On Thursday 26th March, every council leader in England received a letter from Luke Hall MP, the Under Secretary of State for Local Government and Homelessness. It asked their councils to house all rough sleepers “by the end of the week” to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Before that, the deadline was 2025 – which shows what can be done when there’s a bit of urgency and money is deployed to help local councils to get on with the job.

So what’s happening in Hastings? At the end of February, comparative figures for rough sleeping were issued by central government: it turned out that Hastings was already doing well with a 56% reduction since 2018 (one of the top ten reductions in the country). As Cllr Andy Batsford said at the time: “Against the background of short term funding for rough sleeping from central government, the disaster of Universal Credit for the vulnerable, and cuts to mental health and welfare services, the officers at Hastings Borough Council [HBC] and our voluntary partners have done an incredible job in supporting and addressing the biggest homelessness crisis we have seen in generations.”

The government edict less than a month later was therefore less of a shock to HBC than it might have been, although the extra funding was very welcome.

According to Cllr Batsford there are now only two known rough sleepers – who are both refusing to be housed. 

As there is a lot of talk about rough sleeping being far worse than the official figures, how can we know there are currently only two rough sleepers in this area? According to Cllr Batsford, the council has a good handle on the ever-changing situation. Not only are there four council officers out every day checking on numbers, and on the wellbeing of rough sleepers, they also receive information from their voluntary partners, particularly Seaview Project, who are commissioned by the council to give regular updates. However, there may always be some off the radar – in woods or otherwise well hidden – who don’t access services. Self-isolation is their life, and they are unlikely to accept the restrictions inherent in the provision of formal temporary accommodation.

The public perception of rough sleeping is coloured by the fact that there are many more people without income who beg on the streets or gather for companionship. These are part of what is termed ‘the street community’. Although some might be homeless, most are not, technically. On the other hand, there is a far greater invisible army of those who sofa-surf around and those already housed in temporary accommodation waiting to move on to somewhere permanent.

As Cllr Batsford says, it hasn’t been an easy predicament to deal with: “Traditionally Hastings is a low-wage economy and there have always been mental health issues. But at least there was cheap housing.”

Unfortunately, that started changing 20 years ago, and rental values have jumped within the last five to ten years. The rental on a one-bed flat used to be just over the housing benefit rate, but now it is 40% higher. “The numbers of homeless took off after austerity started to bite”, Cllr Batsford confirms. “But once Universal Credit kicked in there was an explosion. It’s all about breakdowns, and money being stopped. Before, someone could help, but no longer: it’s a draconian regime.”

People often give to the street community thinking they are homeless. But having somewhere to live is only the start. Being without a proper income is a problem even when housed and, for those used to living on the streets, even being housed can create its own issues of loneliness. We are in a new landscape which affects us all. Compassion for others is perhaps one of the few gifts this new reality brings.  

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