Hilary Benn - Member of Parliament for Leeds Central
It is sadly all too common in our big cities these days, Leeds included, to see people sitting on the ground asking for money or huddled up against the cold sleeping in doorways.
Homelessness is on the increase, but the vast majority of people affected contact their local council to seek help or stay with friends or family if they have lost their home while trying to find a new one. The fundamental cause of statutory homelessness – as it’s called – is the failure to build enough new homes. We need a completely new approach to housebuilding, with a significant increase in social housing.
But there has also been a rise in street homelessness. This affects a much smaller group of people, but they are the most visible precisely because we see them on our streets. Leeds City Council is working hard to help them into accommodation and says that there’s no need for anyone to spend a second night out. But they recognise that offering rough sleepers emergency hostel-based accommodation has not proved successful with some who either reject it or find it very difficult for a variety of reasons to operate within the hostel’s rules.
Since August last year, the Council has been trying a new approach in which they fast track rough sleepers straight into their own self-contained accommodation without having to go anywhere else first. The properties are furnished with essentials and intensive support is provided. To date Leeds has rehoused just under 100 rough sleepers and it sounds like a really sensible idea.
The reasons why people end up on the streets are many and varied – after all each person has their own story – but substance abuse (e.g. the growing impact of Spice) and mental health problems are quite common. What this means is that helping those affected is very challenging as I learned when I went to meet the Street Support Team recently.
Their approach is very practical. They have an outreach team that go out early in the morning to check on people and offer help and support. Not everyone wants to take it up and some are in no condition to respond. If someone looks as if they need medical help, then they call an ambulance. What the team are trying to do is to reduce the numbers sleeping rough in Leeds city centre and tackle issues like begging and anti-social behaviour by some street users.
The way they do this is also unique and quite new. Recently they decided to bring together into one team all the people who find themselves dealing with those living on the streets and their differing needs. So now the team has outreach workers, city centre lliaison officers, staff from the housing department, the police, representatives from the Anti-Social Behaviour Unit, social workers, a specialist nurse, staff who can help with addiction and an analyst (who told me that there are over 260 people living on the streets of Leeds). This team also work closely with a wide range of voluntary organisations like St George’s Crypt and Simon on the Streets.
I asked them what the best thing is that members of the public can do and learned about the launch of the Big Change which is a new way of offering help. It will enable people to donate money, items and time to assist the homeless, rough sleepers and people who are vulnerable. The funds raised could be used for a bus pass to travel to a job interview or a deposit for permanent accommodation. The scheme also recognises that giving money directly to people on the streets might be used to fuel an addiction rather than to pay for food or a bed for the night. By giving through the scheme every penny will go to a recognised organisation. To find out more please go to www.bigchangeleeds.co.uk
I have to say that I was very impressed by the team’s commitment, but they are the first to acknowledge how complex and difficult their task is. It is good to know, however, that they too are out there on our streets trying to help people to change their own lives.