Why Has Rough Sleeping in Portsmouth got Worse?

The Society of St James (SSJ) is a Hampshire-based homelessness charity that provides accommodation and support to over 2500 people each year. Here the charity’s team explore why homelessness in Portsmouth and the surrounding area is rising.

There are increasing numbers of people sleeping rough in Southampton and Portsmouth, alongside other towns and cities in Britain. They are clearly visible in the doorways and car parks, trying to stay warm in the cold and the wet.

This crisis seems all the worse because it was not like this 5 years ago. We have always had people sleeping rough but not at the levels we are now seeing. So the questions seem to be:

· Who are they?

· What has gone wrong?

· What are the answers?

Who are the people sleeping rough?

There has been a range of research undertaken by various organisations looking at the backgrounds of homeless people. SSJ have carried out street surveys in Southampton and assisted in rough sleeper counts within both Portsmouth and Southampton.

The research shows that the three biggest factors in people’s lives are a traumatic childhood, problematic drug and alcohol use and mental ill health – or any combination of these three. These factors exist in their lives before they find themselves on the streets, which often results in substance misuse and mental health issues becoming more serious and increasingly entrenched.

Rough sleepers are more likely than the general population to have been in care, to have witnessed violence at home, to have had substance misusing parents and to leave school with no qualifications. Homeless people are also more likely to go to prison than the average member of society.

This means that these are not people who just had a minor set-back or a run of bad luck, but are people who need the help and support of society in order to overcome the serious issues they are facing.

However, this does not explain the higher numbers sleeping rough, as the levels of childhood trauma, substance misuse and mental health issues have not significantly changed in the last 5 years. So what has been happening?

What has gone wrong?

SSJ has identified three underlying causes of the increased numbers of rough sleepers.

National Housing Shortage

Housing is a “market”, based on competition. Those least able to “compete” in the market will be those who have to go without, and many of those who are less able to cope will be those who find themselves on the streets.

There is a widely acknowledged housing shortage in the UK and this impacts on our service users in a number of ways. The rising cost of property has resulted in some of the lower quality private rented accommodation being converted into apartments for sale. This reduces accommodation available for those on benefits. This is compounded by the freezing of housing benefit levels, making much accommodation unaffordable to many.

We are also starting to see private landlords who used to accept tenants on benefits moving out of the market following the introduction of Universal Credit. The combination of the housing element of the benefit being paid direct to the claimant in four-weekly chunks and with a minimum wait of six weeks for the start of a new claim has proved to be too much of a risk for some landlords.

While the numbers of hostel beds and move-on housing has not reduced much over the years, this does result in more people trying to access accommodation. It also makes it more difficult for people to move on from hostels or other supported housing into their own rented accommodation.

Cuts to Services

The cuts to public services over the last five years has greatly reduced the numbers of support workers, social workers, mental health specialists, domiciliary care workers, community wardens, Police, probation staff, housing staff and youth workers. This means that when an individual experiences some sort of crisis, such as a relationship breakdown, being evicted from previous accommodation, being released from prison, losing a job or a delay in getting their benefits, there is much less support available to help resolve the crisis and it is more likely to escalate, resulting in people sleeping rough.

The target to save 25% of local government spending has had a clear impact on the delivery of services at a local level, and this is expected to be an increasing issue, while tight controls on budgets continue.

New Requirements of the Benefit System

A recent survey of rough sleepers in Southampton demonstrated some people have given up trying to claim state benefits. The gradually reducing eligibility for sickness benefits, the increased requirements to demonstrate that you are actively looking for work and other restrictions on who can claim, have made claiming state benefits more difficult over the last five years. This is deliberate government policy, to stop people assuming they can “live off the state” without making steps to become self-sufficient. People who fail to meet the requirements have their benefits reduced for increasing periods of time (sanctions) or have their claims disallowed all together.

This has resulted in a small number of people giving up on state benefits, and becoming fully dependent on income from begging and food from soup kitchens and day centres. These individuals are not recent arrivals in our cities; most are well known clients of substance misuse and mental health services, who have strong local connections.

This is a new issue, which did not exist five years ago and is a case for concern, as it will be increasingly difficult to get these individuals to re-engage in services and housing in the future.

What is the Answer?

Each area has its own approach to reducing rough sleeping, but these models are based on moving people initially into highly staffed services and then into more independent, lower staffed services followed by independent shared or self-contained rented accommodation. For these models to work there needs to be throughput, to prevent each unit silting up.

The challenge is to provide enough move-on housing, to ensure people can move-on from the hostels when they are ready for greater independence, thereby creating more spaces for those who might otherwise be homeless.

One of SSJ’s strategies is therefore to acquire more accommodation, through applying for grants which can be matched with mortgages, which can be paid for through the rent. This is a sustainable model that provides independent accommodation for people who are not seen as a good risk by private landlords. They have no deposits, no first month’s rent, they are in receipt of benefits and they can’t get a reference or a guarantor.

By housing people who may have higher needs, SSJ can also play a part in the prevention agenda, by actively working with people to maintain their accommodation.

SSJ is a tolerant landlord. That doesn’t mean that anything goes but it does mean that we will try to understand behaviours that others would just find unacceptable. An increase in noise may be a response to deterioration in mental health; missing rent may be due to financial exploitation. It doesn’t mean we will never take action over these things, but we will try to understand, support and help solve any identified issues. Our residents are also frequently very tolerant. They have usually worked their way through supported housing and have probably had their own issues to deal with.

The end result is that people who may not otherwise be able to access private rented accommodation can access sustainable housing and support when they need it.

Want to find out more about the Society of St James and their work? Visit their website for more information and follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can also see the team in action at Cafe in the Park, Victoria Park, where they aim to provide employment and training opportunities to local people with histories of homelessness and substance misuse.

This post was originally published by the Society of St James on their Facebook page.