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”.

Summer’s here: Thoughts turn to feeding the kids in the holidays.

London looks good when the sun’s out. But a holiday, or even a day or two at the seaside is an impossible dream for a growing number of young families. A study published today shows that Britain will have 3.5 million children living in poverty by 2020. Another report released today by charities Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and the Trussell Trust reveals that more than 20 million meals were provided to people in the UK last year – a breathtaking 54% rise on the previous year.

Holiday plans get pushed much further down the list when you’ve got a number of young mouths to feed and no money to do it with. Tonight, the terrible situation faced by growing numbers of youngsters whose parents are struggling to put together the money for their meals will be shown in a Channel 4 documentary called Breadline Kids. It’s on at 7.35pm. One mum on benefits mentioned in the programme has £3.60 a day to spend on herself and her two daughters. This figure seems to tie in with the one given to me by a number of single adults I’ve met at the London food bank. A number of them had been attempting to feed themselves on a budget of £2 a day – or sometimes less.

The accounts of the children are very touching, but hard to listen to. Since the recession began over 1,000 breakfast clubs have been started for primary school children. The problem of children arriving at school hungry has been growing significantly over the last two years. When schools are out for six weeks this summer, children will suffer even more, as the hardest-pressed family budgets melt down to nothing.

Ray Woolford runs the We Care advice centre in South-East London, which provides help and support to struggling individuals and families. The centre also sells fresh and long-life food at very low cost to those in need. He is very concerned about what will happen to families with school-aged children this summer. ‘More and more people are saying they are terrified about how they are going to feed their children.’

He’s currently trying to come up with a solution in time for the mass exodus when schools break locally: ‘We’re trying to find kitchens so that we can run breakfasts and lunch clubs. If not, then we will have food parcels for people to take, with milk and cereals. If we can’t get kitchens then we will create summer kitchen packs.’ He’s also considering liaising with local cafes.

In Blackpool, breakfasts are now being offered to all primary school children. Increasingly, local communities will start to become more aware of the scale of the summer destitution on their doorsteps. I’ve just heard of the case of parents with an 11-year-old daughter who’ve all just spent a week sleeping in a London park. These dreadful cases won’t and can’t remain hidden much longer.

Janine, the magic of MST, and the myth of easy-to-get food bank vouchers

The new lie in circulation is that people are heading to food banks in vastly increasing numbers simply because they’re now aware that food banks exist. Was it Chancellor George Osborne who got this myth up and running earlier in 2013, when he suggested food bank use had gone up, ‘because people have been made aware of the food bank service through jobcentres’? The insulting implication being that a bunch of layabout chancers are flooding through the doors of food banks in search of freebies that ‘hard-working people’ would never dream of taking.

It’s been emphasised already, and it was good to see this addressed in the first episode of Famous, Rich and Hungry, but the message hasn’t quite got through yet: Getting a food bank voucher is anything but easy. If you want to use a Trussell Trust food bank, you need to be referred by the jobcentre, by a frontline professional such as a doctor, a health visitor, a social worker or the police. They are deemed to be best placed to identify if you’re going through a real crisis and that your need is genuine. It’s only then that a voucher will be issued.

Are thousands of people in the UK – escalating numbers every month – really jumping through those hoops to collect a three-day supply of long-life food, without being in real need of help? In six months of interviewing clients at a number of food banks in this fairly typical London borough, I’ve met very few indeed whom I thought were anything other than desperate. Most of them have problems with delayed, sanctioned or stopped benefits, or are trying to move from jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) to employment and support allowance (ESA) due to (often extreme) ill health. Most have disabilities and multiple health problems, including severe depression in many cases.

Some, like Janine (not her real name) who came in just before the weekend, are former victims of domestic abuse and experience periods of crisis when the food budget becomes impossible to manage. Janine, a mum of a 12 year-old boy and a 15 year-old girl, is starting to get her life back on track after splitting with her partner. He’s a drug addict and an alcoholic, and her children had to watch him being violent towards Janine. She says her 42-year-old ex-partner is now very ill indeed as a result of his addictions. Janine, 39, was happy for me to use her real name and be photographed, but I’ve given her a pseudonymn instead to protect her identity and that of her still-vulnerable family.

Her life hit its lowest point in October last year, after she lost the job she loved in the charity sector. By that time she’d become extremely depressed because of her partner’s problems with addiction and violent behaviour, and the effect on the children. She has no support from any extended family. Why did she need to access a food bank? Had she simply heard that food banks offered free food, and decided to head on down? No. She was referred by her council social worker, who gave her a voucher. She needed it because she is struggling to survive on £71 a week of ESA and the £56 (child tax credit and child benefit) she gets for her daughter. She’s currently paying heating of £20 a week and water rates of £7, plus £3 for her council flat rent (reduced from £38 since she lost her job). Her son of 12 moved back in with her a week ago after he was removed from his father’s residence. Janine says that while with his father he was fending for himself – running out on the streets until late at night and missing school.

So although she’s relieved to have her son back, she has another mouth to feed, but as yet no benefits in place for him. That’s what plunged her into crisis this week.

Luckily, her plight was spotted by a key person who’s been working extremely closely with her and her children. Our local council has got involved with an intensive family and community based treatment programme that originates in the US called MST (Multisystemic Therapy). It’s an approach that’s fairly new to England, and ‘blends the best clinical treatments including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and family therapy to put parents and caregivers in control and to improve family relationships and functioning’. It aims to treat troubled young people ‘in the full context of their lives’. MST is also offering to support Janine as she tries to get back into the workforce. The MST key worker told Janine to ask her social worker for a food voucher, and Janine says the only reason she got it is ‘because my boy came back to live with me’. She had only ever used the food bank once before, with a voucher.

She’s evangelical about the positive impact the programme is having – given that it’s a small team based out of a local health centre: ‘I suffer from really bad depression, and they’ve been brilliant to me. They’re helping me sort out my finances, and that help is ongoing. My 15-year-old daughter suffers from anxiety, and is seeing a paediatrician(within the MST programme). They’re really good. They’re helping me with my CV and with ‘getting back into work.’

Before MST got involved, local council social services ‘didn’t provide the support, to be honest’, in Janine’s view. ‘My ex had alcohol and drugs problems, but the council still let my boy live with his father.’ She says he daughter has ‘a bit of an eating disorder, and is losing too much weight – myself and MST are keeping an eye.’ Her daughter did not go to school for six months last year, but she’s now in a good specialist school for children who have witnessed violence and suffer from conditions such as anxiety and depression. ‘There’s an open door at all times for her to go in and out and talk to people. She’s doing really well, and is ready for her exams. She’s caught up.’

It’s still too early to feel that things have permanently improved for the family, but so heartening to hear Janine say that MST is the best thing that’s ever happened to her: ‘It’s changed my whole life. My daughter is so much more relaxed. The people from MST turn up at school and ask her if she has any problems.’ Her account of why she was offered a food bank voucher should be read alongside the stories of greedy, dishonest, food bank clients that are starting to feature in some sections of the media.