Supporting rough sleepers: special report

The decision by Westminster Council to provide services to rough sleepers within buildings – rather than supporting them on the street – attracted criticism at the time.

But a recent evaluation of the building-based services programme found it has helped improve the support given to rough sleepers and may have contributed to at least a short-term reduction in street homelessness in the borough.

Introduced in July 2005, the programme involved replacing street work with rough sleepers with the provision of services in buildings, such as day centres.

Rough sleepers would be “signposted” into services by agencies already working on the street, such as the police.

The rationale behind the scheme was that street-based services could create a perverse incentive to sleep rough.

Rough sleepers
The independent evaluation, commissioned by Westminster, says the number of rough sleepers in the borough increased from 130 when the scheme was introduced to 160 in the six months until May before dropping to 108 by September 2006.

The report comments: “This 30 per cent reduction since May appears to show the impact of building-based services, but there have been fluctuations in the past and it is too early to be certain that this is a long-term outcome.”

The figures do not include A8 nationals, who are not provided with accommodation by local services because they cannot claim benefits until they have worked continuously for 12 months in the UK. The number of rough sleeping A8 nationals has increased from 4 to 33 from June 2005 to September 2006.

The report also made a number of conclusions about different aspects of the programme which may be relevant to other areas considering adopting elements of the approach:

• Signposting only played a small role in the scheme, with many rough sleepers already aware of building-based services through friends or other people on the street
• The scheme did not remove the need for staff to verify that service users were genuine rough sleepers. But the need for verification meant that “one of the original objectives of building-based services, that it would remove any incentive for people to be seen to sleep rough so as to access services, was not in fact achievable.”
• A gap identified by some agencies was in support for rough sleepers with common mental health problems
• An important feature of building-based services for some rough sleepers was the opportunity for socialising
• Some rough sleepers were not using building-based services and there were a significant number of people using building-based services who were not accepting offers of accommodation or moving in and out of hostels without resettling. “More intensive and assertive intervention on the streets” might be necessary for these groups.
• Operating a system to “reconnect” people with their home area was resource intensive and involved duplication of work by agencies. A dedicated reconnections project should be considered.
• The strict limitations on outreach work were relaxed, with some homelessness agencies claiming they were doing as much street work as they had been before building-based services
• Some agencies thought there was “inconsistency of practice and an absence of agreed definitions about what was involved in assertive street work.”

Slow start
Angela Harvey, Westminster’s cabinet member for housing, admits the scheme got off to a slow start, partly because agencies were concerned about how it would impact on rough sleepers.

She says partner agencies are now positively behind it but one of the issues that remains to be tackled is how to engage rough sleepers who refuse to use building-based services.

Harvey says some rough sleepers are worried to use hostels because of stories they have heard about what goes on in them. But she points out that their information is often out of date and Westminster is spending £17million upgrading its hostels.

“I’m hopeful that when that work comes through there will be absolutely no reason why people will feel that hostels are not for them.”

Tim Nicholls, director of London homelessness charity the Simon Community, says building-based services has had an “interesting” first year.

“My concern is that there’s no one size fits all answer. There needs to be a wide range of solutions to help people who are sleeping rough. Some of that will be about encouraging people inside but there are many people who are never going to come inside.”

Nicholls says that as well as the building-based services approach of directing people to access services within buildings, support and advice still need to be offered to some people on the street.

He says the Simon Community is now providing outreach support to “a sizeable number” of people who are simply not using building-based services.

Photo: George Montgomery/Photofusion

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