London: after Christmas, only churches offer hope to rough sleepers

More than 2,000 homeless people slept at seven Crisis Open Christmas shelters in London over the Christmas holidays.  The Department of Communities and Local Government had assured Crisis that efforts would be made to find further beds for the homeless men and women. But as they closed yesterday,  no further accommodation was made available. The homeless are now now back on the streets in freezing temperatures.  Only voluntary projects run by churches have been able to take in a few more people.

One volunteer, Philip Burke, has sent the following letter to Mrs Michelle Binfield at the Department of Communities and Local Government, with copies to MPs.

Dear Mrs Binfield,

As a former homelessness charity chair and current trustee with a West London church based homelessness charity, I recently volunteered with Crisis Open Christmas, based at the Dependency Centre in Battersea. However, I was left with serious concerns about the following:

    * No provision of beds for long term supported onward referrals.  Two  beds were found at a Church-run night shelter in Hackney and a few at a West London Church-run shelter.  The shelters are mainly run by church volunteers so provision for support was limited.  During the day people are expected to return to the streets as the shelters primarily provide emergency accommodation at night.  It should be noted that one gentleman referred was an amputee with severe mobility support needs.

    * Altogether Crisis supported over 2,000 people during the Christmas period with nearly 200 (with substance misuse problems) actually staying at the Battersea Park Road Centre alone.

    * Whilst volunteers and support workers spent time referring people it appeared from anecdotal evidence that opportunities for onward referral were scant and in many cases non-existent.  This caused real concern as the people presenting had high support needs, chaotic lifestyles and were in need of acute 'crisis intervention'.

    * Amongst volunteers there was a sense of powerlessness and disappointment (not with Crisis) as it appeared that there was no Government led strategy to support rough sleepers who were obliged to return to the streets once Crisis closed on the eve of New Years eve. This was made even more apparent by the hostile weather conditions.

    * It was felt amongst many of us that whilst Crisis facilitate this wonderful opportunity to support the homeless  at this highly charged time of year when temperatures frequently dip below zero, especially at night, we would have liked to see the State take a larger and more proactive role in addressing these issues, particularly at this time, when so many people were able to come inside due to the enormous generosity of both Crisis and its several thousand volunteers including church based agencies. 

    * It would be great to get people off the streets by 2012, but our experience showed us there was a REAL lack of beds, hostel places, supported facilities, easy access to detox and self-referral shelters.

It appeared that with the best will in the world there was just minimal options. This was unacceptable to many of us yet we felt committed to volunteer with Crisis again.

    * The church network of cold weather shelters appeared to be the ONLY option for easy access / self referral clients yet the majority were full to capacity.

    * Bureaucracy prevented chaotic people in distress from accessing correct support due to a system which seems to be working against people who are in genuine need. 

    * A serious lack of direct access hostel provision across London (unlike those available in the early 1990's) meant that people could not present as homeless to the many hostels across the capital and ask for help.

    * Many of those from the Accession Countries of the EU, particularly Poland, had nowhere to go other than the streets, as they often have no recourse to public funds. This excludes them from accessing almost all mainstream homeless hostels - which are entirely funded by the civic authorities. A10 homeless nationals are left in the cold and heavily reliant on church charity / shelters, and handouts to survive, particularly during these bitter conditions.

Whilst I understand that the Department for Communities and Local Government facilitated meetings in the lead up to the Crisis Christmas effort, its seems to me and others involved, that there needs to be a radical shift in policy, so that nobody is beyond the help of the State. Until this happens, we will continue to see a burgeoning street homeless population, which is so evident across London and beyond, where so many are forced to turn to faith-based charities for help and compassion.

It is incumbent on politicians on all sides to come together as a matter of urgency to discuss a better way forward, bringing together those agencies, often faith based charities, who work day in day out with people on the streets, who cannot access mainstream provision usually as a result of outrageous bureaucracy, that so often prevents people from receiving basic humanitarian help - starting with emergency accommodation.

I am calling for immediate action given that Crisis has now closed its residential provision for another year, but many will be forced to sleep rough in sub-zero conditions tonight, tomorrow and the day after whilst the rest of us have a warm home to go to.       

I would be happy to meet to discuss further.

Warm regards

Philip Burke

Trustee - Upper Room at St Saviours,  Hammersmith

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