better family connections, but not always and my fear is we will see more people in need of homeless services.”

Despite these fears the hope is that by working more closely with each other care providers and voluntary groups can get homeless people off the streets and making a positive contribution to society. “Our view is that it’s not enough just to deal with one problem, like drugs or mental health issues. Yes, you need to deal with these things but you also have to work with them to find something in themselves that can help them to a long term recovery,” says Walsh, who has spent the last 18 years working the homeless and vulnerable.

“The positive thing in Leeds is there are a lot of services providing help and support and the map is part of that, so if anyone does become homeless today there are options for them.”

The challenge, he says, is convincing people they have a future. “Homeless people have their own gifts and qualities but most of them have never had an opportunity to shine and part of our work is help them to find that spark within themselves, because we can get them accommodation or benefits and medication, but they’re still stuck where they are.

“So we have to give them some kind of hope because homeless people often have negative views of themselves and the world, and part of our job is to chip away at that and convince them that they do have a place in the world, and when we do that we find a change can occur,” he says.

“Something like getting a person a house is a big step forward, not just because it means they are in off the streets, but it’s also a home and it gives them something to build on for the future.”