This morning I got up at dawn and joined a team from St Mungo's who do outreach work with people sleeping rough in our city.
We walked through our main streets, church yards, squares, and along the beach looking out for people who are homeless and sleeping outside. It was alarming to see just how many people there were.
I was able to see how the team operates. They gently wake people up and carefully glean the information needed to ensure they get the right support. Most people are already known to either St Mungo's or another local agency and this is all checked using electronic devices. Its amazing how many people were very well known to the outreach workers, how trusting the relationship is, and how brilliant they were at arranging the next steps to getting them the support they need to improve their health and move towards more secure accommodation.
A few of the people we met were new to the team, one had been sleeping rough for less than a week. In this case a very rapid and intensive support package was talked about. I learned that for newcomers to rough sleeping it is essential that they get the support they need right away because every day they are on the streets it becomes harder to make the adjustments needed to rebuild life and every day they are exposed to danger.
In the past I have also work shadowed police outreach teams and I learned then that as well as being a prolific source of low-level crime, rough sleepers are also very highly susceptible towards becoming the victims of crime too. Assault and rape is far too common. One police officer got tearful telling me about a case where a homeless man was set alight by drunk people leaving a nightclub once. A local doctor believe that 50 homeless people have died in this city in the last three years alone.
When you accept just how brutal life on the streets is, and just how vulnerable rough sleepers are, it makes my blood boil at the rise in homelessness that we're seeing once again.
Most of the people I met this morning were men in their thirties or early 40's. So many of them were fully functional adults in work until one or two things went seriously wrong and life spiralled quickly downwards. Thanks to the central government cuts to community services, charities, and frontline public services, too many people are no longer caught in the safety net of our welfare state and end up out of work, out on the streets, and exposed to terrible indignity and dangers that no-one should have to face.
Soon the government will make it even harder for rough sleepers to make the journey into secure accomasation because they are about to reform the Local Housing Allowance. It will mean that many homeless people who commit to a pathway into supported living will not be able to have enough government funding to cover the costs. And, you guessed it, due to cuts to local council grants and to frontline charities, there is no other money in the system to subsidise it. That's why we've seen local hostels shutting down right at the time when the numbers of people needing them are going up.
I learned so much today, and met so many people who are battling against the odds to survive, who are enduring a hardship that its hard to imagine exists just yards away from our own homes and offices. Reducing rough sleeping by 95% was one of Labour's great achievements in office and we need that same determination once again.
I want to be a better advocate for those caught in this terrible, dangerous, and heartbreaking situation. I'll be working closely with St Mungo's, Off The Fence, First Base and other brilliant charities to see how I can make that happen. We simply accept this growing problem as a somehow 'normal' part of modern life in Brighton and Hove. Yours, Peter