‘For us as a council, with 57 rough sleepers in a small rural town, it has been both challenging and rewarding to remove rough sleepers from the streets,’ says Fenland Council leader

Fenland District Council leader Chris Boden. On June 25 he delivered a key note speech on tackling h

Fenland District Council leader Chris Boden. On June 25 he delivered a key note speech on tackling homelessness in Fenland. Picture; HARRY RUTTER - Credit: HARRY RUTTER

‘Covid-19 and homelessness– where next?’ was the topic for a webinar hosted by the Local Government Association. Those taking part included Cllr Chris Boden, leader of Fenland District Council. Here’s what he had to say.

Cllr Sam Hoy, portfolio holder for housing at Fenland Council and 'absolutely committed to her prio

Cllr Sam Hoy, portfolio holder for housing at Fenland Council and 'absolutely committed to her priority of tackling homelessness' said council leader Chris Boden. Picture; HARRY RUTTER - Credit: HARRY RUTTER

Thank you to the LGA for giving me the opportunity to share our experience with rough sleepers and the “Everyone In” initiative in Fenland.

Fenland is the northern most district council in Cambridgeshire. We lie between Peterborough and Norfolk and have a population of just over 100,000. Our largest town in Wisbech, with a population of just over 30,000, and it’s in Wisbech that we see almost all of our rough sleeping.

For us as a council, with 57 rough sleepers in a small rural town, it has been both challenging and rewarding to remove rough sleepers from the streets, with the spirit of partnership at the heart of our work.

I’m going to talk through our recent experiences and our thoughts on sustainable proposals to eliminate rough sleeping, but I will finish with five challenges (quite apart from the cost) which I see as problematic in achieving a complete end to rough sleeping long-term.

The majority of our rough sleepers are eastern European migrants. When lockdown commenced, we were in a positive position owing to a successful track record of bids to Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government and our work with key partners with whom we have been delivering a rough sleeper initiative project.

Essentially, we already had a robust support mechanism and infrastructure in place… including a day hub, a hostel and a night shelter… and within this infrastructure we have support workers, outreach workers and a rough sleeper co-ordinator.

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Whilst the challenge at the time that the Covid-19 emergency started was significant, we quickly mobilised our vulnerable rough sleepers into temporary accommodation, including relocating those in shared sleeping arrangements in the night shelter.

We provided each of our rough sleepers with a mobile phone to enable support workers to keep in touch on a daily basis. We supplied food parcels to everyone. All our rough sleepers were registered with GPs and the approach to do so has been recognised as best practice by our CCG and by public health.

Key to our success has been the partnership we have with a wide range of organisations, but in particular our key local partners. Without their dedication and support, “Everyone In” would not have been successful.

Other key organisations are our bed and breakfast owners, housing options team, our rough sleeper co-ordinator and local partners’ drug and alcohol services.

Each rough sleeper we housed had a support plan and for many this was the first time off the streets in a long time. We only had four evictions due to behaviour issues out of 57 people we placed into emergency accommodation and we continue to work closely with the remaining three who are still rough sleeping.

Fenland has made further progress engaging with key partners during the Covid-19 emergency, in particular public health. All of our rough sleepers were given translated information to keep them safe, we have also arranged for hepatitis C testing.

As part of our rough sleeper initiative funding, we are commissioning a mental health nurse to work alongside our support team. This has been a gap for us locally so thanks to the funding we are confident the post will have a positive impact for our vulnerable rough sleepers.

From a practical perspective, rehousing an additional 18 clients from the night shelter shared sleeping arrangements - which we had thought was going to be deemed Covid-19 compliant - was very challenging, as it was difficult to find available units, however, this was done and we then followed the same approach as with the rough sleepers reviewing support plans for everyone to ensure new needs were catered for… including isolation. Regular calls and social distancing support were provided to bridge this gap.

Social distancing for a few of our clients was difficult, this resulted in a positive Covid-19 case and a precautionary14 days lock down for the eight individuals in that particular building.

Costs of the accommodation provision and food have been incredibly challenging. After three months our additional Covid-19 costs for rough sleepers alone was £211,000.

FDC portfolio holder for housing Cllr Sam Hoy (left) was one of many volunteers from Wisbech who ral

FDC portfolio holder for housing Cllr Sam Hoy (left) was one of many volunteers from Wisbech who rallied to support the elderly, homeless and vulnerable during the lockdown. Cllr Hoy is also leader of Wisbech Town Council that gave £1,000 to 50 Backpacks. With Cllr Steve Tierney they called in on Backpacks to drop off bread supplied by McColl's of Walton Road. Picture; 50 BACKPACKS - Credit: Archant

The projection is that our additional Covid-19 costs for rough sleepers and homelessness for the year will exceed £1,000,000, these extra costs amounting to almost 10 per cent of the council’s whole annual budget.

We’ve so far had only a very small proportion of our additional Covid-19 costs reimbursed from central government. This is a major ongoing worry and concern to our council.

We hope to be able to bid successfully under the new 6,000 new homes initiative later in the summer and we are considering innovative ways to provide housing solutions for our most vulnerable citizens.

We have a plan for each of our rough sleepers and are committed to no one returning to rough sleeping if at all possible. This includes social housing via our largest registered provider partner, accessing the private rented sector, specialist supported accommodation and Housing First in partnership with our county council.

We are engaging with mental health commissioners to try and plug the gaps in mental health provision across our area and there is a real sense of ‘opportunity’ from all partners to focus on this cohort to bring about positive change going forward.

A gap for us is just that, a ‘gap’ in funding and not just year on year funding… many former rough sleepers need ongoing tenancy sustainment support to prevent tenancy failures.

And we need to fund our partners to continue their great work to ensure that the Covid-19 ‘emergency’ is treated instead as an ‘opportunity’ which needs to be sustained going forward.

The challenge of sourcing accommodation was really just the start for us, the key to success was effective communication, the quality of the support and the drive and commitment of our fantastic partners working as one great team effort with ourselves for the benefit of our rough sleepers.

A new homeless support hub which aims to get rough sleepers off the Fenland streets opened in Wis

A new homeless support hub which aims to get rough sleepers off the Fenland streets opened in Wisbech last year thanks to government funds. It is based inside Octavia View, run by the Ferry Project. Picture: Supplied - Credit: Archant

We still have much to do, but putting people at the heart of everything that we do, despite the ongoing challenges has worked for us so far.

Fenland has successfully managed trailblazer funding before and could do so again in a Trailblazer Plus initiative with a renewed and even better co-ordinated focus to tackle this issue. We have an oven ready scheme and, with central Government funding, could very quickly and effectively build on the existing resource which has limitations in its ability to work across all areas to deliver a service for the rough sleeper cohort.

I said that I saw some impediments in achieving a permanent end to rough sleeping, over and above the costs involved.

The first is that not all registered providers have as positive a relationship as we have here in Fenland. Where a registered provider’s business model rejects “difficult” potential tenants, how is a local authority able to use local social housing partners to stop homelessness slipping into rough sleeping?

My second concern is that government funding initiatives, whilst always welcome, tend to be very time limited. This militates against building up a long-term, effective, experienced local team to tackle homelessness and prevent rough sleeping.

How can we move to a funding model which is more stable, more certain and more long-term?

My third concern is that, here in Fenland, almost 20 per cent of our rough sleepers are rough sleepers by choice. They are all Eastern European, they all have jobs, they cause no trouble to anyone and their encampments can be very organised.

But they want to save on housing costs so that they can send more money back home or take more money back when they return to their home country.

We have no real powers to stop this deliberate choice to sleep rough – should this even be a priority for us? Other than criminalising rough sleeping, there’s little we can do in these cases, which are second only to drug and alcohol abuse in the causes of rough sleeping in our area.

My fourth concern is that there is a potential moral hazard involved if we were to announce that all rough sleepers are to be housed immediately.

There are some who undoubtedly would seek to game the system by sleeping rough to circumvent the housing allocations prioritisation processes that we have locally. How do we stop our efforts to get all rough sleepers off the streets generating more rough sleepers who aren’t satisfied with the normal housing allocations process?

And my final concern is what we are to do in the longer term about those who make themselves intentionally homeless or who have no recourse to public funds.

How do we stop these cohorts from slipping into rough sleeping, since we all know that prevention is much better than cure in housing?

The announcement by Government of additional support to be made available for some EU nationals is, of course, very much welcome, but it only addresses part of the problem, and only for three months for each individual.

I want to end on a more positive note, however. I’m lucky here in Fenland to have incredibly dedicated officers, great local partnerships and a portfolio holder for housing (Cllr Sam Hoy) who’s absolutely committed to her priority of tackling homelessness.

Without such local political will and organisational capacity, no amount of money would be able to come close to eliminating rough sleeping once and for all.