On the 11th December the university term finishes and thousands of UEA students will begin to head home to celebrate Christmas at home with their families and friends. However, in Norwich there are hundreds of people who won’t have somewhere to call home over the Christmas period, many will be living in hostels, bed and breakfast accommodation or even on the streets.
There are over 500 homeless people living in Norfolk, each with their own individual stories as to why they have ended up in the situation they are in. Some will have been forced to leave their home to escape violent households while others will have been evicted from their property due to being unable to afford rent. Yet in spite of these individual tales of how they ended up in their situation, they all have one thing in common: they all wish that this Christmas they had somewhere safe and warm to call home.
Facts and Figures
1 According to the charity, Shelter, 100,000 children may be homeless this Christmas, representing an increase of nearly 25% over the last four years.
2 The number of people officially sleeping rough in England last year was 2,744.
3 A rough sleeper is 35 times more likely to commit suicide than a non-homeless person.
4 112,330 households in England applied for homelessness assistance in 2014-15 which is a 26% rise since 2009-10.
5 Women in particular are at risk of homelessness. 20% of homeless women became homeless to escape violence.
6 There are more than 500 homeless people living in Norfolk
7 The life expectancy of a homeless person is as low as 47 years compared to the 81 years for the average UK citizen.
8 72 in every 100 homeless people suffer from mental health issues, compared to 30 in every 100 of the overall UK population.
“Living on the street is not safe” says Steve, a 59 year old who has been living on and off the streets for the past 12 years. “I’ve had a couple of bad times but generally it’s alright, people here are pretty good” he explains sitting undercover outside MattressMan on Prince of Wales Road. “I’ve only had one really bad time [while in Norwich]. I had three guys start on me and gave me a real battering. They left me for dead, all my ribs were broken, one rib went through my lung, I lost three pints of blood, I was haemorrhaging and I was in hospital for four weeks”.
Being subjected to violence can be a constant fear for those sleeping rough. In June this year, a 29 year old rough sleeper locally known as Sergio, died in the St Stephen’s underpass in the centre of the city. The police said that they believed his death to be an act of murder following an assault. The man had several cuts to his spleen causing internal bleeding.
“I now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder”, explains Steve talking about his attack. However, he claims that his mental health situation has not developed just from the one incident: “Prior to that [being hospitalised with broken ribs and loss of blood] I was stabbed seven times when I was in Great Yarmouth. I’ve still got the stab wounds”.
“You do get the occasional idiots… there’s just no need for it” says Sean. Resting outside Iceland on St Stephen’s Street with his two dogs, Massie and Cassy, Sean describes how he has ended up in his current situation: “I split up with my misses and that was her place. When she kicked me out I had nowhere to go. But I’ve been on and off the streets since I was 16 and I’m now 40 so I’ve been going round and round the hostels”.
“I’m alright at the moment, I got into a hostel about 2 and a half weeks ago… the problem is you never know how permanent it’s going to be so I’ve still got all my camping stuff that I bought when I had the money, I still only keep a couple of sets of clothes because you never want to buy too much in case you end up back where you are”.
Being homeless does not always mean that someone is sleeping on the streets; many homeless people are living in temporary accommodation hostels like Sean. If someone does not have somewhere they can call home they are able to ask the council for support, the council then considers the individual’s situation based on five criteria: 1) Is the person considered legally homeless? 2) Does the person have the right to live in the UK and are they eligible for assistance? 3) Can they be classed as being in priority need for help? 4) Does the person have a local connection with the council’s area? 5) Is the person intentionally homeless? Based on the answers to these measures the council will then make a decision as to whether they should be offered temporary accommodation and if they should receive any other form of help.
However, both Steve and Sean argue that the council does not do enough to help homeless people get back on their feet. “I don’t think the council do enough if I’m honest” says Steve.
“Norwich City Council absolutely believes that there’s nobody who is homeless living in Norwich” states Sean. “Last year they ran a campaign of don’t give to beggars, there’s only one genuine homeless person in Norwich. I just don’t know where they get their information from. Walking around the city you can see loads, plus you’ve got all those who are sofa surfing, all the people in these hospices which are temporary accommodation so their full of people who are homeless and people who may stay there for a while but ultimately end up on the streets again”.
Types of homelessness
The homeless charity, Crisis, argue that as a broad definition “homelessness is the problem faced by people who lack a place to live that is supportive, affordable, decent and secure”. However, there are many different types of homelessness that can fit into this broad definition.
This is usually what people assume homelessness means. Rough sleepers are those people who do not have adequate shelter to sleep in at night and therefore instead are forced to turn to sleep on the streets, parks or other outdoor areas.
Those living in emergency accommodation
If someone who is homeless goes to the council for help because they don’t have anywhere to stay the council has a duty to provide emergency accommodation. This accommodation usually consists of a hostel or a bed and breakfast. If the person meets the right criteria the council will offer them temporary accommodation.
Those living in temporary accommodation
Councils can provide temporary accommodation in a range of different types of housing. A homeless person may be offered a bedsit, a flat, a house, a place in a hostel or a bed and breakfast. Those living in temporary accommodation must pay rent and may have to pay further charges for things like meals or cleaning services. This accommodation may be run by the council, a housing association, a private landlord or a volunteer organisation.
Some people are labelled by the council as being ‘intentionally homeless’. This means that they are homeless because they left accommodation that was suitable to stay in. Suitable accommodation may include temporary accommodation. Council’s look into determining why someone left their previous accommodation and must consider whether they left without good reason. If the council decides the person were responsible for, or failed to act on, the reason they were forced to leave their home or that it was reasonable to continue living in their accommodation, they are likely to be deemed as intentionally homeless. Councils consider whether someone is intentionally homeless when determining whether to offer them temporary accommodation.
Priority need homeless
Homeless legislation states that certain people are considered to have a priority need for accommodation. Those who fit into this category may be homeless people who are: families with dependent children, and households that include someone who is vulnerable due to pregnancy, old age, physical disability, mental illness or domestic violence, 16 and 17 year olds, 18, 19 and 20 year olds who grew up in care homes, an ex-member of the armed forces or someone who has spent time in prison.
There are many people in the UK who are homeless but are not recorded on the official government statistics. Many people are unaware of the entitlements available for homeless people and therefore do not get in contact with the council. Further, some people feel too vulnerable or scared to ask for help.[/su_spoiler]
Norwich City Council has always claimed that the city has a low homeless rate. 2015 data revealed that according to the council’s official statistics there were only 12 people sleeping rough in Norwich. However, just a walk down the Prince of Wales Road late at night is enough to highlight that there may be many more people sleeping rough the official figures suggest.
Last year the council ran a campaign arguing “giving to those who beg does more harm than good”. The council stated that “Overwhelming local and national evidence shows that people who beg on the streets do so in order to buy Class A drugs, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, and super-strength alcoholic beers and ciders. These highly addictive drugs cause an extreme deterioration in people’s health and even death”.
“I’m just angry with the council” explains Sean. “There isn’t really enough for the homeless and then they tell people that they shouldn’t be on the street! I don’t do no harm, I don’t ask anyone, if people want to give me money it’s up to them, if they don’t then fair enough, if they just want to stop and have a chat then I’m happy with that, always have been.
“I do understand that you get your aggressive beggars, I do understand, and people’s opinions are warped by it. But I always say, look at their feet, I mean some people are in lovely white Nike trainers for God’s sake! That’s what I always say to people if they are unsure whether to give money, buy them a hot drink or a sandwich or something… anyone who says no to that you know there’s something not right”.
Christmas is always an especially difficult time for those who are homeless and every year ‘Open Christmas’ at St Andrews Hall put on an all-day event to provide those who are in need of somewhere to go. Every year attendees of the event receive refreshments, hot drinks, a traditional Christmas meal, food parcels to take away and entertainment such as music performances, bingo and quizzes all for free.
“They cater for about 400 people” claims Steve. “They also have a load of racks of clothing, hats and scarfs and gloves, everything you need really, they have trainers too. They even have sleeping bags and blankets”.
[su_spoiler title=”How can you help this year?” style=”simple” icon=”chevron-circle” anchor=”End”]There are many ways in which you can help and support the campaigns, charities and groups who aim to help those who find themselves without a home at this time of year.
The Salvation Army offers those who have run out of places to go the use of their life houses which offer basic, but safe accommodation, as well as free meals and access to services such as drug rehabilitation. You can help support the work which the Salvation Army does by donating through their website. Currently they are fundraising for the Christmas season, where a donation of £19 will purchase a Christmas box filled with food which could feed a family in need.
Shelter, the homelessness charity, are also accepting donations which this year is being targeted at the estimated 100,000 children who will spend Christmas homeless. Crisis’ website asks for donations of £30 to provide urgent assistance for a family which may be facing eviction from their home over the winter period.
Shelter are also asking people to sign their petition to George Osborne asking him to commit to provide affordable houses for every council house sold. Shelter has previously petitioned Osborne to double the spending on the Affordable Houses Programme. Shelter also encourage anyone who wishes to to organise a fundraising event in Shelter’s name which could take the form of anything from a pub quiz to a half-marathon.
Here in Norwich there are also a number of schemes which provide a local service to those who may find themselves alone at on Christmas Day, such as Open Christmas Norwich, which is a community organised event operating out of The Halls, Norwich. A free meal and live entertainment is offered throughout the day from 11 until 5, as well as things such as a free clothing sale, allowing those who are struggling to keep warm and dry during the winter months to obtain some new clothing. Such events rely on the support of donations of non-perishable food stuffs, such as tinned food and dry cereals. Warm, second hand clothes are also welcomed and can provide a much needed extra layer in the cold weather, as well as non-food items like sleeping bags and toiletries.
Last December, Norwich had an average daily low temperature of just 3°C. Steve is currently sofa surfing because he is worried about living on the streets through the winter due to the low temperatures: “I’m 59. I couldn’t survive another winter out on the streets. So at the moment I’m glad I’ve got somewhere to stay some nights”.
Speaking on the issue, a council spokesman explained: “Norwich is a highly proactive authority in terms of homelessness prevention and we have prevented over 2,500 cases of homelessness over the past five years alone.
“We are seeing a growth, both in the number of rough sleepers and in presentations being made to the council from people faced with potential homelessness, but the level of rough sleeping in Norwich is still comparatively low compared to other towns and cities across the UK.
“Welfare Reform has been a driving factor in the increased levels of homelessness we are witnessing and as council budgets are further stretched it is vital we make the most of resources available and work together across local authority boundaries, health and support services to address the wider issues, as set out in our 2015-20 homelessness strategy for Greater Norwich.
“We have a dedicated rough sleeping and single homeless co-ordinator based at City Hall and our outreach team managed by St Martins Housing Trust are out looking for, and seeking to engage with, rough sleepers 365 days a year. We don’t want to see people sleeping on the streets at any time of year, especially not at Christmas, and we are working with agencies across the city to do everything we can to tackle the problem.
When students head home for Christmas in just a few weeks, it’s worth remembering that there are many people like Steve and Sean in Norwich and accross the UK as a whole. While St Andrew’s Hall provides some comfort to them on the 25th December, they no doubt wish they they too had the oppotunity to be at home celebrating with loved ones.