[Hpn] UK nixes Winter Shelter funds. "Homeless, Move On" now official
Thu, 28 Dec 2000 14:37:45 -0800 (PST)
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Should "transients" from out of town be denied shelter where you live?
Why or why not?
FWD The Guardian (London) - Wednesday November 29, 2000
THE COLD SHOULDER
Alexander Masters walks bleak Cambridge streets
with homeless people affected by the government's
decision not to fund winter shelters and
David Brindle looks at the council line
For three nights, I've been walking among the cemeteries and dank
toilets of Cambridge with Sam, a homeless Gypsy who lives in the back
of a broken down van. He and his wife have been on the streets for a
year, and they are frightened half to death because this year - for
the first time in a decade - there will be no government funding for
emergency winter shelters for homeless people in the city, or indeed
anywhere else outside London. Winter shelters, it seems, are bad for
Sam is 22, a car mechanic and part-time gardener. He has been sleeping
rough since his family kicked him out for marrying a non-Romani. His
wife, a slight woman also in her early 20s, has eight GCSEs.
Each night we met in the same place, outside a public lavatory, with
the steeples of King's and Jesus colleges silhouetted by city lights
in the distance. On the first night, five people, including two women,
are getting ready to sleep here, on a small concrete porch overlooking
the playing fields. When the rain gets too hard, they move into the
toilet cubicles, or clamber over the fence to huddle in the changing
rooms of the nearby outdoor swimming pool.
Across the park, there is another public toilet where an old lady
sleeps; she likes to keep the place clean, so she washes the floor
during the day. Some of the homeless are mentally ill, many are
illiterate; a few are former businessmen or have degrees.
Up in the cemetery I find the most tragic couple I have ever seen -
crouched in an abandoned outhouse, blankets spread out on the mud
floor. An umbrella propped against the sodden wall deflects the flow
of water coming through the roof and empty windows. She is about 25,
pleasant, polite and ludicrously swaddled. I cannot see his face
clearly. He has bowel cancer and is not expected to survive the
"Look where he's lying, sir," says Sam. "There must be somewhere open
where they could at least temporarily house him and his wife. Look,
how can you sleep with an umbrella above your head?" The rain
splatters across everything.
You don't have to be around the city long to get to know how ill or
disabled some of these people are. One, familiar to Cambridge people,
cannot hear or speak and grunts when he begs for money; another is
blind and is often beaten up or has his stick stolen; a third has
The city council's latest estimate - based on a count in early October
- is that there are 18 people sleeping on the streets. The figure has
caused widespread scepticism among homelessness workers and is
thoroughly disbelieved by the homeless themselves. "There's loads more
than that," retorts the woman in the cemetery. "About 40." Sam and I
find 30 in one night, and that is in just two-and-a-half hours,
covering about a fifth of the official counting area.
There is a lot of money riding on these figures. The government has
insisted that it will reduce the number of street sleepers by
two-thirds by the year 2002, and Cambridge council housing department
relies on government approval to secure funding. It has not gone
unnoticed that the council's headcount comfortably meets the target
decrease: a 40% reduction over the past three years.
"I've been everywhere in the country as a Romani," says Sam, "but I've
never seen so many homeless people as in Cambridge. The trouble is
that the council and police don't know about many of the places where
the homeless sleep. There's a derelict barge on the river somewhere,
for example, and an old hut by the railway station."
"Is that the one where you can hear all the rats?' asks one person
begging at the University Church. "Nah," replies Sam, "they've found
another skipper since then."
One place I especially wanted to see was described to me as a strange
hole in a wall, where you have to squeeze through a narrow gap to get
inside. It is apparently behind a lamp post, but nobody would tell me
where in case the word got out. In the absence of a winter shelter, it
is particularly important that the best locations remain secret.
The other week, at the beginning of the rain storms, the police said
that anyone found sleeping on the underground floors of the covered
car park near Emmanuel college would be arrested. This was especially
bad news because the subterranean floors are among the most popular
spots in the city, with up to 15 people sleeping there. They are warm,
quiet and almost safe.
Then there are the locked places, which nobody thinks the homeless
have a key to. As the weather worsens, the fuller they become. Sam
knocks on one of them. "Bunker, it's Sam," he shouts. I can hear faint
voices, but nobody responds. "They won't answer," explains Sam. "The
homeless don't believe that anyone would do anything for them. They
think you want to steal their sleeping bags. They think you're the
There is a medieval quality about street life here - not just in the
way these people live, but in the brute intensity of their fears:
money, sex and death, in that order.
It is standard for somebody to come on to Sam's wife when they are out
begging. "'If you let your girlfriend suck me off, I'll give you a
fiver.' You get that one about every half hour,' Sam says. The other
day, a man offered her a flat. "Don't mind about the rent," he said.
"Just move in and we'll come to some arrangement."
Another popular joke is to pull out a handful of money and give only a
penny. People frequently shout abuse, and sometimes Sam argues back.
He and his wife cannot get work because no employer will take them
without an address. They cannot get an address because landlords
demand a deposit and a month's payment in advance, whereas housing
benefit - for which they would be eligible - does not cover a deposit
and pays only two weeks in arrears. Now they are also finding it
difficult to beg, because the government has decreed that begging,
too, is bad for the homeless.
Across the street, by the city's new £3m swimming pool, is another
multi-storey car park. We find nobody there, but we do see some
clothes and a book. These belong to Sally, missing for about a week.
Nobody knows where she is, but the rumour is that she has been taken
down to London to be a prostitute. Apparently, she was nice looking.
As we walk back through the city, we pass a fight brewing among eight
rough sleepers in the bus shelter. One is accusing the others of
stealing his bike. Sam tries to calm them down, because two are his
friends and the man accusing them is supposed to have contacts with
Jamaican gangsters. He and another person - I keep well back, so I
don't see who - start trying to stab each other with syringes, while a
third takes a drink of lighter fluid and threatens to burn the
accuser's face off. Eventually, Sam's devotion to his friends pays
off, and the rumpus ceases.
As we walk away, he says: "It is a rough old world out there, mate.
There's the world that other people survive in and there's this world.
That's why we need winter shelters, to keep the weaker ones alive."
But Cambridge is adamant that it will toe the New Labour line:
providing the homeless with warmth and a place to lie down off the
streets encourages them to remain homeless.
What are the options? One approach, used in Brighton, is a "rolling
shelter". An existing hostel sets aside a certain number of beds,
which are made available to rough sleepers on the coldest days. But
the Cambridge hostels are full every night.
In Manchester, charity workers have discovered they can get money for
winter accommodation, provided the homeless are not allowed to lie
down while they are there. It's what the Victorians used to call a
"penny sit up": for a penny, somebody living on the streets could sit
indoors on a wooden bench. In Cambridge, though, there is no money
even for this ploy.
Another rough sleeper died the other day: Taz, a middle-aged
alcoholic. Nobody knew much about him - he'd been in Cambridge a
little over a week - but the word is that he had come to the city
because he expected to find shelter during the cold months. His life
ended down by the bus station, on the first night of the winter
Sam and I finish our walks at about 2.30am, after checking the
pavilion by the tennis courts and the toilets next to the DSS offices
and recycling bins. "What would you do if you got the van fixed?" I
ask, as he clambers back inside and slides beneath his thin duvet. The
material is damp, because of condensation dripping from the roof. "I'm
a Romani," Sam says. "I know about seasonal work. I'd go to Penzance
to pick flowers."
o Alexander Masters is a freelance journalist whose clients include a
homelessness charity in Cambridge
Official line: It's time to move on
Naisha Polaine, Cambridge council's housing needs manager, vehemently
denies any deliberate undercounting of numbers sleeping rough in the
city. When the October count yielded a figure of 18, she says, local
homelessness charities put the true total no higher than 25.
"There is no political line in terms of doing what central government
wants us to do," insists Polaine. "The local politicians in Cambridge
say they want us to sort out street homelessness - and that's just
what we are trying to do."
Last winter, the government provided £280,000 for a 28-bed winter
shelter that was open for four months. "We know that 50% of those bed
spaces were used by people who came specifically to Cambridge because
of the shelter," says Polaine. This winter, the council has spent
£20,000 on move-on accommodation to free 21 beds in year-round
hostels, available from next Monday. "To me, that's trying to make
best use of public resources, it's trying to be inventive and to find
Polaine, who says she has £250,000 "new money" from the government to
help the street homeless, dismisses accusations of heartlessness. "I'm
trying to help our people who are the most entrenched rough sleepers,"
she says. "There are seven or 10 of them, and I know their names."
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