The group ‘Cheltenham Together’ ran a debate in their Life’s Big Questions series on ‘Homelessness, How can we solve it in Cheltenham?’ which I attended, hoping to deepen my understanding of the local situation.
Three panellists, Mary Apperley from Cheltenham Housing Aid Centre (CHAC), Kenny Lynch from the University of Gloucestershire, and Ella Hawkins from P3 spoke on different aspects of housing and homelessness, and then took questions.
In Cheltenham a mixture of charities and organisations work together and local people are generally supportive and concerned. There are few rough sleepers in Cheltenham itself (nine in a recent official count and 16 open cases with P3) but more ‘hidden homeless’ i.e sofa surfing, in unsuitable accommodation, or dropping in and out of rough sleeping. Many rough sleepers have been through the system several times, failing to cope and returning to homelessness. This seems to be getting worse, linked to cuts to mental health and substance abuse funding. Street people are very vulnerable. If you see anyone harassing a homeless person it is hate crime and should be reported to the police.
Last year there were over 2000 people on the council housing waiting list and around 500 were placed. High local rents and low new builds of affordable housing cause problems, as do the changing patterns in society, more smaller and single person households, split families, and lack of social housing (the better quality council housing being the quickest to sell).
Gloucestershire is better than many areas for housing families appropriately, few children end up in Bed and Breakfast accommodation although there have been cases of families being sent far away, even Birmingham, on a temporary basis, obviously disrupting schooling and local support.
A common comment to CHAC is ‘I can’t believe I’m homeless’. High rents, short leases, landlords’ right to evict and lack of local alternatives mean people can be nearer homelessness than they realise. Universal Credit and insecure employment are causing extra problems. The April 2018 ‘Homelessness Reduction Act’, gives local authorities extra responsibilities, which may help. The Government is clearly worried about the housing situation.
The building sector is dysfunctional. Developers can make profits by speculating in land rather than actually building. Most local development prioritises expensive housing or retirement homes, offering little to help new buyers. In the transition from ‘council housing’ to ‘social housing’ to ‘affordable housing’, the true meaning has changed completely, and ‘affordable housing’ is not really affordable to most.
In Cheltenham, in principle, places can be found for anyone homeless, though there is no permanent night shelter. P3 does ‘street outreach’, finding rough sleepers, using information supplied by the public from Street Link. A new project funded by a ‘Social Impact Bond’, ACTion Glos ‘provides intensive support to 110 entrenched rough sleepers and repeat users of homeless services across Gloucestershire.’ Six months after starting they are supporting 50 clients, giving 3 years of support to help people transition from chaotic lifestyles.
Help/meals/drop in are available at Trinity on Monday and Friday and Open Door Tues – Thurs and Sunday morning. Accommodation is available with support in Cheltenham at YMCA and Stonham – Quilter House but long-term homeless can fail to cope.
On the question ‘Why is giving money bad?’ the panel agreed that it’s not their place to criticise kindness, but during the generosity of Race Week the police are on standby for increased overdoses. Dealers sometimes watch homeless people and if they see a 20 pound note being given, they come over soon after and offer drugs. Another question was ‘Could the problem be solved with unlimited funds?’. They said in Finland they have eliminated homelessness with a ‘Housing First’ policy and it seems to be working so far. Building more entry-level housing would also help.
Another question was ‘In the Night Stop project, is it a good idea to put vulnerable teenagers with members of the public, and could it support older people too?’ We were told that this approach works very well, and there is careful vetting and support. People volunteer to offer a bed to a homeless young person for a night or two while the situation is sorted out. However, this approach may not be suitable for older homeless people as they often have very challenging behaviour.
I now have a better appreciation of the local situation. The Liberal Democrat councillor Peter Jeffries was singled out for praise on his work with housing and homelessness. In Cheltenham we have many excellent people and groups doing their best in a difficult economic climate.
I was left wondering whether the tendering, commissioning and payment by results process of a Social Impact Bond is actually efficient, and why we can’t plan to build needed homes as society changes rather than relying on market forces.
(These notes are based on my memory of the event, please let me know if you spot any inaccuracies! Also these are not the official views of our local party, just simple notes from the debate)