5,000 beds to ease plight of homeless

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair pledged to help people "come in from the cold" yesterday as he unveiled new plans to stop people sleeping on the country's streets.

Tony Blair pledged to help people "come in from the cold" yesterday as he unveiled new plans to stop people sleeping on the country's streets.

The Prime Minister, during a visit last night to a homeless centre near Trafalgar Square in London, announced the provision of 5,000 new beds for the homeless in England, including 550 in London. Money will also be spent training 60 specialists to help rough sleepers with alcohol, drug or mental health problems, as well as showing prisoners how to fill in benefit forms so that they do not end up on the streets when released. "On the eve of the 21st century, it is a scandal that there are still people sleeping rough on our streets," Mr Blair said. "Some of our most socially excluded have been discarded in doorways for years. Now is the time to help them come in from the cold."

The initiatives are part of the "tough love" stance that theGovernment has adopted towards homeless people. Louise Casey, the head of the Government's Rough Sleeper Unit who has criticised soup runs as validating homelessness, dismissed the idea that some people preferred homelessness. "It is a blood awful life, both dangerous and damaging. People do not aspire to it," she said. "I just don't think that the people we are concerned about are lying there because they want to. I don't accept that."

In England around 1,600 people sleep on the streets, 635 of whom are in London. The figure, however, has fallen by 10 per cent since last year, according to Government statistics. The highest concentration in London is in Westminster, which has 234 people regularly sleeping rough. Outside London, Oxford has the most people living on the streets, with 52.

The £200m that will be spent on beds, improving hostels and funding specialist workers over the next three years is money that has already been announced as part of existing Government packages. "Ministers say they are putting more money towards helping the homeless, but they are just recycling and re-announcing existing funding yet again," said John Redwood, shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions. "Tony Blair promised that Labour 'would do everything in our power to end the scandal of homelessness'. But the Government's own figures show that they are making 3,500 more families homeless each year. This is another great Labour lie."

Ms Casey said the Government was trying to reach the most vulnerable people and help them rebuild their lives. She said: "We have to give people an aspiration beyond a cardboard box. At the moment when we put people in a hostel that seems to be the end solution. Charities and the Government want to help those people put their lives together and get into education, training and employment and that is the thrust of the new strategy."

Homeless charities welcomed the proposals, but said that more preventative work was needed. Shaks Gosh, chief executive of the homeless charity Shelter, said: "Ten out of ten for helping people off the street, but I'm afraid it's only five out of ten for stopping people from becoming homeless in the first place."

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