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Why is homelessness in Cambridge still increasing?

An all-too-common sight in Cambridge city centre. Picture: Mike Scialom
An all-too-common sight in Cambridge city centre. Picture: Mike Scialom

New figures on the national number of rough sleepers in the UK show an increase in Cambridge for the second year running. The count in Cambridge, conducted on November 22, found 33 people sleeping rough, compared with 27 the year before. This 20 per cent increase in Cambridge is contrary to a reduction in the national figures, which saw figures fall by nine per cent - and by 12 per cent among councils who are receiving special help from the government, such as Cambridge.

A BBC survey published recently suggests that the actual figures are likely to be five times higher than the national count shows, which is a snapshot on a single night in winter, leaving Lib Dem city council leader Tim Bick to appeal to the government for additional help in tackling homelessness in Cambridge.

Executive councillor for housing at Cambridge City Council, Richard Johnson, said: “It is important to note that while this snapshot clarifies the overall national picture of rough sleeping at one specific point in the year, it doesn’t tell the whole story.”

Indeed the ‘snapshot’ data has been criticised for being far too conservative.

“As well as the annual count we provide for the government’s statistics, we conduct our own monitoring,” continues Cllr Johnson. “This data shows a downward trend in the number of individuals verified as sleeping rough in Cambridge throughout any given year, from a high of 240 during 2016-2017 to 158 in 2018-2019. We are confident this figure will decrease further.”

The council provides grants totalling nearly £750,000 each year to organisations who work with the homeless and have in place a dedicated ‘dual diagnosis’ street team to help those rough sleepers with high needs due their mental health or dependency issues. There is also a ‘Housing First’ tenancy scheme - “this gives accommodation to rough sleepers who may find it difficult to hold down a tenancy due to their high needs by marrying housing with appropriate support so they can come off and then stay off the street”, says Cllr Johnson.

The Cambridge community also has its own schemes, including has an independent ‘homelessness patrol’ to help people living on the streets of the city and a modular homes project which is due to take its first residents later this month. Family-owned developer Hill is preparing to donate 200 homes for the homeless - a financial commitment of more than £10million - to mark the company’s 20th anniversary.

However, the ongoing incidence of rough sleeping in shop doorways across the city shows current council policies are not working, says Lib Dem city council leader Tim Bick, who has called for improved local political leadership.

“These figures again confirm the sad reality that we can all see on the streets of Cambridge,” said Cllr Bick. “Current policies do not seem to be having much impact on the problem.

“We still lack a city charter on rough sleeping which is needed to involve the public and co-ordinate all the many separate organisations who each have their own initiatives. Clearly a study of what is successful elsewhere would be worthwhile.

“It will be said that there is a lot of effort is put in here and a large amount of money is spent; and it’s true that a lot of people are doing some really great work. But taken together, are we getting the best from this as a city?

“There remain challenges. We require greater support from the government.”

Mark Allan, chief executive of Jimmy’s Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Mark Allan, chief executive of Jimmy’s Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

The scale of the problems facing those working to alleviate homelessness was made clear by Mark Allan, chief executive of Jimmy’s Cambridge.

Jimmy’s is on the front line of helping who find themselves homeless in Cambridge, with our 26 emergency beds at our centre on East Road for people moving directly from the street, and an extra 20 beds on the cold winter nights with our severe weather provision in a local community centre,” Mr Allan told the Cambridge Independent.

“We have a waiting list of people, and every time we move someone on to one of our move-on homes or another service in Cambridge, we fill the emergency bed straight away – then straight away someone else comes onto the waiting list. It’s complex – if it was easy we’d have sorted it, and when you throw in a lack of low cost housing, issues with drugs including the county lines issue, cuts to mental heath services, and the problems with Universal Credit, to name a few, the challenge is how to tackle it in Cambridge when some of the problems are caused by nationally driven initiatives.

“This week Jimmy’s is getting together with our key partners in Cambridge to seriously look at what we need to do as group of homeless charities, working with the local councils and other key partners, to really address this problem, as it’s one is proving so difficult to resolve. Jimmy’s is completely devoted to helping people who are sleeping rough who need help, and to work with others to make this better.”

Homeless and the street begging it brings are a national scandal - but other UK councils are tackling the problem more effectively than Cambridge
Homeless and the street begging it brings are a national scandal - but other UK councils are tackling the problem more effectively than Cambridge

The government has said it wants to end rough sleeping by 2024, but this target is very optimistic. In the short term the pattern puts an increasing strain on the NHS, currently at breaking point just as coronavirus gets going.

The number of rough sleepers being admitted to hospital has risen by 130 per cent over the past five years – and more than 500 admissions each week now relate to homelessness. Nearly 28,000 people were admitted to hospital in England with a primary or secondary diagnosis of homelessness in 2018-19 – up from 24,500 the previous year.

A study by The King’s Fund published on Tuesday (March 3) concluded: “The NHS alone cannot reduce poor health outcomes for people sleeping rough. Tackling rough sleeping involves improving people’s health, social wellbeing and housing situation as well as supporting them to find long-term solutions.”

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