Preston has been branded the rough sleeping capital of Lancashire in a new government survey.
And the latest figures show the number of people in the city who bed down in the open at night has more than doubled in the past year. “Numbers are getting bigger – and it’s a worrying trend,” said Jeff Marsh, the man in charge of Preston’s homeless hub, the Foxton Centre.
The numbers, which suggest the problem has more than doubled in a year, were supplied to Whitehall by the Foxton team themselves during one sweep of the city centre last autumn.
They found 17 living rough, spending the night in doorways wrapped in sleeping bags or cardboard boxes. In a spot check the previous year they had counted only eight.
But as chief executive Jeff admits, it is far from the complete picture.
“We can only count the ones we see,” he said. “And we don’t see everyone.
“Some nights it could be less, some nights more. And it doesn’t include those who are sleeping in squats.
“But it is increasing - and it’s not just Preston. There is a clear trend across the country. And it is a regrettable one.”
The Foxton is the main point of contact for Preston’s fluctuating homeless population. The centre works hard to get them off the streets and help rebuild their lives.
But with worsening council cutbacks and punitive changes in the benefits system, charity staff agree the problem will only get worse.
“We’re not just talking about here in Preston,” said Jeff. “It is across the country.
“It worries us at the Foxton Centre because we are the ones who do the street work and we think we will end up catching people as their safety net.”
In Lancashire, the number of rough sleepers identified in the government survey was higher than any of the other 11 district council areas and the two unitary authorities of Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen.
Blackpool came second with 11 - up from five the year before - and Lancaster third on eight, the same as it had in 2015.
Preston had the sixth highest in the whole of the North West, with only Manchester (78), Wigan (28), Salford (26), Liverpool (21) and Tameside (19) showing more people living rough. The city has been in the region’s top 10 for down and outs for four of the last seven years.
Figures published over that time show Preston’s rough sleeper numbers steadily increasing from three in 2010 to 17 in 2016.
MP Mark Hendrick said: “I have seen for myself an increase in the numbers of people sleeping in doorways in the city centre.
“People in Preston are becoming more stretched in terms of their finances and very often my constituency surgeries attract many people suffering from cuts in benefits or from low pay.
“People are having real problems and many are just getting by on a day-to-day basis.
“Walking down Fishergate or Church Street at night you will see people in doorways. And despite the fact that there are hostels around Preston, some people still decide to take their chances on the streets.
“There has been a clear increase in Preston, although it is far more acute in London and the other big cities. And I think it is likely to increase even more as long as we are seeing cuts in benefits and continuing low pay.”
Last year mother-of-two Karyn O’Keefe was so upset seeing how many homeless people were on the streets in Preston city centre that she started making and distributing free sandwiches on a daily basis.
Her assessment of the number of rough sleepers varies from the official figure. She feels it could be almost twice as many.
“It’s a massive problem in Preston,” she said. “I’d guess there are just under 30 people living on the streets.
“The problem is Preston has two distinct communities - the English and the Polish - and they are very different and live completely separate from each other.
“The problem was - and still is - that you won’t see everyone who is sleeping rough. They’re not all out in the open and bedding down in shop doorways. Some will hide themselves away.”
The Salvation Army runs a food bank in the city and deals with an ever-increasing number of people who have fallen on hard times.
While staff there don’t deal directly with rough sleepers, they are acutely aware that Preston has a growing problem with poverty and homelessness.
“The food bank is continuously busy - it’s bedlam at times,” said Claire Hobson the community centre co-ordinator. “But we also get referrals for people who are on the streets and in need of food.
“We put them a small bag together of things they can eat without cooking, like bread, cheese and crisps. We also have a shower and washing facilities for them. But most tend to go to the Foxton because that is the main homeless hub.”
Another worker at the Foxton, who asked not to be named, said: “We have seen an increase. There appear to be more people out there.
“But it’s hard to say whether they are sleeping rough on a regular basis or just intermittently. The thing about doing a count is that it is only a snapshot at that moment. The result could be totally different a day either side.
“We probably have eight local people regularly sleeping out and a further eight or nine Eastern Europeans.
“In Preston we have got lots of partnership work going on and lots of very positive things happening. But the picture nationally doesn’t look too good.
“The national figures is bound to go up because it is becoming a real problem due to the cuts and the impact of the welfare changes. I’m expecting it to be a lot worse.”
Preston Council admits the city’s rough sleeping numbers are on the up, despite a raft of schemes designed to help get people off the streets and into accommodation.
A spokesman said: “Preston, like many areas in England, has seen an increase in the number of people sleeping rough.
“But the number of people actually sleeping on the streets can vary enormously as this is a very transient group of individuals.
“The council is working closely with a number of partner agencies to engage with people in order to assist them to come in off the streets. We recognise that these individuals usually have a number of complex needs and require assistance to help them access the services they need.
“The council commissions an Assertive Outreach service from the Foxton Centre which proactively works with rough sleepers and refers them to the ‘No Second Night Out’ accommodation or to consider the Housing First Project.
“The ‘Off the Street Fund”’which is held by the Foxton Centre has assisted 44 people in changing their lifestyles.”