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Slipping through the net

Welsh Government figures show a substantial rise in the number of rough sleepers in Wales. Mia Rees looks at the reasons why and what can be done to address the problem.

In February the Welsh Government published the results of its National Rough Sleeper Count for 2016. All organisations that work with rough sleepers in Wales knew that the numbers were bound to go up. We had seen it in our own research and anecdotally with the number of clients we were working with; what surprised us was by how much they’d gone up.

During the night of the November 3, 2016, the Welsh Government undertook its second annual rough sleepers count covering the whole of Wales. This data provides a one-night snapshot of the numbers of those sleeping rough across the country. On the night of the count 141 people were observed sleeping rough compared to 82 in 2015 – a 72 per cent increase in the number of rough sleepers in Wales.

The other part of the count consisted of a two-week information-gathering period that found a 30 per cent increase across Wales – 240 people in 2015 and 313 in 2016.

The Welsh Government acknowledges the potential weakness of collecting data in this way and accepts that many factors will influence the number of people sleeping rough on the night of the count including location, timing and weather. It should also be recognised that these figures are estimates based on what was observed and could be seen, therefore the actual number could be higher.

However, this is the information used by Welsh Government to monitor the effectiveness of current policy including its Ten Year Homelessness Plan for Wales and the Housing (Wales) Act. The increase might suggest that the plan and legislation is not working for rough sleepers. That, would however, be a massive oversimplification of a complex and challenging issue.

The Welsh Government’s Housing Act is working to prevent people becoming homeless but rough sleepers are slipping through the net. It has been acknowledged by other organisations in Wales working to tackle homelessness that help for housing is an incredibly varied picture across the country. Some areas can boast excellent examples of best practice but some concerning weak spots remain. There are households being helped above and beyond and others who are living between the street and hostels for too long.

It needs to be recognised that rough sleeping is a complex issue that has no ‘one size fits all’ solution. The needs of rough sleepers are increasingly multifaceted and it takes time and training to address their concerns and help work with people to get them into sustainable housing.

Many local authorities only have limited resources and procedures from which they feel they cannot deviate, meaning that often complex cases with rough sleepers slip through the net.

The cities with the highest number of rough sleepers on the night of the count were Cardiff with 53 (up from 30 in 2015) and Wrexham with 27 (up from 17 in 2015).

At The Wallich we have had Rough Sleepers Intervention Teams (RSITs) working in Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Bridgend for the last three years. We also now have a team working in Wrexham.

Our RSITs collect data on the number of people they have contact with every day along with delivering humanitarian aid, support and advice to people that are sleeping rough or are vulnerably housed across Wales.

Over the three years there has been a consistent increase in the number of rough sleepers in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport with the largest increase in Cardiff. In 2014 the average number of rough sleepers our staff worked with per month was 78 by 2016 this had risen to 186.

Our figures show on average over 330 people sleep rough every month across South Wales and in 2016 our RSITs worked with 1,221 people in Cardiff alone. Data information we collect for Cardiff, Newport, Bridgend, Swansea and now Wrexham is available on our website www.thewallich.com .

It is also worth looking at The Wallich and Welsh Government’s data in a wider UK context.

In Autumn 2016 there were an estimated 4,134 rough sleepers in England on the night of its snapshot count. This was the highest figure since recording these figures began in 2010 and was a 16 per cent increase on the previous year. It should be acknowledged that the numbers in England have consistently increased each year the count has been conducted with the highest number of rough sleepers being recorded in London – 23 per cent of the total in 2016. Unfortunately, we only have the counts for 2015 and 2016 in Wales although the Welsh Government has committed to continue them annually.

Scotland does not carry out an annual rough sleeping count but its data shows that 7 per cent of people who people who presented to their local authority for housing help had slept rough at least once in the three months preceding. In 2015/16, 4 per cent of applicants (1,352 in total or 113 per month on average) slept rough the night before applying for assistance.

The law in Scotland states that local authorities have a statutory responsibility to anyone threatened with or experiencing homelessness. By law, local authorities must offer a minimum of temporary accommodation, advice and assistance to all homeless households and those at risk of homelessness.

This is very similar in principle to the Welsh Housing Act. However, the Act in Wales has only been in place for a relatively short period with local authorities in Wales still learning and adapting to the new legislation.

So what could be done in Wales to address the increasing numbers of rough sleepers?

We believe that more pan-Wales research needs to be done to look in detail at why the help currently being offered by councils is not keeping people off the streets and what can be done to reverse this concerning trend.

The Welsh Government’s count is only carried out once a year and the data we collect via our RSITs are only comes from five areas of Wales currently.

If we had a better, more in-depth understanding of why people were slipping through the net in Wales, and what could be done to prevent it happening in future we could address the matter much more coherently.

Alongside this we also need to look at innovative approaches and be willing to expand the evidence based methods we use to reduce homelessness. For example, Housing First is a proven model, particularly for the most complex individuals who have often been living a street based life style for long periods of time.

The Wallich is proud to have a project based on a Housing First model in Anglesey. Housing First Anglesey helps homeless people to find a permanent home quickly, providing ongoing support to help them settle in and maintain their new home. The project provides an intensive support package to actively address issues in a creative and innovative way.

The Housing First approach focuses on getting homeless people straight into their own accommodation – rather than finding temporary solutions (such as a hostel place) before permanent accommodation is sought. Once housed, support may involve help with accessing the right benefits, reducing levels of debt or rent arrears, understanding tenancy rights and obligations, or even accessing learning and employment opportunities. Those living in Housing First are also encouraged to get into treatment, though they’re not pressured, for any addictions or other health concerns.

Through strong research, working with those who have experience of rough sleeping in Wales, and taking evidenced and innovative approaches, working with the Welsh Government and local authorities we can change this trend and bring the number of people sleeping rough in Wales down.

Mia Rees is public affairs and research manager at The Wallich

‘I knew I needed to get in somewhere’

Karl used to rough sleep in Cardiff. The Wallich’s Rough Sleepers Intervention Team supported him to get a place in the Nightshelter, a useful step in getting his life on track.

‘Before I got a place here I was staying on the streets and had been for four months. I got given a sleeping bag from Outreach after about one and a half months of sleeping rough. I was able to wash my sleeping bag once a week at one of the hostels, which was good because even though I was homeless, I still wanted to be clean. There was a few nights in a row where it rained so much I was soaked through, even through my sleeping bag. It was terrible. I knew I needed to get in somewhere then.

‘I heard about the Nightshelter through the Breakfast Run. One of the members of staff told me that it was alright in there and a better option compared to being on the streets. So I went and asked if I could be moved there. All I wanted was a place where I could get my head down, get back on my feet so I can get a job and then have my daughter on weekends. She’s my little princess and my world.

‘Now I’m here I help as much as I can, I do my dishes and my washing. I am so thankful to be here I really do try and show my appreciation as much as I can. If you have good staff, and the Nightshelter does, it brings out the best in people and I think it’s bringing out the best in me.

‘I actually look forward to coming back here in the nights, knowing I have somewhere safe to stay.’

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