Mention the word homelessness and it conjures up images of weather beaten figures – usually male – bundled up in clothes and trying to grab some sleep on a cardboard ‘bash’ in a shop doorway.
But the reality can be very different. Here in Newcastle no one sleeps rough because of a lack of accommodation. But there is no denying that ‘rough sleepers’ are a reality. We know from our street outreach services that on any one night there will be four or five people sleeping rough on our streets.
Many of them will have complex problems – the most excluded from many aspects of society caught in a cycle of hostel placements, prison, hospital and the streets. With our partners in the voluntary sector, housing providers and many other organisations, we have made sure that we have sufficient emergency accommodation to ensure that nobody has to face a second night out, and we work with many individuals to tackle the underlying issues like addiction and mental health problems which have trapped them in this vicious cycle.
But this is the extreme consequence of a downward cycle that is likely to have begun much earlier. A personal crisis or an unexpected vulnerability can be the trigger for any of us to find that the things we take for granted, like the roof over our head, are put at risk.
The economic downturn and cuts to the welfare system have led to many more people facing a difficult future. For some, financial pressures on friends and family may mean that they can no longer provide space in their home. For others, losing a job or cuts to benefits mean that it’s a struggle to stretch the household budget to cover rent and other essentials. It could happen to anyone – young, old, families and lone parents. The impact can be immediate and unexpected, or creep up insidiously as people struggle on in the belief that somehow they will cope before becoming overwhelmed.
In Newcastle we recognise that the key to preventing a short term crisis becoming a long term problem is to work with our partners to make sure people get all the help they need at the earliest possible opportunity. We call our joined up approach “Active Inclusion” – pooling our resources and capacity cooperatively to stop people falling into the homelessness trap.
Spotting the warning signs and working with people to address their personal circumstances is essential to keeping people in their homes or finding them suitable alternative accommodation.
In Newcastle we are able to provide proper alternative accommodation to people at risk of homelessness and because of this, unlike many cities, we haven’t used B&Bs since 2006.
Our social housing providers like Your Homes Newcastle (YHN) have done a tremendous job in working with their tenants through difficult times. Despite welfare cuts, the number of evictions from YHN properties remains very low. This is because YHN advice and support workers spend time with their tenants helping them to manage their finances, find employment or make sure they are receiving all the benefits they are entitled to.
One of the biggest challenges in Newcastle over the last year has been the increasing number of people seeking help from the council’s Housing Advice Centres because they are facing eviction from private rented accommodation. Landlords serve notice to quit for all sorts of reasons – they may wish to sell, or return to live in the property themselves. But private tenancy agreements are usually for a short period of time – six months is typical – giving private tenants very little long term security. And if someone starts to struggle with their rent or their tenancy isn’t renewed, private landlords are under no obligation to support tenants at risk. So with over 10,000 private landlords in the city, and with no formal powers, it is difficult to develop a consistent approach to prevention. We are working closely with services which may already have contact with private rented tenants helping them to spot the signs that people may be at risk of losing their home.
So when we contemplate the plight of the homeless it’s worth remembering that here in our city many agencies and organisations are working hard to ensure that we deal with the problems that lead to homelessness – helping as many as 5,000 people every year to keep a roof over their heads as well as those unfortunate few who find themselves facing a cold winter on our streets.
If you think you might be at risk of homelessness contact the Housing Advice Centre on 0191 277 1711 for free confidential advice.