Skip to main content

Drear days: No return to cardboard city


It’s been a bitter February. The outreach teams have been out in force across Britain’s cities assisting rough sleepers to come inside. Bizarrely, even in -5 degrees some people remain implacable in their determination to stay in the shop doorway.  According to some observers this is a ‘lifestyle choice’ though I tend to agree with @aibaihe, a particularly insightful tweeter who, after almost two constant years of rough sleeping, reflected recently: ‘I have never met anyone on the street who didn’t want to live inside’. Thankfully hundreds of rough sleepers did escape the streets during the cold patch as Severe Weather Emergency Protocols or SWEP were triggered and additional beds made available. 

Despite this monumental effort there exists a corrosive cynicism about the work undertaken with rough sleepers by outreach teams. They are sometimes called ‘government funded’ outreach teams, this being a pejorative term. I remember how, in the 1980s, we tirelessly campaigned to force government to take seriously the issue of rough sleeping by funding street outreach teams in the certain knowledge that the money was not going to come from shaking collection tins at railway stations. We were realists. Rough sleepers sometimes smell and occasionally do bad things. They do not have the premium brand of innocence carried by aged donkeys or baby seals. So I watch our street teams girding up for another street shift, already red-eyed and exhausted after too many late nights and mull over with considerable resentment the detail of yet another phone call from an intrepid journalist who, like the gaggle before him, wanted to discuss the rumour that we are trying to ‘clear the streets for the Olympics’.

The same journalist inquiring about pernicious attempts to clear the streets moved effortlessly on to the other story, the increase in rough sleeping, the prevailing orthodoxy being that society no longer cares and we are returning with grim inevitability to the days of ‘cardboard city’ when vast numbers of people congregated together to sleep in parks and under bridges.  But I cannot agree that things have got worse, indeed in many ways they have got immeasurably better and our responses more humane. In 1986 during one of the coldest Februarys for decades I remember leaving the Embankment in central London at 2.00am in the morning in the knowledge that around 80 men and women were that night consigned to sleeping fitfully on the pavement or in the two red telephone boxes nearby. There was no SWEP provision in those days. Twice during my four years as an outreach worker those boxes were opened in the morning by street cleaners for them to find the frozen body of a dead rough sleeper. Then it felt as if we grieved alone, with the death of a rough sleeper barely rippling the surface of local authority consciousness. Today the death of a person sleeping rough is treated with considerably greater seriousness, frequently subject to detailed investigation and is always a matter of remorse and regret.            

Recently released government figures on rough sleeping suggest that numbers are on the increase. Unfortunately the government has trapped itself into reporting on rough sleeping through a mechanism which mixes ‘snapshot’ street counts with local authority estimates, a flawed, inconsistent approach producing essentially inconsequential numbers. In London a shared database called CHAIN which is used by all the street teams provides comprehensive annual rough sleeping figures. Figures from CHAIN similarly indicate that rough sleeping is increasing. Yet the statistics also illustrate that the vast majority of people contacted by the outreach teams are only on the street for days or weeks. Increased weekend shifts and prompter, more efficient responses have enabled the outreach teams to reach new arrivals to the street earlier and to help them off more quickly. These are not the street homeless the public recognise - those people literally living on the street, frequently suffering from poor mental health or with drug and alcohol problems. Increased activity has undoubtedly driven up the number of people contacted. Surely the time has come to measure rough sleeping not only in terms of how many people are on the street but, crucially, how long they have been there?

Recently I was involved in a street count around Waterloo and the South Bank in Lambeth, south London. We found in total 15 rough sleepers and concluded that with numbers so low there was no earthly reason why rough sleeping in Lambeth shouldn’t be ended for good in 2012. That night I felt I was accompanied by assorted ghosts. In the late 1980s up to 100 rough sleepers lived in ‘bashes’ (basic shelters constructed from wood and other material) at Waterloo.  One of those rough sleepers was another perceptive tweeter @bullringbash who speaks poignantly of the inexorable shadow cast by the bullring over his life. He has escaped homelessness and now lives and works in the Midlands. We communicate about the old days of the bullring, not with wistful nostalgia but with something more akin to revulsion.

It was at the bull-ring that I came a across an ambulance crew stooping over the corpse of Archie, a young Scot. His body had lain under a blanket all day and the extensive marks on his torso and legs suggested foul play. But the autopsy showed that he had died of a heart attack and the marks had been left by rats. They had nipped and gnawed his gaunt frame over the preceding twelve hours as he lay there unnoticed and unmissed. 

We have come so far, yet perversely seem to get satisfaction from denigrating the progress made and the extraordinary efforts of staff at the frontline. Worse, we look back with the selectivity of the chronically amnesic. Ah, my friends, those were the days, where did it all go so wrong?

[This blog was published in Inside Housing on March 2nd 2012]
 

Comments

  1. Great thoughts you got there, believe I may possibly try just some of it throughout my daily life.


    House for Sale in London

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for posting interesting information
    Minicabs in london

    ReplyDelete
  3. thanks for your information.


    ReplyDelete
  4. After reading some nice stuff in your article I really feel speechlessstreet teams

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Homeless? Your failure to engage means you've only yourself to blame

In the last six months there have been five deaths of rough sleepers, all well known to the Thames Reach outreach workers seeking to help them build a life away from the street, each death a crushing blow. They include a Polish rough sleeper found dead on a dirty mattress along a canal tow-path. Another, a man in his early forties who discharged himself from hospital where he was being treated for pneumonia. Heroin dependency drove him back onto the street and his body was discovered at his regular begging pitch outside a south London train station. This cull of blighted lives; it can’t go on.
All five were long-term rough sleepers, or ‘entrenched’ as we call them nowadays. Entrench: ‘To construct a defensive position by digging a trench’, a dehumanizing word which subliminally implies that the person has elected to sleep rough, obdurately burrowing away in order to avoid the reality of the world around them. It meshes neatly with a suite of words or phrases that places responsibility…

Outreach work - not taking no for an answer

There is a crepuscular light and a chilly autumn wind is sending leaves upwards into the evening sky.  Nonetheless, I maintain the ritual of stopping to watch the skateboarders at London’s South Bank.  They cavort and shimmy in the cavernous space under the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the harsh concrete backcloth these days covered with vivid graffiti.  So much life and energy where there was once misery and desperation. For this was the place where, thirty years ago, the greatest number of rough sleepers could be found.  By the late 1980s, following some misguided and deeply damaging welfare benefit changes introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government and an absence of an effective strategy to address an inexorable rise in rough sleeping, over 120 people were sleeping around the brutalist architecture of the South Bank.  In the evening, huddles of rough sleepers would gather at tables within the Royal Festival Hall and wait for the arrival of the first soup run.
I was one of the outreach wo…

Ronnie wants a job. You had better believe it.

Ronnie sits slumped in his seat; impassive, listless and avoiding eye contact. In the chairs around the room the various professionals shift uncomfortably. This is the regular ward round at a rehabilitation unit for people detained under the Mental Health Act. As an alliance of organisations we are collectively seeking to support people to live a fulfilling life in the community and the first step is to help people to recover and stay well. 
Directed by the doctor chairing the review meeting we each introduce ourselves. Ronnie is clearly familiar with the roles of most of the people present. I’m preceded by the psychiatrist, senior nurse and the pharmacist. Then it’s my turn and I explain that Thames Reach supports people to manage their home and find work. Ronnie rapidly adjusts from being virtually supine to upright and alert. ‘Can I speak to you after – I want a job’. Regretful sympathy fills the room like an invisible mist as the group subliminally shares the view that a job is, wel…