I am the director of The Barons Court Project, the only drop-in centre for people who are homeless or living with mental health problems in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. Through the year we serve over 230 individuals with many coming each day for support and the services we offer. We welcome people who are living in a variety of housing situations or rough sleeping, but most of our service users are suffering from poverty of one form or another. Our mission is to relieve that poverty through the services and activities we run and to be a community for all who need us.
We are open Monday to Friday, but would love to be able to open seven days a week. Each week, we welcome people to the centre who rely on us to meet their basic human needs; to shower, access toiletries and clothing, do laundry, collect post, access computers and charge phones. We also provide healthy meals at a subsidised rate for people on low incomes or free for those with no income. Having met people's basic needs, we concentrate on helping people develop their skills and secure employment. We have an IT suite open daily, where people can job search, look for housing, check their emails and write CVs. Volunteers are on hand to help and we have a weekly IT class for those not familiar with computers. By tackling skills poverty, we have successfully assisted homeless people to access employment and accommodation.
Throughout the week, we also offer volunteer-led activities such as drama, yoga and arts & crafts. These promote social inclusion, boost self-confidence and give a fuller quality of life.
Sadly as austerity kicked in the numbers of people accessing our service and level of need has risen dramatically at the same time that our funding was reduced and we had to cut back on staff and other expenditure. Rough sleeping has rocketed and more and more of our service users who are housed are struggling to pay their bills, buy food or essential daily items. The cuts and changes to benefits are hitting the most vulnerable hard; numbers of people sleeping on the streets have increased and mental health and wellbeing is deteriorating. We are spending more and more time helping people with benefits claims and unfair sanctions. Particularly worrying is the withdrawal of Disability Benefit to so many who we know are not fit enough or able to work. With reduced benefits, many are at risk of homelessness and reaching breaking point. I cannot begin to understand how GPs' and Psychiatrists' letters to supporting patients' claim can be overruled by untrained medical assessors.
As a pilot borough for Universal Credit we have seen first-hand how this system will make it harder to claim benefit, pushing more people into debt and leading to rising evictions. Universal credit claims have to be made online, claimants have to have an email address and be computer literate in order to monitor the progress of their claim. This is a huge stumbling block for people who do not own computers or are unable to learn how to use them. Similarly, there has been a move away from Post Office accounts and new claimants are encouraged to open bank accounts instead. Many of our service users with no fixed address are rejected by banks because they lack documentation to prove ID and address, further delaying their applications. For any new claim there will be a week where no benefit is paid at all. The delays in assessing and processing claims mean that people are expected to self-fund all their costs until payment is received. This could take two months or more to complete.
How we help people in need is one of the hardest questions to answer and we constantly review our work to ensure we provide support but also challenge people where required. Services such as mine are struggling with the demand they face, with fewer resources and increased need and sadly some have closed completely. We will continue to gather evidence and tell peoples stories and seek to challenge that which is unfair or unjust.
I believe we can all contribute to a fairer society. Individuals can help by supporting their local project through donations of goods or cash. Volunteers who can contribute regularly or corporate groups that come for a day make a huge difference and mean we can increase our service offer. Companies can donate unwanted goods to charities, and reduce waste at the same time. All these actions together should not be underestimated, they make a significant difference.
The political debate rumbles on about whether we should increase tax for the better off or further cut benefits of the poorest to pay for services. That is a personal decision, I just try and live by that old command to "Love your neighbour as yourself."