January this year, I wrote an article ‘Why has this been allowed to happen?' Raising awareness of the plight of Southend’s High Street and surrounding areas. (If you missed the article visit Oracle’s ‘Latest magazine page' on its website). That article sparked a huge amount of attention, and I am pleased to say that Essex Police have since increased their visibility on the High Street, which is great news.January this year, I wrote an article ‘Why has this been allowed to happen?' Raising awareness of the plight of Southend’s High Street and surrounding areas. (If you missed the article visit Oracle’s ‘Latest magazine page' on its website). That article sparked a huge amount of attention, and I am pleased to say that Essex Police have since increased their visibility on the High Street, which is great news.
I mentioned in my article that an increase in crime is not the only factor contributing to Southend's problems. The unfortunate increase in homelessness as a result of other socioeconomic factors is also burdening Southend City today. This increase has stretched local services and resulted in incidents and general hostility.
I’m a huge supporter of HARP; Oracle has donated over £6,000 in the past. It appears that Southend is disproportionately impacted by homelessness, I wanted to understand why this is, so I contacted the Housing Department at Southend Borough Council.
I imagine that many of you would also like to understand why this is the case, I still find it quite unbelievable that homelessness is still happening today, considering how destructive it is to the individual concerned. The following information was supplied to me by SBC which I wanted to share: -
Homelessness is a very broad topic
and often erroneously depicted as merely the narrow issue of rough sleeping and associated challenges. In truth, this is a very small percentage of those people who are experiencing or facing the challenges of homelessness, but unfortunately this is the image that tends to stick, and which often shapes peoples’ views. Furthermore, the conflation of things like begging, street drinking and homelessness sometimes further undermine the truth; in fact, we know that not all people involved in things such as begging are homeless, nor are all visitors to soup kitchens, and so on. The truths of people’s circumstances are much more nuanced than the generalised tale often promoted in mainstream media. A good example of research into this, is the report Ipsos Mori conducted with the Centre for Homelessness Impact: Perceptions of homelessness www.ipsos.com
In terms of why people who are homeless may come to Southend, there are many likely reasons. Firstly, people have always and will always move around and are not bound to the place they are usually resident. Seaside towns, such as Southend, Brighton, Bournemouth, and many others, along with big university towns and the major cities, have a history of ‘itinerant’ populations and of supporting people with health and housing problems. This goes back to the roots of social support, political activity, faith-based communities, and seasonal labour, amongst other things. So, people often gravitate to places where they know there will be support and opportunity available, and Southend has a plethora of this on offer through organisations such as HARP, and the many other faith and community providers operating across the city. However, just because people come to Southend does not mean they would qualify for housing here, and there are conditions to be met within our local allocations policy and, as with everywhere else, a paucity of available social and affordable housing.
If we delve further into the issue of affordability however, this is an interesting concept and one which will reveal some clues as to why some local authorities might place people in temporary accommodation in Southend. There is something called the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) which is set by central government, and which determines the amount of housing benefit payable on property types within a local authority area.
You will appreciate that the cost of housing for a London Borough is greater than it is in Southend, so for some, placing people in the relatively cheaper accommodation here makes economic sense for them; essentially, they can rent accommodation here at less than the level their home LHA sets. Whilst we are unsurprisingly uncomfortable with this practice, not least because we think that disconnecting people from their support networks is unhealthy and can exacerbate other challenges in their lives, there is nothing we can do about it as it is perfectly legal for councils to operate in this way. I am proud to say that Southend does not imitate this practice by placing people elsewhere, but of course the impact of others in doing so on the availability of affordable housing makes our job even harder. So, what is the solution to homelessness?
There are many reasons people become homeless, often relating to structural issues such as job insecurity and poverty, as well as things such as family / relationship breakdown and domestic abuse. Societally, we need to tackle some of these if we are to ever reach ‘functional zero’ homelessness. Some of the challenge may come from poor landlord behaviours, and we seek to tackle these through approaches such as landlord regulation (all HMOs must be licensed, and in Southend all rental properties in some neighbourhoods must now also be licensed. The recent Levelling White Paper promises even more reform in this area, such as landlord registers and decent homes standards for all private rented property). Some of the challenges will come from the person themselves, be this organic or behavioural (landlords often tell me that they experience poor tenant behaviour and have no choice but to evict). There is a growing body of evidence to support ‘what works’ and the aforementioned Centre for Homelessness Impact, is pushing good quality research in order to try and promote the right interventions and supports being delivered. Their website is worth a look:
What is clear is that we need to support people both to prevent homelessness and to help relieve it when it does happen, and to do so in such a way that the experience of homelessness is short and non-recurrent.