I can’t begin to imagine how desperate it is to find yourself out on the streets – especially during the winter. The cold. The isolation. The despair.
Earlier this week, the Public Accounts Committee reported what all of us working on the frontline knew already: the government’s response to dealing with homelessness and rough sleeping across England has been woeful.
‘Unacceptably complacent’ was the term used. That’s one way of saying that leaving 9,100 human beings to sleep on our streets is a shaming, infuriating disgrace.
Since 2010, the number of households in temporary accommodation has risen by 60 per cent, while the numbers of rough sleepers has soared by 134 per cent since 2011. Most shockingly, the average rough sleeper dies before they reach the age of 50.
This is the net result of eight years’ of austerity: A toxic mix of public service cuts, housing shortages, high rents, welfare changes, low wages, benefit sanctions and rising drug use.
Councils are struggling to cope with unprecedented demand for services - with less and less money to pay for them.
We are also expected to ignore part of the problem.
Some of our rough sleepers are asylum seekers and eastern European migrants who have fallen on hard times. In Whitehall-speak they have ‘no recourse to public funds.’ We are supposed to leave them alone.
As the elected Mayor of my city, I won’t be told who I can and cannot help.
As far as I am concerned, it is utterly immoral not to do everything I possibly can to provide my fellow human beings with some basic dignity and protection
I am proud that we spend £11million every year tackling homelessness – intervening early to help families and individuals avoid falling between the cracks – even though our central government funding has been slashed by two-thirds (£470million) since 2010. While our Citizen Support Scheme includes help for people facing benefit sanctions – ensuring they don’t get evicted.
Last month, 133 people presented to our team as homeless and at imminent risk of rough sleeping, of which 92% (122) were supported and successfully prevented from spending a first night out on the street.
I am now determined that Liverpool will be the first major city in the country to end rough sleeping.
That’s why we have just launched our ‘Always Room Inside’ campaign to explain how we are working to address rough sleeping and ensure there is, literally, always room inside – day and night – and what the public can do to help us by signposting people they meet towards our services.
We have just opened our new night shelter where rough sleepers can get inside out of the cold. It will provide a base for the city’s brilliant voluntary groups, (like the ‘Paper Cup Project’) so the entire effort behind tackling rough sleeping can be co-ordinated for maximum effect.
The shelter will eventually bring together outreach teams, substance and alcohol support and GP services, in order to provide an integrated approach to helping rough sleepers.
There will also be benefits and housing advice to help rough sleepers get on their feet and because life out on the street can be so isolating, we have IT and telephones so they can get back in touch with family and friends.
When completed, Labre House (named after the Patron Saint of the homeless, Benedict Joseph Labre) will be one of the most ambitious centres of its kind in the country; providing tailored support, not only to get rough sleepers off the streets, but to help them turn their lives around – for good.
This has put me at odds with the Government because we are ignoring their ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule.
Any rough sleeper in my city will get help. No exceptions. No bureaucracy. We are simply ignoring this heartless and unworkable diktat. Ministers can go and whistle.
As far as I am concerned, it is utterly immoral not to do everything I possibly can to provide my fellow human beings with some basic dignity and protection. Especially at Christmas.
If ministers have a problem with that, then they know where I am.
Joe Anderson is the mayor of Liverpool