While homelessness is on the rise across the capital, Hammersmith & Fulham Council is bucking the trend. How have we tackled this issue? And what will we do next in our drive to end rough sleeping?
In 2018, Hammersmith & Fulham became the first local authority to undertake to end all rough sleeping. And, a year and a half on, the new policies put into action are starting to bear fruit. Figures released last month by homelessness charity St Mungo’s and London’s City Hall, showed a steady decline in the number of street homeless people in H&F.
In a sector which has a number of statutory and non-statutory indicators to show the scale of the problem, these CHAIN (Combined Homelessness and Information Network) figures are seen as the ones which best represent what is going on. In 2016-17 there were 246 rough sleepers seen in the borough; in 2017-18 that fell to 202; and in 2018-19, the most recent year for which figures are available, it was 171.
“This is at a time when pretty much all other boroughs are seeing a steep increase in their CHAIN figures,” said Cllr Sue Fennimore, Deputy Leader of H&F Council, and the cabinet member who leads on homelessness in the borough. “We’re not at zero yet but that’s where we want to be – we are definitely heading in the right direction and we will do all we can to make this happen. Not having a safe place to sleep cannot be something we tolerate in 21st Century Britain.”
Doing things differently
At the heart of the change has been an absence of any fear to do things differently – something which runs though much of what H&F Council does.
Rough sleeping is the sharpest end of the housing and homelessness crisis. It ruins lives, leaving people vulnerable to violence and abuse, and takes a dreadful toll on their mental and physical health. This is no way for anyone to live.”
Those were the words of Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis – the charity which helps homeless people, last year. They appeared in the evidence-based report of the H&F independent rough sleeping commission – of which he still acts as chair.
“We asked Jon to deliver this report titled ‘Ending Rough Sleeping in Hammersmith & Fulham’, and we wanted it to be bold,” said Cllr Fennimore.
The brief was to tell us how we can completely end this problem for people, which has pretty much always been there, and is getting worse everywhere else. We knew we had to be bold in tackling homelessness.”
The key, from the outset, was to look at this as an holistic problem. The issue was as much about taking people out of poverty, as it was about getting them off the streets.
“Years of austerity means loads of people are, frankly, finding life really tough,” said Cllr Fennimore. “So the work to end street homelessness began with other anti-poverty issues, like supporting and promoting Hammersmith & Fulham Food Bank, ensuring every child in the borough gets a free breakfast every schoolday, and ending the prosecution of people who find themselves in council tax debt. These may seem like small things to some, but initiatives like this really can make the difference between sink and swim for some people – that’s the reality of the modern economy.
“But changing our housing policies was obviously key. From early on, we decided no families should be put into temporary bed and breakfast accommodation – it’s demeaning, and a horrible way for children to live. We also started to build the greatest number of genuinely affordable homes available in the borough for more than a decade.”
At the front line of homelessness
At the same time, the number of people in temporary accommodation has been steadily falling in the borough - as a result of these, and other ground-breaking policies. In April 2018 the figure was 1,400 in H&F. By March this year, that had fallen to 1,290. Today (July) the number is 1,232.
“The recommendations from the Jon Sparkes and the commission were clear,” said Cllr Fennimore. “They called on us to set up an emergency crash pad for those who can’t access hostels – so we did it. They also wanted us to expand our Housing First service, which gets people with complex needs into homes as soon as possible – so we did that too.
“We now work with voluntary groups, who are at the front line of homelessness, on a partnership board. And we lobby the private sector – basically landlords - to take greater involvement in tackling the issue. Everything we do is focused on preventing people from falling into the homelessness trap – which so many people find difficult to escape, once they’re in it. The idea is to tackle rough sleeping before it becomes a problem for individuals.”
Helping homeless people help themselves
One other initiative, in which H&F leads the country, is on helping homeless people help themselves. Beam is a social enterprise through which homeless people seek help and funding from both businesses and individuals, to guide them through training for work.
“We just saw Beam as a way of making a huge difference to the lives of individuals – which is why we became the first council in the country to sign-up. People have unfortunately become quite cynical about putting a quid in a box for homeless people. Beam helps people help named individuals, while staying updated with their progress through the training they are funding.
“The figures are what makes the headlines,” said Cllr Fennimore. “But the people are what this story is really about. By doing things differently, we are making a real difference to the lives of real people. And that, more than anything, is what running a borough like H&F should be about.”
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