Helping rough sleepers

Leader of Birmingham City Council, Cllr Ian Ward, blogs on the partnership working approach to helping rough sleepers in the city.

I spent some time with Birmingham's Street Intervention Team recently to learn more about the work they do and the challenges they face.

Established earlier this year, this multi-agency team is taking a co-ordinated approach to tackling rough sleeping – a growing national problem that a committee of MPs (the cross-party Public Accounts Committee) has labelled a 'national crisis'.

As we saw with the tragic death of Paul Williams on our city streets last weekend, the rising number of people sleeping rough across the country are extremely vulnerable and the time has come for government action.

What struck me as I spent time with the Street Intervention Team was that varied nature of the work. I heard about help for people with addictions, the tracking of individuals across the city centre, the work undertaken to identify accommodation and the help offered to deal with mental health issues.

The team uses real-time data and information to deal with problems as quickly as possible and has established a real network of intelligence and co-ordinated support.

The most recent statistics available (for October) show that they moved 31 people into accommodation that month, encouraged 21 people to attend a substance misuse clinic and delivered 213 health interventions.

Behind those figures we find human and often very moving stories.

I heard about the woman who had been sleeping rough on and off for 10 years and had become increasingly worried about her safety on the streets. She also expressed concerns about being indoors and the team had to take a softly-softly approach, meeting her on a daily basis to gain her trust, find out what she wanted and help her to make that first step.  She eventually moved into accommodation in early September and the team continued to work with her (at her own pace) coming up with an effective plan.

The team's willingness to understand there is no 'one size fits all' solution is clearly key to working with and understanding the vulnerable people tragically sleeping on our streets.

Birmingham is not unique. Nationally the number of rough sleepers has soared from 1,768 to 4,134 since 2010. That's a 134 per cent increase at a time when the safety net for the most vulnerable people has been significantly damaged by austerity-driven cuts.

And that’s just the very visible tip of the iceberg.

A damning report by the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed that there had been a 60 per cent rise in households in temporary accommodation over the last six years, affecting 120,540 children.

Government measures are believed to have exacerbated the problem, with the report stating that local housing allowance reforms are 'likely to have contributed'.

Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey perfectly summed-up the situation when he said: “This is a direct result of decisions made by Tory ministers… a drop in affordable homes, cuts to housing benefits and no help for renters.”

Now you might expect an opposition spokesman to make such a point, but reflecting on the growing crisis, the Public Accounts Committee report labelled the government's attitude to tackling it as 'unacceptably complacent'.

MP Meg Hillier, who chairs the committee said the Homelessness Reduction Act announced in October would ”no doubt help”, but that it cannot be successful unless it is matched by a renewed focus across government on tackling both the supply and affordability of decent housing.

In Birmingham we've built more homes since 2012 than any other council in Britain, while Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust is seen as a trailblazer for other local authorities.

But the extra homes needed for our growing population will not simply appear overnight, so in the meantime, the fantastic work carried out by the city's Street Intervention Team is desperately needed.

This blog was posted on 28 December 2017


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