A complicated issue which is about so much more than housing
Campaign member Emma Taylor, Cabinet Member for Citizens’ Services (including housing), writes about the homelessness situation in Worthing and the difficulties of dealing with it without sufficient funding.
When I moved to Worthing in 2015, I wanted to immerse myself in the local community. Previous life experiences had given me a heart for the homeless and so I grasped the opportunity to get involved with the Worthing Winter night shelter project run by the brilliant Ginny Cassell of Storm Ministries. I teamed up with Emmanuel United Reformed Church in Heene Road to coordinate Saturday nights, where we offered dinner, bed and breakfast to 12 guests between November and March. For the remainder of the year I organised a soup run as a way to stay connected with the community and offer, food, clothes and other various essential supplies as well as friendship, encouragement and guidance. For years my children and I were blessed by the interactions we had with so many amazing individuals, each with their own unique back story and future path. As years went by I grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of political will to do anything radical enough to bring about lasting change and so I decided to redirect my efforts into challenging the status quo of the wider system. Thankfully there are still so many other dedicated people in Worthing, working tirelessly to meet the needs of those who do not have what they need to survive but whilst community spirit is a wonderful thing, charity at this level and scale should not be necessary in the 6th richest global economy.
I was elected as a Labour Councillor for Heene Ward in 2021 and worked in opposition for a year before our victory in the local elections of May 22 meant that Labour became the administration and I was selected to become the new Cabinet Member for Citizen Services – which covers Housing, Revs and Bens. Now nine months into the cabinet role, I can not believe how much has been achieved but more overwhelmingly, how much more needs to be done.
Homelessness is so much more than rough sleeping. Whilst at the last count we had 31 people sleeping rough on the streets, there will be a great deal more who are sofa surfing, squatting and sleeping in vehicles. On top of this we have over 300 households living in temporary accommodation which is increasingly outside of Worthing, causing real issues with people not being able to access valuable support networks such as their GPs. A chronic shortage of move on options means that people are becoming trapped in unsuitable accommodation for too long and it is taking a real toll on individual’s and families’ mental and physical wellbeing. Homelessness is awful for anyone to experience but today I wanted to focus on giving a voice to street homeless people, as from my experience this is one of the most demonised groups who rarely get the opportunity to make themselves heard or give their side of the story. I hope I can communicate empathetically; accurately and in a way that helps people to challenge any pre conceived ideas they may have and see the larger systemic issues at play.
The night shelters were wonderful homely places where volunteers and guests sat and ate together. We talked, laughed, moaned and disagreed together, much like any family mealtime and through this time spent together, lasting bonds were formed.
There is no such thing as a typical homeless person, they are as disparate as any other group of people. The only certain shared characteristic is that they do not have their own home. Whilst no two people are the same there are certainly patterns. For example the main reason for becoming homeless in Worthing is the breakdown of a private rental agreement or family arrangement. This is something on the rise during the cost of living emergency as people simply cannot afford the rent increases. Another very common theme is mental health difficulties, a far higher incidence than substance misuse, though experience has brought me to a place of seeing addiction as a form of public health crisis that could be significantly curbed if people were given better mental health support. I have met teachers; veterans; police officers; labourers; nurses; chefs; book worms; musicians and artists all of who had so much to offer the world and yet had found themselves caught in a snowball of unfortunate events that had led to them losing their home. One gentleman told me that when his wife died he couldn’t cope with going to work and subsequently lost his job and as a result his tenancy within 3 months. The terrifying reality is that half of working renters are only one pay cheque away from losing their home.
The longer anyone lives outside, the more entrenched they become and the harder it is to break the cycle. Mental and physical health decline rapidly with the average life expectancy being just 45 years for a man and 43 for a woman. Indeed I have lost many, many people who I had the privilege to form a connection with over the last 7 years. You see their physical decline in their weight; muscle loss; tooth decay and infections resulting from a combination of malnutrition and being exposed to the elements day and night, all year round. One young man had to have his leg amputated at the knee because he was not able to keep it dry and elevated on discharge from hospital following an infection.
Many do not have the support of a single family member. Some burned their bridges recently; others felt too much shame to admit what had become of them and others had never really been parented or looked after in their lives. There are people on the streets who have never had a fixed address in their entire adult lives, let that sink in! Whatever the reason it really showed how vulnerable people are who do not have strong family connections and how in these circumstances, street community friends become surrogate family and the bonds are intense and complex. It is also important to remember that not everyone’s experience of being homeless is the same. As in all walks of life there are various levels of discrimination and oppression at play. I have witnessed racism, homophobia and sexism at play effecting the type of intervention and support that is required and offered. You meet less women who are rough sleeping but those you do meet tend to have the most horrendous back stories. I think that it is generally easier for a woman to get a friend or family member to take them in, though this in itself can be a danger due to their risk of abuse and exploitation. Sadly, once a women has found herself street homeless, it is generally at the end of a long, complicated and painful ordeal. Of course it stands to reason that anyone who ends up on the streets who has already experienced a large amount of trauma, is going to need more help and support to get back on their feet.
Unfortunately single homeless people are subject to some of the most vile and hostile rhetoric by a small section of society. The way they are spoken about in popular discourse is dehumanising and often factually incorrect. Having seen what a barrier not having a fixed address can be, I have come to believe that housing should be considered a protected characteristic. If this were the case then a lot of the negative things that are said about homeless people would be classified as hate speech.
Now I am not pretending that all homeless people behave in a way that is inline with societal expectations and norms but there is a very problematic conflation of street drinkers and homeless people which is simply not fair or true. Within our homeless community there are indeed many who have alcohol and substance addictions, for some this could be the reason they lost their accommodation but for others it is something they have turned to in order to survive their daily reality. In many cases there is a concurrent mental health issue that has gone untreated or possibly undiagnosed. However the reality is that whilst alcoholism and resultant anti-social behaviour is rife in this country, it is by no means a problem that is limited to homeless individuals. In my experience, more harm comes to women in their own homes as a result of alcoholism than it ever does from walking past a group of street homeless people drinking out of tins. There is also something very classist about what some consider acceptable and non-acceptable drinking culture in this Country.
We suffer terrible consequences from binge drinkers who spill out onto our streets from licensed establishments, throwing up and urinating on our pavements and shop fronts and harassing women and really very little is done to address this behaviour. Yet when a group of street homeless people huddle together, sharing tins of beer in an attempt to keep each other’s spirits up before another night of sleeping on outside this behaviour is treated by some as somehow a greater concern or offence. The main difference that I see is that one form of drinking makes a drinking establishment a lot of money and the other does not! There are many, many homeless people who stay well away from alcohol and those consuming it because that is not a comfortable space for them to occupy. Indeed sometimes it is hard for the quieter individuals to access shared support spaces because it triggers their anxiety to be around others who are struggling with addictions and associated behaviours.
Shockingly it is not uncommon for homeless people to experience verbal and physical attacks from passers-by. One man I knew was set alight whilst he was sleeping! It is a well known fact that many street homeless people will sleep with their shoes on and their sleeping bag half unzipped in case the need to run. These are people who need our protection not who we need to be protected from.
I really just want people to stop, think, empathise and see that that every homeless person is unique and worthy of a home and the support they need to survive and thrive. At times I have been very challenged and triggered by the behaviour of certain individuals during my time at the night shelter but when this happens I try to imagine how perfect and adorable the individual must once have been as a baby or a small child just so that I can find a way to see their humanity and not just their immediate behaviour. I know some will say I am too soft and that people are responsible for their choices and actions, which of course they are but we do not all get the same chances in life and for some people the choices they get are a lot harder and less pleasant than others.
When Covid hit in 2020 and the Government issued “Everyone In” advice I was relived but also infuriated. Relieved that all the individuals that I cared so deeply for would be warm and dry for the foreseeable future but angry because it proved what I always knew to be true, that the Government had the power to do more to help the homeless and chose not to. At the time the estimated street homeless numbers were relatively low as the night shelters were in operation but when the pandemic hit the 100 + bed Chatsworth Hotel was full within days. It really highlighted the scale of hidden homelessness in Worthing as people who had been sofa surfing, squatting and sleeping in cars came forward for help. The sheer joy on the faces of the guests when I delivered meals to them in their rooms was something I will never forget. They were just so happy to have their own lockable door, bed and bathroom. Up until this experience, if you had asked me about shared accommodation I would have said that it was insufficient and too small but this made me realise that whilst space standards are important, it is more important and urgent that we get people off the streets. If in the interim that means they are in modest rooms with shared cooking facilities, at least they would be warm, dry and safe!
Once the first lock down was over, the amazing housing team at Worthing Borough Council found each and every person a move on accommodation which was a phenomenal result. Sadly though, many of these tenancies did not last. I talked to many people about why their placement fell through and there was one major theme that came out of their responses; mental health. Many reported feeling lonely in self-contained accommodation away from all their friends and connections. Others said that their mental health was just too bad and they couldn’t cope alone. This was another reminder that just giving someone a home is not always going to be enough for them to achieve a long term positive outcome. Many will need ongoing, wrap around support and care to ensure that they build up resilience and coping strategies. Some reported that even after being given a place to stay they felt anxious that it could be taken away at any point. Others that they had lost all their confidence and did not see their purpose or value in the world. Some were still in the grips of serious addiction and no home was going to solve that for them. Though I want to acknowledge that in my mind, no one can be expected to try and recover from an addiction until they have been given the security of their own safe space.
So what are we going to do in Worthing? The task is monumental. Our Labour administration sees the housing crisis as the single most vital issue in our town but we operate under a Conservative Government who have presided over the most rapid worsening of inequality ever seen in our Country. We need a change of Government and make no mistake the local Labour Parties will be campaigning consistently ready for a general election in 2024, if not before.
Locally our plan is two-fold. Firstly we want all of our Citizen’s back in Worthing where we can support and look after them and we want everybody off the streets. So we need to urgently procure and build our own emergency and temporary accommodation so that we have control over the quality, cost quantity and location. Some of this accommodation will need to have specialist support on site to help the guests feel safe and to offer the level of complex needs care that will be required to help some people back into permanent tenancies and participating in wider society.
Secondly but at the same time, we need to make plans for move on accommodation. Too often people end up trapped in temporary accommodation, beyond when they were ready to move on because there are no next step options available. The private rental market is out of control and the local housing allowance and housing benefit payments are no where near where they need to be for anyone to be able to rent privately in Worthing. Registered providers often have their own referral criteria and so will refuse some of the people we most need them to house. On this basis we need to build sustainable council housing at capped rents and high levels of insulation so that the cost of rent and energy bills is manageable. We have some key sites in mind for this such as Teville Gate and Union Place but we will also need to explore all opportunities to repurpose out existing stock.
The situation is so urgent we have no time to lose and every opportunity will be explored. Modern methods of construction, modular builds, repurposing of existing buildings and buying off plan, all offer the opportunity to make places available faster than new build. In terms of getting people off the streets and back into Worthing, even a temporary shipping container style development could save lives and buy us some time to develop longer term options.
For the many reasons outlined a number of rough sleepers will need more than just a home. Those with complex needs and trauma will need support to maintain a tenancy. What that support consists of and how long it is needed for will vary on an individual basis. If we fail to address the full extent of an individual’s needs then we will just perpetuate a cycle of homelessness. What is clearly lacking is mental health and addiction support and at times adult social care. Systematic cuts that have occurred throughout over a decade of Conservative austerity measures have had devastating effects on our communities and as a result we are seeing more people with complex needs acting out which in turn plays into the demonisation of street homeless people. This needs to end. The Government must urgently invest in health and social care and at the same time make funding available for local authorities to provide accommodation that is accessible to all, at rents that are in line with local entitlements and wages. Without this commitment, all our local aspirations will be proverbial sticking plasters rather than lasting solutions to the real issues.