Migrants who have lost their job and lost their homes contribute to record number of rough sleepers in Fenland and especially Wisbech
- Credit: Yui Mok
There are nearly as many rough sleepers on the streets of Fenland – and mainly Wisbech – than in Cambridge.
The annual Government ‘audit’ counted the number of rough sleepers on one day and recorded 23 in Fenland compared to 27 in Cambridge. Fenland Council says that figure can fluctuate – many of them migrant workers who have lost their jobs and lost their homes as a consequence.
The same ‘audit’ found no rough sleepers in South Cambridgeshire, five in Huntingdonshire and only one in East Cambridgeshire.
The checks were carried out across the county in the early hours of November 23 last year.
“These scenes of human misery on our streets is something none of us should have to accept as normal,” said Councillor Nichola Harrison, a Cambridgeshire county and Cambridge city councillor.
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Last year she co-wrote a report into rough sleeping in Cambridge but believes little has changed.
Fenland Council says it remains “committed to reducing the numbers of rough sleepers” and has a migrant outreach service to support them.
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The night shelter at the Ferry Project has been extended following a successful bid for government funding.
“The Ferry Project offers a vital service to single homeless people in Fenland, both in Octavia View and the night shelter and also through the council’s severe weather emergency provision (SWEP),” said a council spokesman.
“This provides emergency shelter to people sleeping rough during periods of freezing night-time temperatures.”
SWEP has been in place every night since November 1, 2018, says the council, rather than only when the temperature drops below -1C for three consecutive nights. “Homeless individuals can present themselves to the night shelter to access services,” said the spokesman. “There is no charge for the night shelter or SWEP, while housing benefit (if eligible to receive it) can be claimed to stay at Octavia View.
“The council also has a deposit scheme to help people access accommodation including private-rented houses and flats, and caravans, to meet individual needs, and also offers housing advice to the homeless and those at risk of homelessness.”
Fenland Council has also applied for extra government funding through three other national projects that support rough sleepers, one of which could provide a day centre at the Ferry Project.
But the council accepts that tackling homelessness remains “an extremely complex issue, with no single solution.
“It is deeply interlinked with mental health issues, drug and alcohol dependency, welfare cuts, poor private rental conditions and much more.
“Although our aim is to help every rough sleeper in Fenland, we also have to accept that not everybody wishes to be helped.”
The council says some don’t want to be separated from friends living on the streets whilst other don’t like night shelters because of the ban on using drugs or alcohol.
The spokesman added that in some instances “rough sleepers are at a particularly chaotic point in their lives and have complex mental health needs which prevent them from engaging with the help offered”.
In 2008 I joined a team of housing officials and representatives from charities for the homeless for the annual count of rough sleepers in Wisbech.
We split into two teams and from midnight to 4am scoured cemeteries, waste land, parks and derelict buildings for evidence of rough sleepers. In the event one team, not the one I was with, came across a lone Slovakian, bedded down for the night with a cardboard shelter and curled up inside a sleeping bag.
In 2017 and, without invitation, I went out again into Wisbech but this time evidence of homelessness was immediate, overwhelming and truly horrific.
In the grounds of St Peter and St Paul’s church were up to a dozen homeless – some English and the rest mainly Lithuanian- and the stories they told were uncompromisingly raw and chilling.
They have issues with lost jobs, lost homes, alcohol and drugs and find themselves caught up daily in a spiralling crisis of hostility and anger from a community that simply can’t provide an answer for their needs.
Fenland Council says it “thoroughly encourages” the public to report anyone who is rough sleeping so we can offer them our help.
“You can report a rough sleeper via StreetLink (link on our website), which alerts us and local outreach services about the person, on 01354 654321 (24/7) or at any of our @YourService shops and community hubs”.
Since November and when SWEP began Fenland Council has paid for 301 bed spaces at the night shelter in Wisbech at a cost of £31 per person per night – the shelter has 100 per cent occupancy figures.