Ending rough sleeping

The sight of a huddled figure in a doorway is an affront to us all and ending rough sleeping is one of my aims during my time in Parliament. Last year saw important steps in this campaign like the passing of Bob Blackman MP’s Homelessness Reduction Bill which from April this year has put a new duty on Councils to help prevent homelessness up to 56 days before it happens, and a duty to take active steps to support people out of homelessness regardless of whether they are in ‘priority need’. The fact that this got cross-party support is an indication of the groundswell of feeling about this issue.

It also saw the publication of an influential report by the Centre for Social Justice think-tank, which I was proud to co-sponsor. Called ‘Housing First’, it advocates a housing-led solution to the issue of rough sleeping, with wraparound support. I am delighted that this initiative was endorsed by the Chancellor in the 2017 autumn Budget when £28 million was allocated to pilots which will run in Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands. Initial evidence shows that this approach works.

This groundswell of support has been reflected in West Berkshire. Building on the homelessness round table back in March 2017, which brought together all interested bodies, both statutory and voluntary, West Berkshire is now part of the MEAM project, which is a joined-up way of working with the particularly vulnerable, hard-to-reach homeless whose complex needs mean that they find it almost impossible to access help. The steering group representing all these groups and chaired by Thames Valley Police, is meeting monthly and a coordinator is in post. He is now working with around 5 to 10 individuals.

The Government has committed to halve rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament and to end it completely by 2027 and is putting its money where its mouth is. ‘Big guns’ such as the CEOs of Crisis and Shelter have been brought into advise Ministers from all the relevant departments. The Rough Sleeping Strategy is based around three pillars: prevention, intervention and recovery – timely support to avoid a homeless crisis, swift targeted help for those that do become homeless, and a rapid rehousing approach, with all the necessary wraparound support, to get rough sleepers off the streets and enable them to rebuild their lives. As part of this, in September, the Rough Sleeper Initiative Fund allocated additional funding for 83 local authorities with the highest numbers of people at risk; West Berkshire was given £264,820.

It is really good to see that statutory provision in Newbury has significantly increased for this winter: Two Saints, the hostel in Newtown Road, has taken on a second outreach worker and the SWEP (Severe Weather Emergency Protocol) has been extended so that anyone sleeping rough who has a local connection to the area will be able to find shelter there every night if they wish from November through to March. This is a notable increase over last year and the Council is to be congratulated on its commitment. I also want to pay tribute to the voluntary groups who do such sterling work, week in week out, year in year out, to help rough sleepers amongst other vulnerable groups: Loose Ends, the Salvation Army, the Newbury Soup Kitchen, West Berkshire Homeless, Eight Bells, Swanswell, Citizens Advice. These involve an army of volunteers who are making a huge difference and who deserve our heartfelt thanks.

Underlying the issue of homelessness is of course a raft of other issues like addiction, mental illness, relationship breakdown, job loss and access to affordable housing. Getting people off the streets in Newbury is only going to happen when we address all these different problems. Working again with the CSJ, I am part of a group of MPs looking at new ways to address the unaffordability of homes in the UK. I have also attended meetings of Healthwatch West Berkshire as part of my campaign to ensure that mental health is a priority. Opening up the conversation about mental health and tackling the stigma surrounding it is part of this. I am delighted that a further £2 billion was promised in this autumn Budget for mental health provision across the NHS.