Pandemic helped some rough sleepers off Preston's streets permanently
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That is according to the boss of a city homelessness charity who has described a reduction in rough sleeping as one of the few “fortuitous by-products” of the Covid crisis.
Jeff Marsh, chief executive of the Foxton Centre, says that a nationwide, government-funded effort to take people off the streets in the spring of 2020 is still bearing fruit nearly two years later. Initially, the scheme involved block-booking hotels, which would otherwise have been closed because of Covid restrictions.
“Subsequently, we have moved a lot of people on from there into more settled accommodation. Forty flats are provided by [social housing landlord] Community Gateway Association (CGA) which offers long-term tenancies. We at the Foxton Centre provide [those individuals] with a support worker.
“If you look at the figures from the rough sleeper count in Preston, it peaked at 23 in 2018. Yet when we did the last count in November, it was down to six.
“I know there are problems with rough sleeper counts and it doesn’t mean that there were only six people sleeping rough in Preston that night – [rather] that we only found six people. However, a couple of years ago, we were finding four times as many – so that is a big change even given the health warnings that come with those numbers,” Jeff explained.
Local authorities are asked to take a “snapshot” of people sleeping rough in their area each autumn – either by physically counting the number of men and women on the streets on a given night or using an estimate generated from local intelligence.
Counts can take place on any day chosen by an individual council between 1st October and 30th November – a timeframe selected to avoid summer, when numbers may be higher because of the warmer weather, and winter, when they may be lower because of more night shelters being available at that time of year.
Jeff says that the biggest difference brought about by the pandemic was a recognition of the hidden health problems faced by rough sleepers as a result of their circumstances.
“It made people focus on the wider needs of rough sleepers. We had discussions right back at the beginning of the pandemic with health colleagues who hadn’t really twigged how vulnerable many of the rough sleepers were.
“When we said that the average age of death amongst rough sleepers is 47, it opened people’s eyes.
“Many rough sleepers have chest and heart complaints and their lifestyles have taken a lot out of them – so they are much older than their years. I don’t think that their general vulnerability was appreciated, but the pandemic has opened the doors within the NHS to greater support for them.
“There has also been funding from the government for a specific drug and alcohol service for rough sleepers in Lancashire. Many – although not all – rough sleepers have got addiction and mental health issues. In fact. probably the biggest gap we have is being able to get them into mental health treatment.”
Jeff acknowledges that there is a greater reluctance amongst some rough sleepers to get vaccinated, but says that vaccine hesitancy amongst their number is also reflective of wider society – as well as the specific practical difficulties that someone may have in getting a jab if they are sleeping rough. He hopes that the £115,000 in government cash given to Preston to fund additional accommodation and make a fresh push for vaccination will make a difference.
“From where I sit, all the evidence points to vaccination being a very good thing and it has allowed us to get through this situation – but not everybody looks at it like that.
“A lot of this is about having conversations with people and trying to allay the concerns they have got. There has been so much misinformation out there, so it’s hard to separate out what’s real from what’s not.
“But the more chaotic lifestyles of rough sleepers also make it more difficult. We have done outreach sessions at soup kitchens, talking to people and trying to encourage them.
“At our emergency accommodation, when people are moving in, we do lateral flow tests and ask them if they want to get vaccinated. But there are a fair amount of homeless people who haven’t been jabbed yet.”
While there now appear to be far fewer people sleeping on Preston’s streets compared to three years ago, there are still around 110 individuals in accommodation each night in the city – some of which is funded via allocations from the government’s Rough Sleeping Initiative
The Foxton Centre provides around 40 places in shared houses, while others are offered by the housing associations Progress Housing and Calico Homes. Meanwhile, CGA last year converted former sheltered accommodation in the city’s university quarter to house those in need of a roof over their head.
Fiona Fisher, head of housing services at CGA, said that the move reflected its residents’ desire for the organisation “to take a lead role in helping tackle homelessness in Preston”.
“When financial difficulties in 2019 impacted the city-centre hostel in Fox Street, we were only too pleased to step in and support the community.
“As the pandemic hit, it became clear that the hostel itself was unsuitable and our immediate priority had to be the safety of the 20 men who lived there. We rehoused them into some of our vacant properties, providing essential household items and ongoing support in areas such as budgeting, life skills and gaining work or training to enable them to gain confidence and live independently.
“For the last few years, we have also worked in partnership with Preston City Council and the Foxton Centre and supported a number of people to live in our communities, who would otherwise be homeless.
“In October 2021, we formally opened The Spires in Maudland Bank, which marked another big step for us along the road to tackling homelessness locally. The nine-month project saw the transformation of low-demand sheltered housing into much-needed step-up accommodation for homeless people and those at risk of homelessness.
“The fully accessible facility comprises 26 spacious self-contained apartments, plus communal facilities for residents and support staff. Everyone has now settled in and is receiving support from our Housing Pathways team and other agencies which will create increased opportunities for independent living, which is what Community Gateway is all about,” Fiona added.
She also revealed that CGA is planning to transform a property in Deepdale into a similar complex, but specifically for homeless families..
The term “homeless” encompasses a much broader range of people in need of accommodation than those who are actually living on the streets. However, it is the latter group which has been targeted under the Rough Sleeping Initiative.
Preston is one of the local authorities to have received cash from that ongoing fund since it was established in 2018 – amounting to £1.2m just in the current fiscal year – with the intention of ending rough sleeping by the end of the current parliament.
Jeff Marsh says that the city should be “rightly proud” of what it has achieved via its use of that pot – and the extra funding made available during the pandemic.
He says that there are many “success stories” of people whose lives have been transformed as a result of the work done by a range of organisations. However, even success sometimes ends in sadness for those whose lives have been too tough for too long.
“We had a funeral last week of a guy who used to sleep on the Market Street car park, but had recently been in one of our houses. He was on his way to work and he collapsed in the street.
“He had made such marvellous progress, but then that happened.
“Sadly, we have got another funeral shortly of a woman who was in a CGA property and died recently. But we stayed with her to the end and she died in her own place and not on the street.
“That’s part of our world, that’s part of what happens,” Jeff said.
23 – number of people found sleeping rough in Preston one night in autumn 2018
6 – number of people found sleeping rough in Preston one night in autumn 2021
110 – number of people each night in accommodation designed to deter rough sleeping in Preston (January 2022)
Sources: Government rough sleeping snapshot and the Foxton Centre
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