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The dangers of sleeping rough

It’s the same story every year. We experience a bit of “freak weather” and the whole country grinds to a halt, but Norwich this January was something else. The airport closed, snowmen popped up all over campus and passengers had to push a double decker up a hill. Thankfully, the worst seems to be finally over and we can all get back to our lives, but for those without a home, the cold snap has much longer-lasting repercussions.

Homelessness

All over the country last month, emergency shelters sprung up as temperatures dropped below freezing. These emergency shelters are not designed to house homeless people, but to provide a hot meal, an opportunity to shower and a place to get away from the ice and snow. Anyone who ventured outside their own front door in the past couple of weeks will have felt the chill, particularly here in Norwich where temperatures dropped as low as an incredible -12.4C. Imagine spending a night out on the streets in those temperatures.

St Martin’s Housing Trust is a Norwich charity that provides a range of services to homeless people and last month they put into place their “severe weather protocol”.

Derek Player, the general manager, explained that when the temperature is predicted to be below zero for three consecutive nights, the trust open up the communal facilities at their hostel on Riverside Road for people who have nowhere else to go.

He said: “We can’t give them a room (even though they may be on our waiting list to come into the hostel when a room becomes available) but we can give them shelter and food. Hypothermia can kill people sleeping rough. You can fall asleep in a shop doorway and never wake up”. All of these services come at a cost though, and St Martin’s now finds itself needing to raise extra funds to provide these essential services.

Throughout the winter season, many people rely on food banks, not just those who are homeless but also people with low incomes at risk of losing their homes. Prime Minister David Cameron recently declared that there was no need for these banks, as government benefits are high enough that nobody needs to go hungry. The prime minister visited a food bank in his constituency after pressure from the Labour Party, but insisted that they provide enough benefits that everyone in the country can afford to eat. Local supermarkets including the Co-op stores on Unthank Road and Coleman Road have been collecting canned and dried goods throughout the winter for Norwich’s food bank.

So how big is the homelessness crisis here in Norwich? It’s hard to count the number of homeless people in any one city as rough sleepers can move around an enormous amount, and sometimes take refuge in abandoned buildings or other hard-to-reach places.

That being said, St Martin’s’ rough sleepers team engaged with more than 500 people last year. Player said that of this number, “at least 100 and possibly as many as 150 had slept rough on the streets of Norwich for at least one night.” If you scale this up to include the other major cities of the UK it comes as no surprise that the number of rough sleepers on the UK’s streets has risen. Recently published statistics from the Department for Communities and Local Government showed that more than 52,000 families were living in temporary accommodation, an increase of 8% compared with the previous year. Worryingly, the trend is on the up for the first time in a number of years as we feel the full force of the financial crisis.

It is important to remember that the causes of homelessness are incredibly varied, often interconnected, and unique to every individual. Ollie Kendall, who works for GrowTH, a homeless charity based in London, told the New Statesman last week: “While we do get some street drinkers and drug users, the majority of our guests don’t fit the homeless stereotype. Most of our guests are individuals who have, for whatever reason, been without a community to care for them when things went wrong.”

Last year, in a film by UEA graduate Guy Wilson, a member of St Martin’s’ Contact, Assessment and Prevention Service (Caps) explained: “For the people that do have alcohol or substance misuse issues, being on the streets is almost a way of coping … at the moment in our economic climate we’re seeing more and more people that don’t have those issues, and yet are homeless.”

One way out of the vicious circle of homelessness is through the Big Issue Foundation, a charity which provides homeless people and those in vulnerable positions with the opportunity to sell a street paper. On top of that they give advice and counselling to all the vendors, in line with the charity’s ethos of offering “a hand up, not a handout”.

All the more shocking then, was the news last month that two vendors had been stabbed to death, highlighting the very real danger of violence against homeless people. Ian Gladwish, who was 31, and Wayne Busst, who was 32, were killed in Union Street in Birmingham city centre, and a 23-year-old man has been charged with their murders. John Bird, founder and editor-in-chief of the Big Issue broke down during a BBC interview about the stabbings, describing the deaths of the two popular vendors as a “terrible tragedy”.

As if that didn’t highlight the shocking level of violence against homeless people enough, three individuals are currently on trial for kicking a homeless man to death in Liverpool. Kevin Bennett, 53, was badly beaten on 17 August last year while sleeping rough behind a supermarket. Mr Bennett sustained serious internal injuries and died from blood poisoning six days later. What is possibly the most alarming part of this story is that two of the defendants are aged 14 – 16 years old.

Data collected by the Big Issue, published in the wake of the murder of the two Birmingham vendors shows that one in three sellers of the paper have been attacked and robbed of their earnings, while over in America more than 1,000 “bias motivated” attacks were carried out against the homeless between 1999 and 2010. 291 of these attacks were fatal.

Surely we must ask serious questions about the state of our society when we can stand by and watch as vulnerable people sleep on the streets in -12C, where they are a target for senseless and unprovoked violence, simply on account of them being homeless.

Many are reluctant, but helping those we see on the street, rather than walking past, even by donating to charities that help provide access to hot food and a warm place to stay, is the kindest thing we can do. The cold snap may be over, but the dangers faced by homeless people across the country, including right here in Norwich, are still very real and ever-present.

05/02/2013

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pollygrice



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