Windsor’s homeless problem has somewhat diminished with some being housed and others having their belongings including, sleeping bags removed by the police and put in storage. By doing so the local authorities are certainly keeping up appearances of a well-to-do bourgeoisie town in time for the royal wedding, now that the world’s media and well-wishers in their droves are here.
However, if the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead’s out-of-borough housing policy is anything to go by, something tells me it won’t be long until the homeless are back on the streets. After recent failures by the council shelters may be part of the problem and not the solution.
When Windsor’s homeless problem first came to light through Councillor Simon Dudley’s letter to Thames Valley Police, he mentioned the provision of year-round shelters – alluding that the homeless are voluntarily in an unfortunate predicament.
I’ve always wondered why so many would choose to slum it on the streets in spite of accommodation being available – like the young lad I once saw bedding down on the High Street as he adoringly stroked his dog saying: “we’ll find somewhere soon.” When a homeless man from Windsor died in a Southall shelter in February after being referred there by the council, it appeared I got my answer.
Contrary to Dudley’s claims about “high quality” accommodation, concerns have been raised about the conditions of some shelters. According to Murphy James, project manager at Windsor Homeless Project, he’d questioned the use of the Southall shelter after hearing stories of substandard conditions – and the fact that the location cut people off from their support network. The Labour Councillor of Slough, James Swindlehurst went even further by labelling the council’s out-of-borough policy as “social cleansing” in an attempt to cherry pick the type people who live in the royal borough.
The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead Council then came under fire from the Local government and Social Care Ombudsman for failing to adequately house a disabled man. The council were criticised for housing him outside the borough away from his support network.
From speaking to a number of homeless, I know that some were offered shelter in alternative areas on the condition of being stripped of drugs and alcohol. It goes without saying that the offer was refused due to substance addictions. The problem I have with shelters is that they don’t break the vicious cycle of addiction and haplessness. Furthermore, by housing people outside of the borough away from the surroundings they know, further disenfranchises the most vulnerable.
Is there a solution to the crisis?
The fact is the face of Windsor changed. As a local who’s lived here for most of my adult life, I can attest to a rise in the number of homeless over the years. The town centre became a tale of rags and riches. I saw poverty-stricken homeless huddled on the porches of listed buildings, off the cobbled street, against the backdrop of the castle. From what I’ve seen and experienced, I can safely say that all those demonising the homeless as agents of their own downfall are out of touch with reality.
The causes of homelessness are indeed complex – ranging from mental health, family issues and mismanagement of finances among others, but the government’s role in the crisis is irrefutable. In 2016 a Communities and Local Government Select Committee report found that austerity measures have contributed to 30% of the problem. Having spoken to a homeless lady going by the name of ‘Tiffany’, the figure appears to an accurate one. Her story wasn’t one of a “commercial life choice” as Dudley said in his letter to the police, but rather her only choice after having no recourse to public funds.
Tiffany told me she ended up on the streets after her benefits were cut. She incurred rent arrears of £3,000 and when she couldn’t keep up with payments, she lost her home. I asked her about what help she’d sought from the council and she told me they housed her in a shelter in Langley, but found herself on the street again after refusing the advances of a male guest. It’s indeed a familiar story as homelessness isn’t exclusive to Windsor, but a growing national problem.
There’s no easy solution to ending the problem indefinitely, and I don’t believe councils are entirely to blame. After all, they too are feeling the pinch of slashed budgets. However, I do believe the government can make significant strides by placing greater emphasis and prioritising the social justice agenda. But to do so they need to stop aggressively eroding the welfare state, which has helped so many through hard times. I strongly believe the rise in zero hour contracts and the numbers of referrals to food banks need to be investigated too.
As a believer in social justice and human rights, I would like to see more affordable housing being built here in Windsor, one of the most unaffordable areas in Britain. I would also like to see multi-institutional support being facilitated, as it’s all very well getting people off the street, but those who have been on the fringe of society for so long need support getting back to work, managing finances, a household or with mental health.