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. Following the passing of Bob Blackman MP’s Homelessness Reduction Bill in 2017, there is now a new duty on Councils to help prevent homelessness up to 56 days before it happens, and to take active steps to support people out of homelessness regardless of whether they are in ‘priority need’. The fact that this Bill got cross-party support in Parliament is an indication of the groundswell of feeling about this issue.
2017 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 wrap-around support. I am delighted that this initiative was endorsed by the Chancellor in the autumn Budget when £28 million was allocated to pilots which will run in Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands for a period of three years. This will support around 1,000 rough sleepers and those at risk of rough sleeping experiencing the most complex issues, helping them into stable, affordable accommodation with all the necessary backing to enable them rebuild their lives and sustain their tenancies. I very much hope that these pilots will have a positive impact and that we will see Housing First being rolled out nationally.
Independently of this but based on the same compelling evidence, it is really good news that West Berkshire Council has launched Housing First in this area, working in conjunction with Sovereign Housing and Two Saints. It is early days but the team is starting to identify those people for whom this approach might work and to source appropriate accommodation. Three tenancies have been set up so far. The Council is also part of the MEAM project, which is a cross-agency 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 10 individuals. Overall, statutory provision in Newbury has significantly increased: last winter, the SWEP (Severe Weather Emergency Protocol) was extended so that anyone sleeping rough who had a local connection to the area was able to find shelter at Two Saints every night if they wanted from November through to March. This was a notable increase over last year and the Council is to be congratulated on its commitment. The SWEP also kicks in when the weather is exceptionally hot so shelter and facilities can be available through the summer months as well.
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.
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, last September, the Rough Sleeping Initiative Fund allocated additional funding for 83 local authorities with the highest numbers of people at risk; West Berkshire was given £264,820.
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 the 2018 autumn Budget for mental health provision across the NHS.