Cambridge homelessness organisations and services gear up for winter appeals
The unfreezing of Local Housing Allowance in last week’s Autumn Statement brought sighs of relief from organisations helping address homelessness in Cambridge.
The allowance had been frozen in April 2020, and a continuation of the freeze would likely have pushed thousands more people on to the streets this winter.
The LHA increase of £120m was modest – with a total of 298,430 UK households needing household support from councils in 2022-23, it amounts to £7 a week per household – but it was enough to stave off the alarm that would have followed had the Chancellor not acted.
It was also enough to offset former home secretary Suella Braverman’s controversial comments earlier this month about rough sleeping being “a lifestyle choice” – comments which led one Cambridge worker in the field to retort: “I feel utterly revolted by her words.”
However, though one crisis may have been averted, another is looming. An estimated 370,000 people with disabilities and chronic health conditions will be ineligible for incapacity benefits worth an extra £5,000 a year and are being forced to look for work under planned reforms unveiled by the Chancellor in the statement.
James Martin, director of Cambridge Cyrenians, which provides accommodation, support and specialist services for homeless men and women, says that the benefit sanctions will have a knock-on effect on homelessness.
“We are really pleased at the unfreezing of the LHA rate,” he notes. “The move will go some way to improving the availability of private rented accommodation. This change was urgently needed. In June the IFS (Institute for Fiscal Studies) assessed that only five per cent of private rents were covered by LHA.
“We are more concerned about the Chancellor’s promised increase in sanctions and tightening of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The reality is that many of our residents are unemployed long-term due to dual-diagnosis and multiple disadvantages and often they fail the current WCA and are forced to apply for work that they can’t maintain. If the government makes the WCA stricter, we are going to see more people pushed out of accommodation and forced into rough sleeping.”
He adds: “The increased use of sanctions presents a real threat to people maintaining their accommodation. Sanctions vary but generally increase with repeat offences. People can end up with a six-month sanction which would take £12.10 from a daily benefit entitlement of £12.12. This is clearly going to leave individuals with no money to live on and most who receive their housing costs payment directly will be forced to make a choice between paying for food or rent.”
Figures from homeless charity Shelter suggest at least 271,000 people are recorded as homeless in England, of whom 123,000 are children.
Cllr Gerri Bird, executive councillor for housing and homelessness at Cambridge City Council, told the Cambridge Independent: “Tackling homelessness and rough sleeping in Cambridge is one of the council’s absolute top priorities.”
The council operates a dual strategy to address the challenges.
“Last year we built more council homes than any council in the country, apart from Birmingham, and we are on track to have built more than a thousand new, modern, sustainable homes for people,” says Cllr Bird. Along with its housing stock, the council provides services to those most in need.
“Our new Team Around a Person service provides personalised support through individual plans for people rough sleeping, including for issues like mental ill-health or drug or alcohol dependency,” Cllr Bird notes.
This year, the council is also providing £275,000 in homelessness prevention grants. It operates a single homelessness service to help people at risk of sleeping rough find stable accommodation, runs the Town Hall Lettings scheme which lets people threatened with homelessness find shared, self-contained or family accommodation, and works with It Takes a City on the Crossways winter accommodation project, which provides 20 beds in Cambridge for people who are rough sleeping from December 1 to March 31.
In addition, the Street Outreach Team – contactable on 01223 366292 – provides support and advice to help those who sleep or spend much of their time on the streets. The team can help people into accommodation and help address other problems.
“Homelessness has always been an issue for Cambridge, but the problem is worsening and is expected to continue to do so,” says Cat Strawbridge, communications manager at Jimmy’s Cambridge. Jimmy’s began in 1995 as the city’s first night shelter. Earlier this year the organisation opened five new rooms at its centre on East Road. The expansion was possible as the charity’s offices were used less during the pandemic.
“It was a three-month refurbishment,” says Cat. “Three of our offices at Zion Chapel became five new bedrooms – with bathrooms for each – which took our provision from 20 to 25 places.”
Jimmy’s head of services, Bea Taylor, points to an additional challenge. Cambridge City Council has to find £6m of cuts from its £73m general fund budget in the next three years.
“All cuts lead to a reduction in service provision,” says Bea, “and if cuts are made to the services that our residents use they will have less access to support which makes charities like us all the more important.
“We try to fill in the gaps where there are gaps, for instance mental health support is something we have provided in-house.”
“That comes with pressure,” interjects Cat. “We can’t do that without the appropriate funding.”
“The impact of cuts on the work our frontline staff do is incredible,” adds Bea, noting that “94 per cent of people experiencing rough sleeping have experienced trauma at some point in their life”.
The next few weeks is a key fundraising window and Jimmy’s has options for individuals, corporates, trusts and foundations.
Meanwhile, over at Wintercomfort, which provides day-time facilities for rough sleepers from its facilities off Victoria Avenue, donations are being match-funded between November 28 and December 5.
“We predict by the end of the financial year – if we carry on at this rate – we’ll have helped between 750 and 800 individuals in the course of the year,” says Melody Brooker, fundraising and communications manager for Wintercomfort. “Two years ago that number was 486. We’re on 600 people already this financial year.
“Rent hikes are definitely having an impact because people are returning to homelessness – even though they’re in a residence they can’t afford to keep up with payments due to food and fuel increases.”
Melody adds: “Because we don’t have accommodation we get a very small amount of statutory funding, that’s why we have to fundraise.
“For the week starting November 28 all donations are matched up with a philanthropist donor, and if the donor likes the appeal they will engage up to the maximum they are allowed, which is £25,000. It’s all on our website link. So if someone gives £25,000 then we get £25,000 extra, and if it’s a fiver that’s doubled too.”
Cambridge has another option bridging the gap between rough sleeping and living in rented accommodation: modular homes. Originally created and developed by New Meaning in 2019, and supported by Allia Future Homes, these portable one-person units – with a 60-year lifespan – have proved hugely popular.
Since the creation of the original designs, Cambridge-based developer Hill has become involved through its Foundation 200 initiative, and is committed to its own purpose-built SoloHaus modular homes units.
Foundation 200’s initiative includes a £15m pledge to design, manufacture and donate 200 of these modular homes to homeless charities and local authorities by 2025.
The foundation has already gifted 16 of the homes to Jimmy’s, plus a further six to Emmaus Cambridge, the Landbeach-based charity that provides on-site work and housing to formerly homeless people.
Rory Lowings, project manager for SoloHaus at The Hill Group, said: “It has been a pleasure to work with these two outstanding charities that profoundly impact lives in Cambridge.
“Witnessing first-hand the residents of SoloHaus in Cambridge and hearing their stories reaffirms the joy they experience in having a secure and comfortable place to call their own. It’s heartening to know that Hill has played a pivotal role in supporting those who have experienced homelessness, particularly during the Christmas period, a time that can be especially tough for vulnerable people.”
Since Allia helped create the first modular homes community near Newmarket Road, 33 modular homes have become available on six different sites in Cambridge.
Research by the University of Cambridge has shown that these modular residences can make a positive difference.
“The evidence suggests that providing modular homes in tandem with robust support services has the potential to improve outcomes for people experiencing homelessness,” said a report by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research at the University of Cambridge.
“Modular homes are a cost-effective and flexible stepping stone that help rough sleepers in desperate situations transition into permanent homes and settled lives.”