Following news that the number of homeless people in Portsmouth has trebled, Holly Wells finds out why – and who is out there to help.
A homeless man is sat in a doorway in Southsea. With only a rucksack, a flask of tea and a baseball cap filled with coppers, he still manages a smile when I approach him.
‘Are you Roy?’ I ask him.
‘How did you get my name?’
I explain that, another homeless person, who was blind drunk, told me Roy was ‘the best person to speak to’.
He agrees and, as I settle down on the ground next to him, he says, ‘At least with me I won’t soften the blows.’ I ask him if he wants something to eat or drink but he tells me he has just bought a tea and something to eat from a burger van. We settle on two cigarettes and £4 to get something to eat later.
‘I get more help from members of the public than I do from the authorities,’ says Roy. He was made homeless when his landlord went bankrupt. That was eight years ago. ‘Because I don’t have any dependents, a mental or physical disability and don’t have a drink or drug addiction, they told me I can cope’.
“They” are Portsmouth City Council.
I suggest that the way he is living now can’t really be called coping and he shrugs his shoulders. Who is there to help people like Roy while they are on the street?
‘The Council won’t help and I no longer go to the Rethink [the Council-run day centre at Central Point on Kingston Road]. I don’t think they can help me.’ Rethink does offer a bond scheme in which they give a £250 ‘promise’ to a private landlord to cover any potential damage.
‘No landlord is going to accept that!’ scoffs Roy.
It’s time to verify Roy’s claims by visiting Rethink myself. The centre comprises a small, overheated room with a man asleep in a sofa and two other men sitting around a table eating a cooked breakfast. Rucksacks are strewn all over the floor.
As I wait for manager Natalie Ennis, I notice a price list on the wall: a full English breakfast is 50p, an evening dinner £1. The £4 I gave Roy could buy him two breakfasts and three dinners.
Ennis soon appears and explains to me that both paid employees and volunteers work at Rethink. The employees all hold degrees in disciplines ranging from mental health to nursing. She and her colleagues provide rough sleepers with immediate help: hot food, showers and laundry facilities.
‘We only help local people,’ Ennis tells me. ‘They have to have a connection to Portsmouth which some people don’t know as they think we are helping anyone.’
Rethink also refers priority cases to local hostels that will try to accommodate them for the long-term. I ask Ennis how many landlords get involved with the bond scheme and she can’t answer, which suggests this isn’t a popular option.
Portsmouth City Council’s Strategy for Preventing Homelessness has found that the city’s statutory homelessness rate per 1,000 population is 3.7%, which puts us at second out of cities and towns in the South East region. Brighton is top of this grim league with a figure of 4.1%.
According to Portsmouth Against the Cuts Together (PACT),the number of people sleeping rough has skyrocketed as a direct result of a 25% decrease in PCC spending on housing and homelessness provision over the last four years. Domestic violence is another major cause of vagrancy, and will only get worse after £180,000’s worth of PCC cuts were made to services helping victims of abuse and violence.
PCC’s strategy paper argues that ‘rough sleepers invariably have a chaotic history of drug or alcohol dependency, which may be compounded by mental health issues. It has been estimated that there are more than 1,300 problem drug users in the city.’ Ubiquitous as the drug problem may be, it doesn’t explain the predicament of every single rough sleeper in Portsmouth. Roy, for example, neither drinks nor takes drugs.
On a busy Tuesday night at Guildhall Walk, I meet Aaron, who ended up on the street partly due to the trauma of losing his father. As we try to talk, drunken passers-by shout insults at him and tell him he is cruel for keeping Molly, his pet dog, on the streets.
Earlier Roy told me that Guildhall Walk was too ‘dangerous’ for vagrants to hang around. ‘I’ve seen people being stabbed down there just from small fights, and that’s not to do with homeless people, it’s just from students and locals.’
For people like Roy and Aaron there is still basic help if they really need it, but who can say it will still be there after the cuts start to bite?
Photography by Moshe Tasky.