This morning, the Senior Policy Officer at Crisis, Alice Ashworth, kindly took some time out of her working day to speak to us about our Sleeping Rough project and the work that Crisis does to improve the situation of homeless people in the UK.
by Melita Cameron-Wood
M: One of the main things that we have noticed is that homelessness is not only incredibly high, but continues to rise at a steady rate. Why do you think that is?
A: In England, rough sleeping has doubled since 2010 and it has increased by 30% since last year; this is a considerable and a rising problem across England. And the important thing to remember is that behind every one of those statistics is a person in a very vulnerable situation at crisis point. There are lots of causes for it, but those causes are quite clear. More and more people are struggling to pay for a roof over their heads in an increasingly insecure market. We are seeing cuts to housing benefits, cuts to homelessness services that have really made it very difficult for people to keep a roof over their heads.
M: Could you also touch briefly on the proportions of men and women living on the street?
A: There is an issue with the law as it stands in England and there are many, many people who are not entitled to help under the current law and that is predominantly single, homeless people without attendant children, who if they go to their council, will be turned away. So, we do find that a large proportion of single homeless people are men. But that said, I think anybody who lives in a small to large city in the UK will probably have noticed more and more rough sleepers on the streets. I mean, I live in London and it is really hard not to notice that we are seeing more and more people sleeping on the streets. But often, women who are rough sleeping tend to be more hidden because of fear of violence and that is a very real fear. People sleeping on the street are 13 times more likely to be a victim of violence.
M: The statistics are really quite shocking.
A: They are really shocking. One of the most shocking statistics is that the average age of death of a homeless person is now 47, which is 30 years younger than the national average.
M: That is very low. Getting the statistics out there in the open really helps people to visualise the problem in a more real way. Could you talk to me about the work that Crisis does and the approaches used to tackle problems that homeless people are facing?
A: Crisis works with people to try and identify long term solutions to ending their homelessness. So, we offer a range of education, learning and training issues, along with a wrap-around support to address housing issues too. We have 11 centres across the country in England, Scotland and Wales and we work with people to help them secure stable jobs and stable homes. Last year, we helped over 700 people into stable jobs and we helped over 500 people secure stable housing.
M: In general, is there a high success rate with the people who take part in the educational projects? Is there a high incidence of relapse?
A: Well, repeat homelessness is a problem and in London especially. If somebody was homeless in the past, they are more likely to become homeless again. That is why Crisis really tries to address the underlying issues about why somebody might have a relapse and fall back into homelessness. We try to work with them to find a sustainable way of addressing the problem in the long term and work is a really good way out of homelessness. Not only because it helps people pay their rent in a sustainable way, but also because it helps address issues like lack of self-esteem and lack of confidence. Being homeless is a really isolating experience. It can have a really damaging effect, so we provide a package of support that can help people address any mental health and well-being issues, as well as targeting basic skill gaps or housing need.
M: What do you think everyday people can do to help out?
A: Well, people can contact support services in their area, such as Streetlink [the London branch is contactable on this number: 020 7840 4430] and help individual rough sleepers in that way. But the other thing that is worth saying is that even a kind word, a small gesture like buying someone a cup of tea, can be incredibly meaningful to someone who is at a really low ebb or feeling really desperate, cold and lonely.
The Homelessness Reduction Bill is a really historic opportunity to change the law and resolve a long-standing injustice.
M: Yes, I suppose it might be the first time that they talk to someone that day…
A: Absolutely. If people feel comfortable going and having a conversation with someone, then that can mean quite a lot. Also, at the moment, there is something really tangible that people can do. I mentioned before that there is a huge issue with the law as it currently stands, with a large group of people just not eligible for help under the current system and we are supporting a private members’ bill called the Homelessness Reduction Bill, which is currently going through parliament and it has its first debate this Friday [28th October] in parliament. So we are calling on campaigners, whether they have experienced homelessness themselves or not, to call on their local MP to turn up that debate on Friday. It is vital that we get 100 MPs in parliament on Friday, in order to ensure that the bill can go through.
M: One of my questions was actually about what should be done on a governmental level to change the current situation…
A: Research commissioned by Crisis is really clear that government policies are having an impact on homelessness. Particularly in decisions concerning welfare reform, we have seen really significant cuts to housing benefits. We have seen a significant rise in the use of benefit sanction and these decisions make it harder and harder for people to keep a roof over their heads. This is why the Homelessness Reduction Bill is a really historic opportunity to change the law and resolve a long-standing injustice. The government has disclosed that it is lending its support to the bill, which is hugely welcome and is a good demonstration of support from the government to take meaningful steps to tackle homelessness in England.
M: Definitely an exciting opportunity for change. Let’s hope that the right number of MPs turn up on Friday!
M: Just briefly, what do you think about the Sleeping Rough project?
A: Any attempt to raise awareness of the homelessness crisis that we currently have in England is really, really welcome and I would applaud any effort to draw attention to the issue. Many people are really shocked to learn that homelessness is rising in a country that is as developed as England, which is essentially a rich nation, but we still have people living in poverty and sitting on the streets. People should be angry about this! At Crisis, we are clear that homelessness isn’t inevitable and there are political decisions that can be made to change homelessness and that is why we really welcome the government’s commitment to changing the law. It is something that many people are shocked about – the statistics that we mentioned previously. For example, homeless people are 9 times more likely to take their own life. There is a reason why people should be angry and any effort to communicate the very real dangers of homelessness and rough sleeping are really, really welcome.
M: Yes, I definitely think an emphasis on the statistics is a really hard-hitting way of driving the reality home. What do you think the best way would be to reach the largest possible audience with the film? We are currently planning on contacting charities, university societies, can you think of any other ways of improving its reach?
A: Our experience at Crisis is that there are a lot of people in the general population who care about this issue. We work with 10,000 volunteers for Crisis at Christmas time. There are a lot of members of the public who are angry about this issue. Obviously, social media is a great way to reach people these days and to get people to talk about the issue with their friends. The fact that we have the Homelessness Reduction Bill going through parliament at the moment is shining a really welcome spotlight on the issue. Just last week, we had over 200 campaigners, many of whom had experienced homelessness themselves, coming down to Westminster and arranging meetings with their MP to talk about the issue. There is lots of interest on our social media pages. When you can find a good hook, that is a great way of contacting a large number of people.
M: Do you think there is any particular aspect of homelessness that we should be focusing on in order to make the final product as accurate as possible?
A: Like I say, this certainly feels like an exciting time, with a very real opportunity to change the law on homelessness. That would resolve a long-standing injustice, where many people just aren’t entitled to any help whatsoever. That is very topical, but obviously depending on when the film is released, there might be new changes and opportunities afoot. Changing the law on homelessness is an area that we think has the potential to really improve support for a lot of people and it is also worth saying that what this bill would do, at least in the legislation, would prevent people becoming homeless in the first place. Obviously, prevention is better than cure. If you prevent somebody becoming homeless in the first place, then you prevent all sorts of other support needs from potentially escalating, not to mention all sorts of other financial implications for public spending.
M: Absolutely, this sounds like a really exciting time and I would urge everyone to take a minute out of their day to send a short email to their local MP, encouraging them to attend parliament on Friday. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to talk to me. We’ll definitely send you a link to the final product, once we have finished the film.
A: Great. We look forward to seeing it!
We call on anyone who wants to help to contact their local MP and encourage them to turn up to vote this Friday 28th. If you have any personal experiences or are keen to get involved in improving the current homelessness situation, let us know in the comments or send an email to [email protected].