WISBECH: Only one homeless person found sleeping rough but the problem is still out there

By JOHN ELWORTHY Photos PETE UPTON SPECULATION of large numbers thought to be sleeping rough in Wisbech has been dispelled by a major exercise to verify the town s hidden homeless. In recent years council officials and housing charities have feared the



SPECULATION of large numbers thought to be sleeping rough in Wisbech has been dispelled by a major exercise to verify the town's hidden homeless.

In recent years council officials and housing charities have feared the problem was much worse than it actually is.

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Two teams of four - comprising senior housing officers from Fenland District Council, representatives from Roddons Housing Association and representatives from charities for the homeless- descended on the town for a midnight spot check.

The teams, briefed by Sarah Gove, Fenland's housing services development manager, were carrying out the count as part of a Government programme to discover the reality of those sleeping rough.

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Cemeteries, waste land, parks and derelict buildings were all scoured in a three hour operation that began at midnight last Monday.

At Sarah's invitation I joined her team and on a long and thorough route , we went in search of evidence of rough sleepers. In the event only one rough sleeper- discovered by the second team- came to light.

He turned out to be a lone Slovakian, bedded down with just a cardboard shelter and curled up inside a sleeping bag.

At the end of the evening Sarah was upbeat about the findings, pleased on one level that the problem is relatively small but mindful of the fact there was evidence to support claims that many had, and quite recently, been sleeping out in the open.

I followed as Sarah's team members logged details of frayed sleeping bags and bedding found.

"Whilst we only had one person sleeping rough on the night, we do know from the evidence we found there are quite clearly people sleeping rough on a regular basis, and that fact can be substantiated," she said.

"Our numbers, however, of rough sleepers is relatively low which is surprising. Based on the intelligence we received we know we have a problem, but exactly where we don't know."

Although only a snap shot of rough sleeping, the methodology deployed followed carefully set out Government guidelines for conducting a count.

A 20 page document setting out the guidelines -and the need for it- provided the backdrop for the count.

"A single night count is a snapshot," the guidelines emphasise. "It does not aim to record everyone in the area with a history of sleeping rough, but experience has shown that it is the most effective means of gauging the relative scale of the problem and of monitoring progress over time."

For the record, the Government's definition of people sleeping rough is "people sleeping, or bedded down, in the open air: people in buildings or other places not designed for habitation." Derelict boats, barns, sheds, doorways, parks or bus shelters are some of the typical places listed.

On the night Wisbech turned out not to have an obvious major problem but for workers such as Keith Smith, founder ten years ago of the Ferry Project and still its director, the reality is that an increasing number of homeless people need short or medium term provision.

"It can affect anyone or everyone," he says. "Don't for a moment think homelessness is a lifestyle choice - that accounts for a very small percentage of cases. We have all types, and people of all ages who find themselves for whatever reason homeless."

The results of last week's count will help shape the future strategy for Wisbech and the Fens which will recognise the large numbers who stay on the margins of being forced to sleep rough.

Places of Change Government funding of £700,000 is on offer to help provide part of the cost for a new training centre and accommodation facility in Wisbech for the young homeless.

And many of the existing houses and flats rented out by the Ferry Project for homeless people are often stretched to the limit, with demand outstripping supply.

Sarah added: "There is quite clear evidence of need in Wisbech and our snap shot survey reinforces the need for just to tackle rough sleeping but other areas of concern, too, such as sofa surfing which is difficult to count and the rising number of homeless cases across Fenland."

"We do not want to dilute in anyway the need for the new project."

Wisbech seems to have followed the pattern of diminishing rough sleeping in line with Government targets which saw numbers across the country reduce by two thirds between 1998 and 2001.

The Government says it is committed to "sustaining this target and reducing rough sleeping to as near to zero as possible."

With people, however, still around such as the young Slovakian - with no Home Office documents and therefore no prospect of employment- it seems unlikely rough sleeping will ever be totally eradicated.

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