Branch Secretary :

Homelessness: For a Right to Shelter

Homeless people harassed


Cuts to services working with the homeless have meant that our members are working in what are sometimes impossible conditions.  Local authorities have harassed homeless people and the management of homelessness agencies are increasingly unwilling to challenge politicians or speak out on behalf of vulnerable clients as they are increasingly focussed on competing to win contracts, in some cases that has even meant working with the Home Office to identify clients for deportation.  Here homelessness worker and LE1111 member Jack Jeffrey argues for a ‘Right to Shelter’:


One night of below zero temperatures can be fatal


Last week saw blizzards and freezing temperatures engulf the UK. For most of us this meant a missed train, a day off work or at worst an embarrassing fall on the pavement. This has placed further focus on the rising problem of rough sleeping as for the homeless even one night of below zero temperatures can be fatal. As the national media reported last Thursday a man died sleeping in a tent in Nottingham, last Tuesday a man died in front of a shop door in Chelmsford, two weeks ago one man in his 40’s was found dead outside Westminster Tube station while on late in December a man froze to death outside a shopping centre in Birmingham.


Struggle to cope


I work in a homeless shelter in Brent and seeing the weather forecast for last week was very worried we would struggle to cope. This was for two reasons firstly the huge rise in homelessness in London caused by insecure housing and employment and falling wages and benefits mean we are constantly at capacity and have little spare capacity even at times of severe weather. Secondly although the local authority had announced SWEP (Severe Weather Emergency Protocol) which is meant to mean rough sleepers are found emergency accommodation is often unwieldy and breaks down.


Outreach team are overwhelmed


To be able to get accommodation under SWEP you need to be a verified rough sleeper, this means you have been found by an outreach team bedded down and have had your details recorded on the CHAIN system. To be verified involved logging your location with an outreach team either directly or through the Streetlink portal. The outreach team are then meant to come to the location at an unspecified time in the next two nights to see the rough sleeper. Unfortunately in Brent the outreach team are overwhelmed by reports and often struggle to visit locations within two nights. In last weeks freezing weather staying in one location means you are posing a serious threat to your health and potentially your life. Even without heavy snow it is hard to find a safe place to sleep rough and being outside can make you a target for attack and exploitation.


No statutory duty


Luckily we managed to find a group of clients permanent accommodation that week freeing up some emergency spaces and by Wednesday morning the local authority had decided to allow unverified rough sleepers emergency accommodation. Although this meant Brent was ok it made me think what happened across the rest of the England, as though councils need to have a plan for how to deal with severe weather there is no statutory duty for councils to support rough sleepers.


Right to shelter


A potential solution can be found in a place not known for its generous welfare system the USA. New York has had a ‘Right to Shelter’ since 1979 when a combination of savage austerity and economic insecurity led to a huge spike in homelessness. Here instead of having to be found the homeless report to intake centres where they are assessed and sent to shelters. Although it is not without its problems it means no one is forced to sleep rough because of poverty.


Free up outreach workers


Taking up such an approach in the UK would not only mean that people would no longer have to risk their health to be verified but it would free up outreach workers to focus on those individuals who most need help. Those who have multiple and severe issues which mean they are unable to sustain a tenancy not just individuals who have been made homeless as no landlord in their local area will accept Housing Benefit.


Treats rough sleepers with suspicion


A good first step towards this could be made by Sadiq Khan who last year launched a homelessness taskforce with the aim of ensuring no-one should be forced to sleep rough. Rather than continuing with a system that treats rough sleepers with suspicion and forces them to prove they are homeless he could give people back some dignity and give all Londoners a Right to Shelter.


Jack Jeffrey 5 March 2018


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