It’s fair to say that Birmingham is in the midst of a homelessness crisis. If you live or work in the city you cannot fail to have noticed the increase over the last few years. Yet, we constantly hear of the many hostel spaces that remain unused. Surely this is nothing more than basic maths?
Here are a few of the many reasons why the problem is far more complex than it may appear on first glance:
A roof over your head doesn’t automatically make a home. A hostel can feel like an intimidating and dangerous place to be. What would you do if your fellow hotel guests were taking drugs or stealing your belongings? You’d surely leave immediately and never return? You’re also likely to post a damning review on TripAdvisor, meaning that anyone else reading your post is unlikely to make a booking. Hostels have a bad reputation and, as hard as it may be to believe, some people genuinely prefer to be on the streets. If they experience a threat they can simply pick up their belongings and move to the next location.
A significant percentage of the homeless community will have support needs, often the reason for the homelessness in the first place. Someone who has an alcohol dependency may be rowdy when under the influence, a drug addict may fund their habit with criminal activity, someone with unaddressed mental health issues may get behind with rent payments. These are all common reasons why a landlord may choose to evict a tenant. If the person is rehoused without support, the root cause of the original behaviour will remain and the person may quickly find themselves without accommodation again.
So is the solution as easy as offering the right support, allowing the homeless person to successfully move into, and maintain, permanent accommodation? Over recent years, Councils have seen huge cuts to their funding. Birmingham City Council have been a significant victim of these budget cuts. Often the support that is needed does not exist any longer or the person referred will not meet the threshold for intervention, as the service is only able to help those most in need.
A hostel should bring temporary respite only; it is not a suitable long-term solution. We need to increase the amount of affordable housing that is available. Private rented accommodation can be outside of someone’s financial means. Social housing providers, such as housing associations, have had their finances cut and are focussing on developing products that bring in the most income, such as shared ownership properties. This is not to create large profits, simply to fill the gap left by the budget cuts and sustain the affordable homes that they do have.
Stability is crucial for recovery and having a home is a key part of this. The Housing First model, first developed in the United States, provides a home to a homeless person first and foremost, with a a clear plan of support in place to address their needs. This approach has resulted in many positive outcomes but again we find ourselves missing two significant pieces of the puzzle: permanent housing and appropriate support. What we can see is that hostels are again not the answer.
There is no one size fits all solution to this incredibly complex issue. Every homeless person is an individual with their own unique set of needs. So how can we help? Here is some advice that I have been given when I have posed this question to the experts:
- Don’t judge. It is easy to assume that all homeless people deserve the situation they find themselves in. There are many reasons for homelessness: fleeing domestic abuse, family breakdown and loss of employment to name a few. Most with an addiction will have suffered trauma and, whilst not an excuse for poor behaviour, it is shortsighted to believe that the problem will disappear without support.
- Don’t pretend the problem doesn’t exist: smile, say hello, have a conversation. A homeless person is as part of the community of Birmingham as you and I.
- If you are concerned about someone you can use Streetlink.org to make the right people aware
- Give essentials such as food and water
- Shout up. The voice of the homeless community may be weak but together we can make it stronger. Speak to the people who do have the power to effect a change – Andy Street (West Midlands Mayor) and David Jamieson (West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner) being two such people. Write to them, attend public meetings and above all else, make them aware that Birmingham cares.