Back in 2008, as Boris Johnson was entering the final month of his race to become London mayor, he pledged to end rough sleeping in the capital by 2012. Imagine that – no one sleeping on the streets, in one of the biggest cities in the world. Sounds kind of utopian, doesn't it? Somehow, however, in between all of the falling over in ponds and zip wire ordeals that have characterised his time in office, his thirst for this quest seems to have deserted him. In fact, the number of people sleeping rough has pretty much doubled since 2008, to the point where 6,437 people did so in London last year.
The Mayor would argue that we've simply become more aware of the true extent of London's homelessness problem. That – thanks, in part, to him – there are now better support workers out there, collecting more accurate data. But the point remains that there are A LOT of people sleeping rough in our capital. And, given further austerity cuts, a clampdown on squatting, soaring rent prices and the despised bedroom tax, you can't imagine things looking any less dismal when the figures come in for 2013.
Of course, the problem isn’t confined to London. Nationally, 53,540 families are homeless – a five-year high that should make you feel pretty low. New figures show that the number of families shelved away into emergency, council-funded B&B accommodation is the highest it's been for ten years. And the whole of Manchester and Salford, a place with a homelessness problem so bad that people have been found living in caves, went without a shelter for a while due to funding cuts. (It’s now back, thanks to a large donation.) Nationwide, the picture is one of homelessness shooting up while funding for homeless charities is shot down.
Back in London, whenever another depressing round of stats emerges, Boris points to his “No Second Night Out” (NSNO) project. His argument is that the number of people who end up spending just one night on the street has increased from 62 percent in 2010 to 75 percent in 2012. This sounds like progress, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
NSNO is the Mayor's attempt to end rough sleeping in London. The scheme pays for charities to employ foot soldiers, as well as running assessment centres and a hotline for the public to call if they're worried about someone they see on the streets. However, NSNO only offers to help rough sleepers the first time outreach workers meet them. If NSNO workers already know you to be homeless – if they know you've been sleeping rough for a couple of nights or, say, three years – they won't help you again.
To get a better sense of the benefits and drawbacks of NSNO, I spent a night walking the streets of Holloway, North London with Paul Jarvis, an outreach worker from the Pilion Trust. Paul's job is to meet homeless people and try to start the long process of getting them housed. Paul was homeless himself at the age of 14 after a difficult family life, and again at the age of 25, thanks to – as he puts it – “the delights of class-A drugs”.
Paul Jarvis, outreach worker from the Pilion Trust.
The Pilion Trust do run their own projects through funding that doesn't come from the Mayor's office. However, like many other anti-homelessness organisations in London, it's tough for them to resist adopting NSNO policies when tens of millions of taxpayer pounds are being poured into the scheme. For example, every outreach worker the Pilion Trust employs is paid for with NSNO money. According to Paul, the sheer amount of government funding set aside for NSNO means that Boris' pet project is “more or less the only game in town".
This causes problems. Though Paul still stops and checks in with everyone he sees sleeping rough, if he's met them before, he can't offer much in the way of immediate, tangible help. “The only hostels open tonight are run through NSNO,” he explained. “A lot of homeless shelters aren’t open because it’s summer, which means that you’re less likely to die if you sleep over there,” he said, gesturing at a tree. “So places can’t get funding in the summer.”
Essentially, that lack of funding shuts down the alternatives, leaving NSNO as rough sleepers' only chance of getting a bed for the night. If you've been homeless for a while, this isn't going to be an option for you.
"It seems like every year there are more homeless people and fewer resources. And fewer resources for people who fall through the cracks. If you screw up, it’s, ‘Sod ya,’ you know?”
One of the first people we met was Stephen (pictured). He had, in fact, been sleeping under a tree in a nearby park, but had managed to avoid being recorded as a rough sleeper so far, so was eligible for help from NSNO.
As we walked him to his accommodation for the night, he told us how he ended up on the street. “It’s my own fault,” he said, but to be honest it didn't really sound like it was. He said he'd been living in a hostel after his crack addicted-mother had kicked him out of home, but he'd decided to leave that room because, “The bloke who lived beneath me was selling crack and heroin. I surrendered my tenancy because I was using drugs and I wanted to be free of it. I’ve had a history of drug use – heroin, crack, smoking weed. I got off it all with willpower and a week in bed shivering with the shits – they don’t tell you that when you first get into heroin.”
After fleeing to Portugal via Brighton, he found himself in London where he had been living on the street and in homeless shelters, expending a lot of mental energy keeping himself clean. “I don’t know any homeless people living on the street who aren’t on drugs,” he said.
After a long walk, we arrived at the building in the photo above – No Second Night Out’s "hub" and Stephen’s temporary new home. The hub is supposed to be a waiting room where you hang out for a couple of hours while they work out what help and temporary accommodation you’re entitled to.
However, just under a year ago, Private Eye magazine revealed that it had turned into a de facto hostel – and a filthy, overcrowded one at that – where people wind up sleeping on the floor for up to two months at a time. A couple of the guys we spoke to outside told us that it was pretty much the same deal now, despite the fact that almost a year has gone by since the magazine's discovery. "This place can make you or break you", said one of them.
We left Stephen to the NSNO hub, hoping that it would make him rather than break him. While his situation looked far from ideal, at least he was getting some help. More concerning was the number of people we met that evening for whom NSNO could do nothing. For instance, Freddy, who laughed at me when I asked him if he was hopeful of getting off the streets any time soon.
Or Robbie, whose situation meant that he was squatting and said he was worried about the coming winter.
Or Julian, whose dog Oscar was probably going to make it even harder for him to find somewhere to put him up.
And Tim, as well as others who didn't want to be named or photographed. All in all, only two rough sleepers we met were eligible for help through Boris' NSNO scheme. Eight – already registered as being homeless – were not. For these people, the one-size-fits-all approach simply did not fit.
Paul looking for a homeless person. This turned out to be a car cover, not a sleeping bag.
When I caught up with Paul a couple of weeks later, he told me that Stephen had got the job at the burger bar and was about to move into a new flat. Which was obviously great news. Unfortunately, as positive as Stephen's prospects had become, that didn't account for any of the other people in his situation. As Stephen said, "There’s an endless supply of homeless people. Every day there’s another five people my age there, in my situation. They’re either on drugs or have been kicked out by their parents, and there’s a limited supply of housing."
I spoke to Bob Baker from the Simon Community, an organisation that has been supporting London's homeless since 1963. He told me why the charity chooses not to work with NSNO: “If you’re a young person and you’ve come from Birmingham or somewhere to make your fortune, and you wind up on the street, scared, cold, having been beaten up, having your stuff nicked and you want to go home, then it’s pretty wonderful because they connect you with services in your local town.
"But the majority of people haven’t come to London for that reason. They’re escaping violence, a threat or something unpleasant where they come from, so it’s not appropriate for most. It makes a single offer to people and, if it doesn’t work out, they’re not going to do anything else for you. One size clearly doesn’t fit all. It’s no good for any entrenched rough sleepers.”
This year the government spent £20m rolling out NSNO projects across the country, which means we could well see the same issues replicated. This is dangerous because what NSNO is effectively doing is dividing London's homeless into those who can be helped and those who are deemed to be beyond help. There are other avenues for these people, sure, but there's no doubting that NSNO holds the monopoly, and for all its bold claims of making homelessness a thing of the past, the Mayor's scheme mainly seems to be an attempt on his part to soften the human fall out from spiralling rent prices, dodgy landlords and the destruction of housing benefits. With winter on its way, an ever-swelling underclass of long-term homeless seem destined to find themselves shivering in London's shop doorways, with little chance of help or hope.
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