Giving money or food to a homeless person won’t do them any good, the housing minister has said, as welfare charities launch a “homelessness hotline” billed by the Government as an alternative to hand-outs.
StreetLink is a new national helpline for members of the public concerned about a rough sleeper in their area. Backed by 500 homelessness charities, operators will pass on information about a homeless person’s location and circumstances to support services in their area, which will then offer them targeted help.
The scheme, which has been trialled successfully in London, Liverpool and Manchester since last year, is backed by the Housing Minister Mark Prisk who urged people to offer “a hand-up, rather than a handout”.
“Most people know that giving money or food won’t help a rough sleeper find a home, get the healthcare they need, or simply put them in touch with the support available to make sure they don’t become entrenched in the lifestyle or living on the streets,” Mr Prisk said. The Government is providing £250,000 funding for the helpline.
Matt Harrison, from the charity Homeless Link, which is managing the project, said that the question of giving money to homeless people was “a matter of conscience”.
“There are people who have worked with homeless people for years who still routinely give spare change and there are people equally experienced who prefer not to and will put people in touch with services instead,” he said. “What we’re providing through StreetLink is something to do instead, or as well. Phone up our helpline or go to our website and tell us that there is someone sleeping rough in your area and we’ll put them in touch with their local authority and see what can be done to help them.”
The number of people living on the streets has soared since the recession. According to the most recent official figures, nearly 2,200 people were sleeping rough on any one night in Autumn 2011 – up by a fifth in one year. The next set of annual figures, compiled by the Department of Communities and Local Government, will be released in February and some charities fear another sharp increase.
Mr Harrison said that anecdotal evidence from homeless shelters suggested that cuts to benefit payments, along with uncertainty about the scale of future welfare reform, has led to private landlords evicting people on short-hold tenancies.
“That indicates that landlords are concerned about whether people have sufficient benefits to cover to cover their rent,” said Mr Harrison. “We don’t know what the impact of the other welfare reforms will be but we’re concerned about it.”
However, Mr Harrison said he was hopeful that helpline pilot schemes carried out in areas with high levels of homelessness had already lowered the homeless population. In London, the “No Second Night Out” trial has led to 70 per cent of new rough sleepers in 2011 spending only one night on the streets, compared to 54 per cent in 2010.
Shaun Collins, 53, was sleeping rough in a Barking churchyard for three weeks earlier this year. A paramedic alerted No Second Night Out and he was taken to an Islington hostel. Today he is moving into rented accommodation in East Ham.
I ended up homeless because of a relationship breakdown. My wife moved out after only a few months and left the country and I’m now in an expensive legal battle with her. I had to move in to a bed sit and then moved from one friends home to another. I was depressed and drinking too much. I wasn’t happy in the home I was living in but had nowhere to go – so I moved out and slept rough. I didn’t have a clue what services were out there. I didn’t know anywhere I could go. The people from No Second Night Out gave me the time of day. Now I’m registered with six or seven employment agencies. In the New Year I’m hoping to be able get work again on building sites. We all make mistakes and I think everybody deserves a second chance. People don’t sleep on the streets by choice. The more people are aware that there is something out there for them the better.
To let Streetlink know about a homeless person in need of help in your area call 0300 500 0914 or visit www.streetlink.org.uk