Not just for Christmas…
By Dean Spruce, Communication & Media Coordinator, VOICES
The month is January, it’s cold, there’s snow on the ground, the Christmas holidays already seem like a distant memory and people have returned to work and to their regular routines.
For some people however, the Christmas period doesn’t promise a welcome break, nor time spent with family or turkey dinners. For those that find themselves outside, by which I mean sleeping rough, it represents the most difficult of all challenges – staying alive. There is little time to worry about gifts or any of the other distractions that most of us are more than willing to engage in, when you have nowhere to go, no money and potentially only the clothes on your back to keep you warm. For these people the Christmas period is most definitely not over. The weather is getting worse as we head into 2019, the cold snaps temporarily delayed by the unusual lasting warmth of the previous summer have now firmly set in, and the risk to human life is high.
Poverty in the UK is on the rise, recent figures published by Crisis revealed levels of rough sleeping – including sleeping on public transport and in tents – had doubled in five years, rising by 20 per cent to 24,000 in just 12 months. Regardless how sceptical people may be of statistical representation you only need to take a walk through any town centre to see the extent of the crisis that faces us. In 2019, there can be no justification for this, it is simply unacceptable.
In November, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston gave a critical report on the level of poverty in the UK, saying it risks causing damage to “the fabric of British society”, and parliament were set to discuss these findings earlier on in January, attendance however was disappointingly low. In December, a 45-year-old homeless man collapsed outside parliament, and later died. What makes this even more poignant is that the report produced by the UN suggests that prioritising ‘radical social re-engineering’ and a wilful ignorance of the real issues facing our society by those in a position to do anything about it is part of the problem.
With the current government pledging to invest £1.2bn to tackle homelessness, with plans backed by £100m to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and end it by 2027, I have to wonder how this could be achieved. The current network of services in place, such as rough sleeper outreach, hostel accommodation, mental health services, drug and alcohol services, housing schemes and so on are indeed stretched. These services require consistent and proportionate funding in order to function effectively as the safety nets that they are intended to be. The question that I ask myself constantly is what more can we do, is there something missing, would it not be better to prevent people arriving at these extremes in the first place? Although the answer to this question is a resounding yes, it is a difficult a problem to approach, let alone solve. One thing is for sure though, unless we acknowledge the root causes arriving at a solution is highly unlikely.
During winter months ‘severe weather emergency provision’ is activated across the UK, meaning emergency beds are made available to keep people alive when the temperature drops. The only issue with this being guidance states the provision should be made when the temperature drops to zero or below for three consecutive nights when just one night, or even one hour, outside at zero degrees or below is enough to be fatal. Sleeping outside in temperature above zero is too, and most of us would find it incredibly hard to sleep outside during summer months, let alone the middle of winter. I wonder if it’s time to review this guidance in favour of something more robust.
On a more positive note conversations are happening, things are starting to evolve, and a more holistic view of the current situation is developing. The systems and services currently in place are adapting with a huge shift towards working together, as opposed to operating in ‘silos’ as the system has encouraged historically. Locally, the flexibility and willingness of our Police, NHS, Local Authority and voluntary sector, and faith-based services serves as testament. Recognising that social issues such as rough sleeping, mental ill health, offending and addiction overlap, and are indeed interconnected, is a giant leap forward. The spreading implementation of a Housing First approach is also very encouraging, providing an alternate route to recovery for those form whom the traditional pathways may have been ineffective. Changing our outlook, and working together, is the only way we’re going to move forwards with this, and the ball is now rolling. Let’s keep it that way and make 2019 count.