Figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (from autumn 2017) found the total number of rough sleepers counted and estimated is 4,751, an increase of 15 per cent since autumn 2016. The number of people sleeping rough fell by three quarters between 1997-2010; it has more than doubled since 2010 and now stands at its highest level on record. It has risen for the eighth year in a row. The homelessness charity Crisis described the rise in rough sleeping as a “catastrophe”.
I started my petition on Change.org to stop the homeless being cleared out from Windsor before the royal wedding after council leader Simon Dudley called for action against “aggressive begging” in Maidenhead and Windsor. The remarks were widely publicised and when I heard them, I instinctively knew his comments were in no way representative of the public’s feelings towards homeless people. His constituency was where my mum grew up, so I’ve visited several times, and homelessness is something close to my whole family’s heart.
The response has been overwhelming. I was amazed to watch the momentum this petition gained, recently going up past 320,000 signatories. It’s been truly humbling to read through the reasons people have given for signing, from “no-one should be punished for being homeless” to “the homeless should be helped, not vilified” to just simply “I’m signing because I’m human”. What’s more, constituents from Mr Dudley’s own borough have been quick to reach out to me personally and state that his views in no way represent the values of inclusivity and compassion that the Royal Borough stands for.
He could no longer ignore the noise that we were making
Although to begin with my requests for a meeting with Mr Dudley were declined, as our petition grew he could no longer ignore the noise that we were making. I was incredibly pleased that he agreed to a meeting with me last Thursday (February 15). I went up to Maidenhead town hall for our meeting, in which I was able to discuss Mr Dudley’s comments with him. Apart from an interview with BBC Berkshire, I believe he has declined to comment on the situation to journalists, so I was pleased to have to opportunity to put forward my questions.
The meeting was fairly productive and I was pleased that Mr Dudley seemed open to some of the ideas I suggested for partial solutions. These included the provision of lockable, secure storage for people to leave their belongings, a marketing campaign providing the public with information on how they can help, potential use of the council grants for voluntary organisations in the borough and the reintroduction of travel warrants, so that rough sleepers in Windsor can access support services in Maidenhead.
This all seemed very encouraging, however the battle isn’t over yet. Mr Dudley was keen to let me know that the ‘Rough Sleepers and Anti-Social Behaviour Strategy’ has been repealed and that two separate papers would replace it; one dealing with support for rough sleepers and the other with anti-social behaviour. On the surface this sound positive, however, I’m hugely concerned that the latter report is still going to be used to try and cut down on rough sleeping in the area. Mr Dudley says that the latter report will be used to target “behavioural characteristics”, in order to try and crack down on poor public behaviour by large parties on nights own in town. These measures might include urinating in public, being drunk in public, leaving belongings unattended, taking drugs in public etc. Whilst I believe any council is completely within their rights to try to make their constituency a better place to live for residents and local businesses, I don’t feel assured that once a Public Space Protection Order is enforced for acts like this, they can be guaranteed not to be used to persecute the wrong group of people. I want to know what safeguarding measures the council is going to put in place to ensure that if this goes ahead, it won’t be used to remove vulnerable rough sleepers.
We must call upon government to allocate more funding to Local Authorities
The more you look at it the more complex homelessness is. Anyone can become homeless at any time, however, the lack of affordable housing being built, combined with measures such as the government’s decision to remove the automatic entitlement to housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds risks making thousands of young people homeless. In order to tackle rough sleeping and homelessness we must call upon government to allocate more funding to local authorities, who have had their budgets slashed under successive governments. We also want to see new homes being built at genuinely affordable prices. Prevention has to be the long-term solution.
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