Following the recent news that the numbers of rough sleepers on the streets of England has increased by 16% in the last year alone, my evening spent volunteering at a winter shelter last Friday evening took on a new poignancy.
The shelter is run by an organisation called All People All Places, based in Haringey, London. They do fantastic work and each year, offer 24 bed spaces to men and women each night across Haringey and Enfield with the opportunity to escape life on the street. Once accepted they become ‘ guests’ of the shelter and are offered 28 days initial stay, extended for up to three months for those who self-help. of meals, washing facilities and a warm place to sleep but the support does not end there. The charity helps guests break the cycle of homelessness and by offering support and signposting to relevant services to help them secure accommodation and the myriad of problems that prevent access such as benefits. On Friday I received the heartening news that at least three of the guests had already found a place to live.
Such charities are much needed and many winter shelters just like this one operate all over England, run by compassionate and fair-minded individuals who cannot bear the injustice of 4134 people sleeping rough on the streets of our prosperous and civilised country. Sadly, the sheer amount of unpaid work and charitable donations that go into these projects mean that with the best will in the world, we cannot help everybody. Furthermore, some shelters operate only to try and save those on the streets from the worst excesses of the winter period. Without access to other support services, the cycle of homelessness will not be broken resulting in people simply returning to the streets.
Such shelters are essential at a time of crisis, as recognised by the Mayor when he announced the opening of more shelters earlier this year. But they are not the solution to the growing crisis and should not be relied on as such.
It is hugely important to see these people as human beings and individuals and not simply statistics. If only everyone could spend a night with a group of them, eating a meal, chatting about the state of the world and playing a mean game of cards, perhaps then more of us would realise that the loss of a home really is only a missed pay check away and that the street claims many interesting, witty, intelligent and ambitious people. The more of us realise these things, the more we may stand up to the government to demand that things change.
In my view, the ever growing numbers of homeless in our society are due to rising rents, the decimation of social housing, the lack of regulation of the private rented sector and legal aid and benefits cuts. These are the root causes that must be addressed and until we do so the demand for winter shelters such as those run by All People All Places will continue to rise.