1:10pm Monday 26th November 2012
By Kimberly Middleton
The number of people sleeping rough on city streets is officially on the rise.
Police and housing workers found 43 people bedding down in doorways, parks and graveyards in their annual headcount on Friday, up 16% on last year.
Charities say the true total could be twice as bad and warn the situation will continue to worsen.
The Argus joined Brighton and Hove City Council for the count early on Friday morning (November 22).
The total of 43 was up on the 37 people found last year, and 14 rough sleepers in 2010, when a different counting method was used.
Council leader Jason Kitcat said the authority had spent a million pounds more on homeless services this year than planned.
He said: “We are seeing a growing pressure on our homelessness services and the voluntary sector, and unfortunately there is less money to go round for all involved in trying to deal with this issue.”
Earlier this year St Patrick’s Homeless Shelter in Hove closed, depriving the city of a permanent overnight base.
Seven churches have stepped in to provide beds over most of the winter, but concern remains that services are becoming stretched as homelessness and poverty grow.
Julian Haddow, who runs Project Antifreeze for the homelessness charity Off The Fence, said he believed the numbers found by the council on Friday are an underestimate.
He said: “On Monday and Tuesday last week we worked with 61 rough sleepers.”
James Crane, of the council’s Housing Options teams, told The Argus the results were “a snapshot”.
It's a rough way to live
It was 2am and seven teams of police officers, councillors and agency workers were marching around Brighton.
Each had a set route, and was armed with torches and a code word to alert the rest of the team to danger.
The city’s homeless count came with a lengthy safety document which warned people not to tower above people in an intimidating way or crouch down, which would prevent a quick getaway.
Running your hands down car park banisters or pushing open doors with bare hands is a no-no in case there are discarded needles or blood.
It made for sobering reading.
The brief before the count’s 1am start took a different tone. James Crane, from the council’s housing options team, told us: “Be aware – these places are people’s bedrooms, it’s where they sleep, so keep your voices down.”
We were asked to respect people’s privacy. They may be curled up in the doorway on Brighton’s busy public streets, but for tonight, and probably many other nights, that space is all they have to call home.
The numbers we were collecting go to the Government, which uses the figures to check if resources are in the right places to deal with the problem.
For the first time this year the count took place in Eastbourne and Hastings on the same evening in an attempt to record the most accurate figures and ensure no one is counted twice.
The count follows strict guidelines – people must be bedded down, or about to bed down, in a public place such as a street or in a doorway, not designed for habitation.
Anyone in a hostel, shelter or squat does not go on our list.
And it is the only time of the year workers are not out to support or engage with people who are homeless, or even wake them up.
James added: “This is a snapshot. We’re not going to find everyone who is out there. It’s impossible to go everywhere.”
And on a wet night such as Thursday, with driving rain and relentless howling wind, we hoped some people had found shelter inside.
The teams covered most of the city – along the seafront from the Marina to Babylon Lounge, and most of the city’s parks as well as streets.
Our team was made up of James, Sussex Police’s PCSO Chris Wareham, who specialises in working with homeless people, and Councillor Ollie Sykes, who is on a panel that is currently looking at homelessness in the city.
We are led by Berni Callanan, an outreach worker with Brighton’s Rough Sleepers Team whose work usually starts at 5am, and set off on our route around the city centre.
He tells me the myth of the abundance of jobs in the city which often brings people to Brighton. Weeks later, he said, still unemployed and savings spent, they find themselves on the streets.
After searching through the bushes of the Pavilion gardens – somewhere I hope no one is forced to sleep in such horrific weather – we looked around some of the city’s car parks, hands kept well away from the rails in the stairwells.
The first people we came across were a young couple, probably in their late teens, sitting in their sleeping bags in the doorway of a derelict building on a busy Brighton street.
James said they were known to the teams and had been given somewhere to sleep that night. But for some reason they were back sleeping rough.
The team didn’t stop to talk to them, Berni nodded hello and we continued on our route.
Seeing such a young couple on the streets came as a shock. Where is their support network of family and friends? Suddenly I felt extremely fortunate.
The list of people we spot lengthened as we made our way around the city. One man was bedded down in a graveyard. Another three were curled up in shop doorways.
The third had only been in the city for two weeks. He didn’t know about First Base – a well-known day centre run by the Brighton Housing Trust – which came as a surprise to Berni.
First Base helps people who are sleeping rough or who are insecurely housed to get off the streets and runs several services.
Some of the people we came across were already known to Berni. He warned us not to approach one man curled up with his dog – and on cue the animal began to growl, protecting its owner.
Another man had found himself a quiet spot, hidden away from the main streets and was listening to a stereo, sitting up in his sleeping bag.
In stark contrast Vicky Skinner, 29, and Bill Paton, 50, were sitting in a doorway in one of the city’s busiest streets, accompanied by a collie dog that Vicky rescued from a bin.
They told me they had chosen the large doorway because it is set back from the pavement enough to give them shelter from the rain and there was enough space for two people and a dog.
Some nights they get lucky and the heater in the ceiling is on, blowing hot air down on to them. But not tonight.
Vicky describes the doorway as “nice and comfortable” and said it is an ideal location, because they don’t get moved on by the police.
“It is like SAS training,” said Bill, who has been homeless on and off since he was 11.
The pair chatted to people walking by, who were on their way home from a night out. Some offered them cigarettes. One man bought a portion of hot chips for the pair, who were both wearing several coats and were also wrapped up in sleeping bags.
“If you treat people with respect they will give it back to you,” said Bill.
In total we came across ten people sleeping rough. Last year the homeless count was 37. When we got back to the office the figure was 47.
By the morning the number had dropped down to 43 after all 47 on the lists were cross-referenced.
The increasing figure is not a surprise in the economic climate and as welfare cuts begin to bite.
Most of those working for charities dealing with the city’s homeless problem believe the figure is much higher.
In response to Brighton and Hove’s homeless problem, professionals have worked on a ‘targeted approach’.
James Crane, from the council’s housing options team, said over the years things have been changed to make it as easy as possible for people to move off the streets and get help.
Homeless people placed in hostels often choose to go back out and sleep on the streets.
In an attempt to break the cycle psychologists work with people in the city’s hostels.
Clinical nurses also work in hostels, building up a relationship with clients and are there to discuss any problems when people are ready to talk.
James said: “A lot of what we’re talking about here is behaviour change.
“When people are ready to make the change the services are there or if they have to wait we make sure they keep their motivation going.”
A ‘No Second Night Out’ worker was employed this year in an attempt to stop people sleeping |on the streets for more than two weeks, avoiding becoming |entrenched in homeless life.
The city also has three six-bed working hostels, which are more like shared houses.
People living there want to work and are given experience and training to get them back into a job.
James said: “There isn’t a one size fits all.
“We are targeting our responses to what the problems are.”
This is the first in a series of special reports on Brighton and Hove's rough sleepers and proverty crisis, investigating the tide of debt, hunger and homelessness.
Pick up tomorrow's Argus for our report on the growing number of people relying on food handouts to survive.
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