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Rough sleeping and homelessness prevention in Cornwall

Cornish Stuff, 16 Feb 2022.

When I became a councillor in 2018, one of the first things I was called to help with was a case where 6 people were being evicted from a building where they were each renting a room. The landlord wanted to refurbish the property and rent to students (far more lucrative), so he gave all the tenants 2 months notice which is all he was legally required to do.

As the tenants were unlikely to be considered ‘priority need’ (all single men), the Local Authority had a new duty to provide advice and assistance, but not to house them. I contacted Nos da Kernow, a partnership of Cornwall Housing, Coastline and St Petroc’s Society that was set up in 2017. They help people at risk of homelessness to find somewhere to stay if certain conditions are met. But there simply wasn’t enough accommodation, not even back in early 2018 – way before the pandemic. I think only 1 of those 6 men found a flat in Falmouth. The others were spread out across the county. One went to St Petroc’s, one simply disappeared…

Nos da Kernow started with only initial funding for their first year – £850,000 from Cornwall Housing and just £292,000 from a successful bid to the government. The Conservative government’s support at the time for homelessness was pitiful. Less than £500,000 per year for the whole of Cornwall. Ad hoc, one-off awards that couldn’t be relied upon. The last Labour government made tackling rough sleeping a priority. They set a very public target of reducing rough sleeping by two thirds. To really get things focused, a specific and powerful unit was set up to make things happen in Whitehall. This Rough Sleepers’ Unit, led by ex-Shelter deputy director Louise Casey, had influence across several departments. This was vital, as the causes of rough sleeping, and indeed homelessness, are complex and involve the failure of many different systems. The unit got different agencies to work together on an evidence-led basis, and Gordon Brown was a chancellor prepared to properly fund this initiative. It worked. The number of people rough sleeping had tumbled by 2008. But by the time my tenants needed help in 2018, after 8 years of Conservative government, it had risen again by 169%!

After that, I got involved in setting up the Falmouth Homelessness Action Group. It was a multi-agency group comprised of police, charities and council officers who worked with rough sleepers and homeless people in Falmouth trying to get them off the streets and providing support with health problems and addiction, which can go hand in hand with long-term rough sleeping. That has now merged into Safer Falmouth. It works better when organisations co-ordinate their efforts and we have some (although far from enough) committed outreach workers from the addiction charity, We are With You and one person from Cornwall Housing; although she is meant to cover about a third of Cornwall! The We are With You workers are the people who go out within 24 hours if you report a rough sleeper via Do use it.

Local authorities do a headcount on a day in November of the people they find sleeping rough on a single night every year. This is obviously not an exact science as you need people who know where to look, but figures in Cornwall had been very high – more than any county and worse only than London and Brighton with 68 counted in 2017 and 99 the year before.

In 2019 the same count in Cornwall was 24. On the face of it, a great success. However, when the pandemic struck just 4 months later and the government asked councils to get ‘everyone in’, 168 people came forward. These people were assessed as sleeping rough or at high risk of it and were housed in hastily commissioned emergency accommodation in holiday parks, hotels etc. Across the U.K., 33,139 people made use of the Government’s Everyone In campaign to keep those rough sleeping off the streets between March and November 2020. Previously, the Government had relied on the national rough sleeper survey which had told us there were only 4,266 sleeping on the streets!

Cornwall Council also revealed in October 2020 that, since March that year, 640households had needed emergency housing; in the same period in 2019 the figure was 387. This year feels far worse. I have never been contacted by so many people, particularly families with young children, presenting as homeless.

And in December, Shelter estimated 1,233 people across Cornwall were homeless at Christmas, including more than 1,100 in temporary accommodation and 29 rough sleepers. The Council now have a Strategy and have bought in mobile units for Council carparks and paid for emergency accommodation to try to relieve the pressure.

The long term strategy must be to provide genuinely affordable housing, but I hope the pandemic has finally forced the government to stop sweeping homelessness under the carpet.

It was re-announced last week that Cornwall is at last receiving funding of £7 million from the 2021-24allocation to help with the issue. Too little, too late? Certainly, far too late to help my residents back in 2018.

And none of that is directed to successful Housing First pilots where rough sleepers are provided with a roof and full support to stay housed. But, hopefully reducing rough sleeping will now receive some of the focus that it had under a Labour government. Reducing homelessness is not impossible. It just needs the will to do it. That will has been sorely lacking from this Conservative government for 12 years and many people have ended up suffering dreadfully because of it, falling through the safety net and descending into addiction and in some cases, early death.

This funding doesn’t come anywhere near the amount it took to get ‘everyone in’ during the pandemic.

We can only hope it is the start of marked change in the long term.

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