Homeless cleared from London streets: But many face long stays in waiting areas

David Goddard spent four weeks sleeping on the floor at one of  the three No Second Night Out hubs in London. The target length of stay is 72 hours.
David Goddard spent four weeks sleeping on the floor at one of the three No Second Night Out hubs in London. The target length of stay is 72 hours.
A few weeks ago I wrote about David Goddard, a young homeless man who was released from prison and spent a number of weeks in accommodation known as the hub in Lewisham, South East London. The hub is a place which takes in new rough sleepers, and is run by an organisation called No Second Night Out (NSNO). NSNO was set up in 2011 by Mayor of London Boris Johnson as part of an agenda to end rough sleeping in London by 2012. The Greater London Authority (GLA) pays for the stays. The idea is to stop the homeless spending a second night on the street and to prevent them becoming entrenched there. There are two other NSNO hubs in London providing emergency spaces for the homeless – in Islington and Shepherd’s Bush. NSNO describes these places as “an A&E for the homeless – a safe space”, and as a “staging area”.

David told me that in the past he had an issue with heroin addiction and had been forced to steal to survive. He got into trouble with the police and ended up in prison because of this. He  said a few things about his NSNO hub accommodation that concerned me. He described a room containing about 25 people of both sexes, with people sleeping on the floor and chairs. He also said people as young as 16 or 17 had been there, and that he had been staying there for six weeks.

I needed to check all this out, because of the safeguarding issues potentially raised. To do this I spoke to Deputy Director of NSNO Dan Olney, who talked me through the project. He said: “NSNO is an emergency response to rough sleeping. Before we were around,  an outreach worker would have approached someone on the street. It didn’t provide for  that emergency need, and if they arranged to meet someone the next day it was difficult. Instead we have a hub rather than a hostel and the intended length of stay is 72 hours. The reality is there are cases where people stay there longer than that. It’s usually because we are trying to get an outcome via the local authority.”

When people overstay, “60 per cent of the time it’s because of a third-party – a mix of someone waiting for an appointment with the local authority, or for a response from a housing provider, or they’ve been assessed and are waiting for a housing vacancy”. NSNO “usually” expects the local authority to provide interim accommodation. “Quite often that depends on the client’s needs. A lot of our work is focused on trying to get people a service if they are entitled to it,” he added. David, he says, ended up in the unit for four weeks, rather than the six weeks he mentioned.

David told me that he was asked to leave after he got involved in a dispute with another person staying there. When I met him he had started squatting locally in an industrial unit.

Dan Olney said that if those taken into one of the three hubs had a link with another area (where they have spent three of the last five years), staff arrange to go with them to their “home” local authority and ask them to take on the case. But, “if they don’t meet the thresholds of priority need then there is guidance – but no legal obligation to meet their housing needs”. Of the 6,000 clients they’ve had since 2011, for the ones they recorded, 30 per cent had already approached their local authority for advice and assistance. For example, he told me that in the last quarter – January to March – 91 new rough sleepers had come to the borough of Westminster alone and had become clients of NSNO. But only two had a connection to Westminster. Many of them are EU nationals or from further afield.

So the aim is to do an assessment on each client within 72 hours and to then physically reconnect them to the place where they have a “home connection”. He says that NSNO “literally reconnects people worldwide, and it’s not just (giving them) a ticket – it’s working with the Home Office towards making them an offer”. What then about duty of care for the many clients who can’t be moved on within this time frame? “Security and safety is a big thing for us. We’re staffed 24 hours a day and we have to be very strict with people. If someone is presenting as a risk to people, then we give them a warning. If they’re demonstrating threatening behaviour or if someone is particularly vulnerable to a particular client group we would put them into a different part of the service.”

While the Greater London Authority pays for the stays having awarded the NSNO project a two-year contract, the project is actually run by St Mungo’s Broadway, which describes itself on its website as “a charity, a limited company and a housing association”. It says there that its aim is “helping people recover from the issues that create homelessness”. St Mungo’s Broadway employs the NSNO staff.

NSNO, said Dan, “manages safeguarding ourselves internally, and if we had a concern we would flag it up ourselves and contact the duty officer at local safeguarding services”. As well as a “risk management strategy for everyone in the hub, we have individual risk assessments”. He said the minimum age for someone staying in the hub is 18. “If they are 16 or 17 years old they would go straight to the local authority.”The hubs in Islington and Shepherd’s Bush have the option of separate accommodation for women. Dan said the hub in Lewisham is the staging post for people with lower needs. He added: “For people who have got higher needs we try to press the local authority to get them somewhere away from the hub. David would not have necessarily been acceptable for that, and a lot of time this is the reason for a long stay.”

He described NSNO as a project that is “rapid” at getting people off the streets, “but the systems that are in place around us are not always conducive to us meeting our targets”. Quite often, there’s a dispute with the local authority about whether it should be taking on a client. “It comes down to the person (from the local authority) who had done the assessment. We may think a person has a priority need, but the local authority assessment comes to a different conclusion.” The project is currently drawing up protocols with all local authorities in London, with the aim of ensuring the 72-hour time for dealing with clients is met. “The ethos is about trying to influence external partners to change the way they work to expedite the process to get people off the street,” said Dan. Some local authorities, in his view, are completely engaged with the process. Others, “particularly outer London boroughs – say we’re not having them back”.

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An exercise in hope: The Biscuit Fund steps to help Kevin after his benefits are sanctioned

An exercise in hope: The Biscuit Fund steps to help Kevin after his benefits are sanctioned
Kevin Jobbins, who's living on £7 a fortnight for food, following a benefit sanction
Kevin, who’s living on £7 a fortnight for food, is offered help from charity the Biscuit Fund

Something marvellous has happened! Those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while will know that the accounts people share of their lives – at the Greenwich food bank (part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks) and elsewhere – are often very grim. So I don’t get to use the word marvellous very often. There you go, I sneaked the word in again.

This week was different. There was some brilliant news for one of the food bank’s clients. A small charity called the Biscuit Fund was alerted via Twitter to my recent interview with Kevin .  It has now come forward  to offer Kevin some very well targeted and timely help.

He was left trying to exist on a food budget of £3.50 a week after he was sanctioned back in April while on employment and support allowance (ESA). He was told this was because he failed to arrive for an appointment with the Seetec job club. The reason  he didn’t make the appointment was because he had to look after his two-year-old son. The Biscuit Fund read the interview, and has been in touch with him. The charity has now agreed to send him a weekly food shop of fresh food for the next six weeks, and it will also pay his rent and council tax directly for the same amount of time.

Kevin, whose benefit payment went from £202 a fortnight to £47 because of the sanction, says he ended up begging and stealing for food because of the sanction. He has issues with drug and alcohol addiction. The 39-year-old is waiting to go into detox treatment and is awaiting surgery for a painful foot condition linked to his time as a homeless person. As far as I’m aware, the sanction is still in place this week, though I’m trying to check this with Kevin. His full benefit certainly hadn’t been reinstated at the start of this week.

While he was of course very pleased to get some help from the food bank last week, the supply on offer via the Trussell Trust network  is three days’ nutritionally-balanced non-perishable food. The fresh food will be a very welcome addition, and takes the pressure off a little as he tries to build up his health and confidence.

The manager of Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson said: “This is such good news, and it shows some hope amidst the despair of other stories.”

The Biscuit Fund operates almost solely online, looking out on help forums and pages for people in dire need of help. It got off the ground in early 2013, and has managed to raise and donate around £6,000 to people in poverty. It says on its website: “A large number of our clients are actually working families, who are simply finding that the money they earn just doesn’t cover the food and heating bills. We have also aided disabled people who have been declared ‘fit for work’, who have been left with no income and no job propects, as well as folk who have been victims of crime in the form of muggings or theft.”

To avoid the risk of being defrauded, and because it has such limited funds, the charity offers only  one-off donations and the identities of its advocates are kept anonymous. It does not accept direct applications for help. The Biscuit Fund offers small cash donations or sometimes online food orders that give people “just a little helping hand when they need it most, without making them feel humiliated or making them wait in line”.

Sometimes, the charity says, all that’s needed is £20 to top up an electricity meter, or sometimes a larger bill has to be handled to avoid the client being visited by bailiffs. if you’ve read this and are inspired, the Biscuit Fund has a donate button on its website.

Last words from the charity: “This is what we do. We love it. We believe in it. We believe in giving people just a tiny bit of  hope.”

 

 

 

 

The benefits support worker: The £6.31 minimum wage is not enough to live on

Returning to the work being done at King’s Church in Catford this week,  I talked to Andy, who is a  paid support worker. This church in South-East London sees social action and reaching out to the community as a priority.

He reports that since the most recent changes in welfare benefits, most of his work has involved giving benefits advice. “The changes might not affect everyone, but they have hit most of the group we work with particularly hard. Some of them are from very disadvantaged backgrounds. There’s been a demise in manual work, and the £6.31 minimum hourly rate is not enough to live on, even with housing benefit – and that’s if they’re lucky enough to work.”  London, for those on minimum wage or no wage is not a city where you can live with dignity. This minimum wage is of course set far below the new London Living Wage rate of £8.80 an hour that employers can opt to sign up to.

As for schemes such as Universal Jobmatch – which claims to match jobseekers with vacancies – Andy says he has “never known anyone from that scheme who’s had even a reply (about a vacancy) through it”. He says he challenged someone from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)  on this. “I was then told they were very fussy about people’s CVs.”

Sanctioning people on benefits has a detrimental impact on them, he says: “If jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) is stopped, housing benefit is automatically stopped, and they often need support to get their housing benefit reinstated.”

One of Andy’s key roles is to act as an advocate at tribunals for people who are challenging Atos (one of the private companies administering fit-for-work tests) decisions to refuse them employment and support allowance (ESA) – the higher rate of benefit that takes into account their inability to work because of ill health. Andy tells me he only represents people at tribunal if he’s convinced they’re not fit for work. “If people don’t get enough points, they don’t get the benefits and they don’t have the confidence to take matters forwards themselves. You have to feel you deserve it.”

The issue for many of those he comes across it that they lack the self-esteem to take on the system themselves. He adds: “I think there’s a section of society that has low self-confidence, and often have mental health issues without a formal diagnosis.”

His success rate at tribunal is very high. He hasn’t taken anyone there who hasn’t ended up with a minimum of 15 points, and some of them score higher than this. These are people who have scored “maybe nothing or a few points in the Atos assessment”.  It goes without saying that he thinks the Atos assessment process is obviously not working.

In March this year it was announced that the £500 million contract with Atos, mired in accusations that the tests they applied were inhumane and crude, would end early. Judge Robert Martin, the departing head of the tribunal which hears appeals, was reported in the Guardian here as saying that the work capability assessment (WCA) process has undergone “virtual collapse”. In a confidential journal distributed to tribunal members, he said that this collapse was the biggest single factor in the decline in the numbers going to appeal.

He added in the article that the removal of funding under the legal aid scheme for advice and assistance on welfare rights matters, “compounded by continuing cutbacks in local authority spending on advice services has severely reduced the help and support available to claimants to pursue their legal rights in challenging benefits decisions”. Judge Martin says that if a supplier to replace Atos is found “presumably at a premium, the company will have to address the chronic shortages of healthcare professionals which has dogged Atos and which is exacerbated by the need for additional resources to deal concurrently with PIP (the personal independence payment introduced to replace disability living allowance over a three-year period beginning last October)”.

Given the difficulties facing those who want to challenge benefits decisions, the people who end up with Andy on their sides are the lucky ones. Andy is an expert and they’ll usually win their case. But there aren’t enough people around like him now – committed inviduals with the benefits know-how to successfully take on the DWP. Legal aid lawyers and welfare rights experts are a dying breed in the UK.

All the signs are there that the outlook for this most vulnerable group can only get worse. The majority of the spending cuts deemed crucial to the austerity narrative lie ahead and are set to bite even deeper into welfare spending. Chancellor George Osborne said in what the Guardian called a “grim New Year’s message” in January that the biggest chunk of savings of around £12bn will come from welfare in the two years after the election, with young people and those of working age most at risk from cuts.