Street Life

Once a year in London, the public becomes aware of rough

Around Christmas, images of dishevelled teenagers with dogs sitting
in cardboard boxes prick consciences and money starts rolling in to
homeless charities.

But for the other 364 days of the year hundreds of workers work
tirelessly to help rough sleepers get off the streets. Staff from
around 200 homeless organisations go out to find people on the
streets or offer advice, healthcare, showers and food in day

Despite the government’s claim that they reached their target of
reducing rough sleeping by two thirds by 2002, there are still a
core group of people who are hard to engage along with a steady
influx of newcomers from other parts of Britain and Eastern

Stephen Turley, a former street outreach worker who now manages the
Baron’s Court Project day centre in west London, believes it is
hard to stem the flow of people onto the streets of the city.

“People will always come to London because of the bright lights and
countless other reasons, from abroad as well as other parts of the
UK. Unless the government creates a long-term housing plan, there
will always be homeless people here,” he says.

The most recent government figures for June to July last year
showed that there were 264 people sleeping rough in London – 175 of
them in Westminster.

Figures published by the charity The Simon Community in April this
year showed there were 300 rough sleepers on a single night. The
charity also contacted 82 hostels on the same night and discovered
that only eight beds were available.

But for many rough sleepers with multiple and complex problems,
finding a bed is only the beginning.

Adam Rees, outreach manager at St Mungo’s, the largest homelessness
charity working in London, assesses rough sleepers in Westminster.
“We are working with incredibly vulnerable people who have a range
of issues, who have stopped being able to trust others, and don’t
feel optimistic about their lives,” he says. “The longer they are
on the streets the worse their problems can become.”

Andrew Zapletal, a substance misuse worker at homelessness charity
Broadway in west London, suggests that some problems are compounded
by the fact that “some people are ‘warehoused’ rather than
supported”. “The high cost of hostel places means that they would
be unable to pay rent if they worked, so they just remain on
housing benefit and become deskilled, or drift back onto the
streets,” he explains.

Stephen Turley believes that some services such as day centres can
encourage dependency or “mollycoddling” and estimates that around
20 per cent of people that use the Baron’s Court Project have an
“element of learned helplessness”.

The problem is exacerbated by a lack of move-on accommodation in
London. A report on hostel provision by seven homelessness
charities published earlier this year found around one third of
homeless people were unable to move on from hostels because of a
lack of low-cost housing.

Government targets can also act as a barrier to the best provision
of services, according to Andrew Zapletal. He says, “If there is a
bed space, clients are put in even if it is not appropriate to
their needs. It becomes a process of meeting targets rather than
people’s needs.”

Mark Hyder, a volunteer support worker at the Spitalfield’s Crypt
Trust in east London, believes the project he works for provides an
alternative to the more target driven ways of working. He says:
“Hostels are purely there to keep people off the streets. Small
church-run projects like the Crypt are capable of providing a much
better one-to-one service, where people can be befriended.”

“Larger homeless charities seem to be wrapped up in empire
building, replicating the statutory sector, saying what a wonderful
job they are doing rather than doing it,” Turley says.

Despite the frustrations of dealing with government targets and the
battle for funding, workers’ motivation to change lives remains a
driving force.

Turley says: “In a climate where political spinÊmasks the real
issues affecting homeless people, we need to get back to the core
issue of helping those people that are less fortunate than
ourselves and tackling injustice.”

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