Our Guide to Helping Rough Sleepers this Summer

As our winter guide for helping rough sleepers in cold weather was so popular, we thought we’d put out a summer version. Heatwaves and hot weather can be very dangerous for people on the streets, so it’s important to be aware of the risks. Here you’ll find some practical ways you can help.

The Dangers of Rough Sleeping

We all know rough sleeping is dangerous and bad for a person’s health. There are risks all year round, but during particularly hot months it is even more crucial to look out for those who are unable to find safe accommodation.

Helping Rough Sleepers

It’s important to remember that even though the government has asked for all rough sleepers to be accommodated during the pandemic, many people are still sleeping rough and new people become homeless every day.

Streetlink

The most important thing to remember, year round, is that rough sleepers can be referred to Streetlink, through their free app or over the phone on 0300 500 0914. This will trigger an alert to local outreach services to go and offer support. Do not assume that someone is already engaging with services. Do not assume that homeless people want to be homeless.

Small Gestures

For those who have access to clean drinking water, it may not occur to them to look out for homeless people who cannot access water as easily. With day centres closed, water fountains turned off for public health reasons, and fewer shops open due to Covid-19, this is more of a problem than ever.

During this pandemic it is crucial that you check that a homeless person is comfortable with being handed water or food before you buy it for them. Respect social distancing as you would with anyone. Some shops will also let you ‘pay ahead’ and allow the homeless person to collect what you have bought for them afterwards, so do check if this is a good solution for you.

Buying someone a bottle of water can make a huge difference, especially on a hot day. Sun hats and sun cream can also protect someone from potentially very dangerous health risks such as heat stroke (see below).

Have a chat

All year round, rough sleepers struggle with loneliness and feelings of being ignored, so a chat (at a safe distance) can make all the difference. In times of extreme weather conditions such as a heatwave, this can be even more important as a rough sleeper’s usual support network may be disrupted and services are less able to keep in touch. This is damaging to mental and physical health – not only does loneliness make many mental health problems more of a struggle, but also regular contact with others is a way of making sure someone’s physical health is ok. If they seem confused and disoriented, it could be a sign of overdose, heat stroke, or severe dehydration, so checking in for a quick chat could help someone avoid a serious health emergency.

Health and First Aid

On that note, this is a brief guide to just a couple of the health risks to rough sleepers in hot weather that might help you recognise if someone needs urgent healthcare assistance. All information is from the NHS website (linked in subheadings).

Dehydration

Especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, it can be very difficult for rough sleepers to access drinking water. Also, they may be out in the sun with no shelter for long hours of the day, often without adequate protection. Furthermore, people experiencing homelessness are more likely to suffer from alcohol and drug addiction which can cause further dehydration.

Spotting a case of serious dehydration could save someone’s life, or protect them from further health issues. According to the NHS, the main symptoms of dehydration are:

  • feeling thirsty
  • dark yellow and strong-smelling pee
  • feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • feeling tired
  • a dry mouth, lips and eyes
  • peeing little, and fewer than 4 times a day

Members of the public often ignore a homeless person who is lying on the ground, but stopping briefly to check if someone is alright could make a massive difference. If you are able to, and someone seems mildly dehydrated, you could buy them a bottle of water or food with a high water content. You could also have a conversation with them to see if they seem confused or are struggling to stay conscious.

Call an ambulance for someone if:

  • they are feeling unusually tired
  • they are confused and disorientated
  • dizziness doesn’t go away
  • they have not peed all day
  • their pulse is weak or rapid
  • they have fits (seizures)

These can be signs of serious dehydration that need urgent treatment.

Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke

Heat exhaustion is usually not too serious if someone can be cooled down in 30 minutes. If it becomes heatstroke, they need to seek urgent medical attention.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion:

  • a headache
  • dizziness and confusion
  • loss of appetite and feeling sick
  • excessive sweating and pale, clammy skin
  • cramps in the arms, legs and stomach
  • fast breathing or pulse
  • temperature of 38C or above
  • being very thirsty

To cool someone down, follow these 4 steps:

  1. Move them to a cool place.
  2. Get them to lie down and raise their feet slightly.
  3. Get them to drink plenty of water. Sports or rehydration drinks are OK.
  4. Cool their skin – spray or sponge them with cool water and fan them. Cold packs around the armpits or neck are good, too.

Stay with them until they’re better. If you manage all these, they should feel better in 30 mins. If they don’t, seek urgent medical help (call 999). Other symptoms that mean you should call 999 are:

  • feeling unwell after 30 minutes of resting in a cool place and drinking plenty of water
  • not sweating even though too hot
  • a temperature of 40C or above
  • fast breathing or shortness of breath
  • feeling confused
  • a fit (seizure)
  • loss of consciousness
  • not responsive

What else can I do?

There are a number of things you can do to help rough sleepers more generally:

  1. Support local charities. If you can, give money, donations of clothing or food, support local food banks. If you can’t afford to donate, do you have any time you could offer? Could you share their fundraising information online for others?
  2. Download the Streetlink App on your phone so you can easily report a rough sleeper and get an outreach worker to contact them.
  3. Write to your MP. At this particular moment, this is crucial. We need to hold the government accountable and make sure they continue to support homeless people after the pandemic. Read this previous blog post to find out more about how rough sleepers risk being abandoned by the government when the pandemic is over. Also in that post you can find a letter template to send to your MP, making it super easy.
  4. Spread awareness – in winter, we often see campaigns to help rough sleepers which is very important but we often forget about the risks in the summer months. Sharing information (like this blog!) could mean more members of the public are looking out for each other, which can only be good.
Photo by Simon Matzinger

Homelessness After the Pandemic

This morning I read a BBC headline: “Coronavirus: Thousands of homeless ‘back on streets by July'”.

Tragically, this is neither surprising nor unexpected.

When lockdown measures began to be introduced, local authorities were sent an email on a Wednesday, instructing them to house all rough sleepers by the weekend. There was panic at having to carry out such a mammoth task on such little notice. But, there was also a tangible sense of pride and hope that it was possible to get rough sleepers into safe accommodation so quickly when there was the will to do so.

It was also exciting that the government, which had overseen a 141% rise in rough sleeping since 2010, was finally funding and supporting emergency measures to tackle the issue. When rough sleeping became a humanitarian situation, the government and local authorities had no choice but to spring to action.

This begs the question: Was rough sleeping not a humanitarian emergency before?

Recent government statistics found that in 2018 there were an estimated 726 registered deaths of homeless people in England and Wales. The average age of death for rough sleepers was found to be 44 for men and 42 for women. Homelessness is and should always be seen as a public health issue, not because of coronavirus, but because of the risks faced by people experiencing homelessness every day of every year.

So why act now?

This government often takes actions that will earn them votes and support – that is, they will champion strategies that have short term, obvious gain for certain groups of voters, things like reducing taxes, increasing “stop and search” incidents, under-funding services with austerity measures to supposedly ‘save money’ in an obvious and weirdly romanticised manner.

This under-funding we have seen since 2010 was marketed as a sacrifice the public had to make to save money – to many, it seemed like an obvious move. Of course, it was the poorest in society making that sacrifice, but this was seen as a direct and logical consequence of financial hardship since the financial crash in 2008. It’s the same with homelessness; we simply ‘couldn’t afford’ to provide services to help them.

The thing is, investing in healthcare, support services, young people’s services, and welfare benefits means saving money and lives in the long term.

There are some fascinating and extremely frustrating statistics on the costs of homelessness; Crisis estimated in 2015 that the cost of supporting a rough sleeper over the course of a year was £20,128, while the cost of successful intervention to avoid homelessness was just £1,426. Getting people off the streets and into stable, suitable accommodation saves money and lives. Avoiding the health problems, mental and physical, of rough sleeping saves the NHS money. Proper support that can help vulnerable people to stay away from drugs and alcohol not only saves money for emergency services and the NHS, but also reduces crime rates, violence, and danger to families. Investment now helps us in the future – but that’s harder to explain and sell to the general public.

One thing this pandemic has shown is that when the government really wants to and has to stop homelessness, it can. When under pressure to take action, they can. The pressure of containing the virus and protecting the general public finally led to action on rough sleeping – the rise in number of rough sleepers has been so visible for so many years that the government advice to self-isolate and socially distance would have been difficult to enforce if they continued to allow rough sleepers to be outside, unprotected and potentially causing further spread of the disease.

The Reasons to be Cheerful podcast recently interviewed Danny Dorling, professor of Geography at the University of Oxford with a research interest in public health. He eloquently explained his view on the government’s response to homelessness during the pandemic:

“[The action to house rough sleepers] wasn’t done because government cared about the homeless – it was done out of absolute fear that homeless people will spread this disease to people like them and their families.” Dorling compared it to the rich elite in Victorian times, terrified that the working classes would spread cholera to them, leading to funding for better sewer systems and water works. Epidemiologically, he adds, the spread of the disease isn’t because of the homeless, but because of rich people moving around the country and internationally.

This is a particularly sceptical view of the government’s take on rough sleeping during the pandemic, but is a view worth considering. Conservative ministers are often guilty of failing to empathise and understand the issues of those in poverty – you can read more about this relating to the criminal justice system in this previous blog post. It could be that without a pandemic, a virus that can infect even the richest in society, the issues of the poorest and most vulnerable would never have been taken seriously or tackled efficiently.

What’s the solution, then?

As Matt Downie from Crisis said in an interview on that same podcast episode, while emergency housing in hotels has been positive, “it isn’t the answer – the answer is a home of their own.” Downie and many others working in homelessness see this as a chance to really put effort into Housing First in the UK.

Downie commented on “the idea that when government is assertive, when it says what it wants, when it funds what it wants, and when it puts principal into action, extraordinary things can happen.” Could this display of assertion and will trigger the chance to finally get Housing First rolled out on a wider scale?

The interview also included a discussion with Maggie Brunjes, from Homeless Network Scotland, who described Housing First as “just a very non-patronising way of redressing the disadvantage that people have often spent a lifetime experiencing, by making no assumptions about them or what they need, and just recognising that most of us, with the right support, can manage our own place.”

This sums up Housing First very well – and there is plenty of evidence to back it up as a scheme that really works; it has eradicated rough sleeping in Finland, for example. Here at Bench Outreach, our team of key workers provides Housing First support for the London Borough of Lewisham. We know first-hand that supporting vulnerable homeless people to have their own space, maintain a tenancy, and rebuild their lives from that space is a crucial and effective way to end homelessness and tackle its main causes.

What can I do?

Write to your MP in support of Housing First. You can find their name and contact details here and a draft letter you can copy across to them just below this. It’ll take you 5 minutes, tops, and will make a difference.

Letter to copy:

Then:

  1. Download Streetlink – you can use it online, or get it as an app. It’s a way of reporting rough sleepers (there are still some out there, even at the moment) to outreach teams who can get them somewhere safe.
  2. Donate to/volunteer with homelessness charities and campaigns! If you can’t donate, could you fundraise or share information to others who can? Could you volunteer (either now, if safe, or in the post-pandemic world)?
  3. Donate to/volunteer with your local food bankhomeless and vulnerable families and individuals are struggling at the moment more than ever.
  4. Share this blog – start a conversation about homelessness. Spread information. Homelessness isn’t not going anywhere unless we kick up a fuss.

Thanks for reading.

Do people choose to be homeless?

Recently, Conservative MP Adam Holloway received criticism for his claims in parliament that many rough sleepers choose to be on the streets. What is it that fuels this idea? To what extent is it true?

As Bench Outreach’s resident Gen Z, I’m the one responsible for managing our twitter and keeping up to date with what’s being said about homelessness online. One thing I can say for certain is that with rough sleepers constantly visible and growing in number, almost everyone has an opinion on homelessness. *sigh*

One of the strikingly common opinions I’ve noticed is that if they really wanted to, there are services that rough sleepers could access that would give them somewhere to stay. The problem, these people profess, is that homeless people want to be homeless. They simply would rather be on the streets and won’t accept help. So, here’s my explanation of why these arguments are overlooking some pretty serious details. (Can you tell I’m fed up with all the dodgy tweets?)

“There are PLENTY of places for homeless people to go if they really want to

If you work in housing or homelessness, you’ll know this is not the case. Because charities are doing great stuff and publicising it well, and the 2017 Homelessness Reduction Act sounds like a very exciting and helpful thing, there’s a misconception that there is a whole bunch of options out there for homeless people – if only they put their minds to it.

Here’s a tweet I came across just the other day:

Right, let me debunk this old chestnut.

Night Shelters

Having only worked for Bench for about 10 months in Lewisham borough, I was appalled to find out how few night shelters open year-round. We are INCREDIBLY lucky to have the 999 Club who run a night shelter that goes on for the whole year. It’s one of about 3 in the whole of London, as far as I know. It’s the only one open year-round in South East London. There are others open in the winter, but they fill up very quickly.

Even with the 999 Club around, it’s only those with a solid connection to Lewisham Borough that can use it. Outside of the winter months, if we get rough sleepers from Greenwich or Bromley, our neighbouring boroughs, they will not be allowed access to the night shelter. That’s because it has such limited space, and is funded by the local authority. And, the 999 Club is constantly working to find funding to keep it going all year. (Click here to find out how you can help.)

Temporary Accommodation

Aside from the night shelter, some homeless people can get immediate and urgent access to temporary accommodation (TA) through the council, while they find somewhere more permanent. This is very expensive for the council and they have extremely limited spaces. To be eligible for TA, a person has to have several complex support needs as supply is so small. I have had countless vulnerable clients rejected for TA; they are turned away and sent back to the streets. This is largely because there are not enough accommodation units, and because local authorities are seriously underfunded by the central government.

Private Rental

Most landlords do not accept people on benefits. I cannot stress this enough. If they do, they’re often exploitative and try to squeeze as much housing benefit out of the system as they legally can, for the smallest and dirtiest rooms in London. Furthermore, without ID and a bank account, it’s almost impossible to sign up for a flat – a really common problem for those who have moved around a lot and lost their ID, and have no proof of address to open a bank account with.

Sustaining a tenancy

As a benefits advice worker, I can tell you that even when rent is paid from benefits, it can go wrong. The system breaks, and rent goes unpaid. This often leads to eviction.

Section 21 evictions, or ‘no fault’ evictions, are still legal despite the government promising last year that they would be banned. This means landlords can evict tenants with very little notice for very small things.

Those suffering with mental health problems may simply be incapable of keeping track of their tenancy. Severe anxiety can mean warning letters aren’t opened. OCD can mean a dirty property that the landlord doesn’t care for gets abandoned. Depression can mean council tax and utility bills go unpaid while a tenant struggles to cope. It’s not as simple as just getting a flat. You have to be well enough, or well-supported enough to keep hold of it.

“People would rather do drugs and drink than have somewhere to live – it’s their decision!”

A couple of weeks ago a video was circulating of MP Adam Holloway saying this very thing. He spent time researching homelessness by rough sleeping around the UK, and said he met people who were on the streets because they depended on begging to fuel their alcohol and drug addictions.

He reported the claims of one rough sleeper that:

“If the public were not so generous and didn’t allow the people to buy the alcohol and buy the heroine, then he would’ve got off the streets an awful lot earlier.”

A similar argument is made by many large charities; by giving money to homeless people, you are likely to be enabling them to stay on the streets because they will be able to buy drugs and alcohol.

Obviously it can seem like people choose to be homeless because they have addiction problems. However, it’s crucial to understand that it’s just not that straight forward.

Why it’s not that straight forward…

One big issue with this rhetoric is the implication that being addicted to drugs or alcohol is a choice. Each time someone says that rough sleepers would rather be outside and able to get hold of drugs or alcohol, they are suggesting it’s a rational decision-making process. First of all, it wasn’t a choice for them to be in this situation in the first place. When you’re in a position where you’re making a decision between a roof over your head and being able to maintain your drug or alcohol addiction, you are already in a really tricky place. People from poorer backgrounds are disproportionately affected by drug and alcohol abuse – you can’t choose the family and neighbourhood you grow up in, and it’s easier to fall into these issues for some than others.

If you’ve ever struggled with addiction or worked with those who do, you’ll know it doesn’t allow people to make rational decisions all the time. In the depths of alcohol or drug use, I’ve seen clients time and time again prioritising things that seem ridiculous to others. It’s scary how quickly addicts can lose control of everyday things – from leaving their rent for so long they get evicted, to forgetting to shower and eat.

You’ll also know that those suffering from addiction will find a way to get hold of drugs or alcohol, whether you give them money or not. You not giving someone change on the overground isn’t going to save them from addiction. Well-funded and dedicated services might. (Radical idea, I know). So sorry, Adam Holloway MP, you’ve not quite got that right.

Crucially, without drug and alcohol services and experts, it can be impossible to recover from addiction. Furthermore, without a home to live in, it’s even harder. This is why it becomes a vicious cycle; people struggle to get clean because they have no stable home, and lose opportunities for housing because they can’t get clean.

For others, the only available housing may be in a hostel where other people are using drugs or drinking. Many find it would actually be a step back to live with other users, scared that they’ll be vulnerable to the influence of others. In our current system, because funds are very low, most of the highest-risk and most vulnerable people are generally put into the same hostel. Local authorities simply can’t afford to pay enough support staff and rent for tenants to have their own space.

Finally, some people are simply not ready for support. We can’t force people to engage with mental health support and drug and alcohol services. Sometimes, these services aren’t even available; with funding cuts they are frequently buckling under financial pressure. In short, tweets like this are missing the point:

What does work, then?

Here I am, preaching Housing First again.

If you’re not aware of Housing First, it’s a programme where a person is given a flat and a support worker who helps them access all the services they need to sustain their tenancy. They aren’t put in a hostel, they aren’t left to circulate systems that haven’t worked for them before, and they have a stable base to build up their lives from.

The problem is, it’s expensive. Ideally, everyone experiencing long-term homelessness would get this kind of support. That’s what they did in Finland – and it basically eradicated rough sleeping. People were housed unconditionally, and provided with support with their issues instead of being denied housing BECAUSE of their issues.

We do this at Bench Outreach. Our Housing First team is constantly hard at work, helping those who have been through the system too many times who have finally been given a place to call their own. It’s an answer to many of the issues discussed in this blog. Sadly, it’s really limited; most boroughs don’t have it, and the council is struggling to procure properties that can be used for the programme. But it’s a start, and a great model for future services.

To conclude…

Sure, this is true:

But it’s much more complicated than just refusing help. Those experiencing homelessness aren’t stupid, ungrateful, or stubborn when they say no to support. We can’t know everything going through someone’s head when they deny opportunities for housing. We can only support them until they are ready to take it on.

So what can I do?

  1. As always, WRITE TO YOUR MP!!!!

You can find out who they are, and their contact details, here.

Tell them how great Housing First is, and how important it is to fund projects like it. Tell them drug and alcohol services need to be a priority.

If your MP is Adam Holloway, send him this blog. Thanks!

2. Support local charities. Support the 999 Club! If you’re local, you could even volunteer- they could do with the help.

3. Be compassionate – remember you don’t know the whole story behind someone’s homelessness.

4. Spread the word! Share this blog. Be annoying and go on about it. Use whatever influence you have to make a difference.

The Benefits System is Causing Death and Distress- Here’s Why

The UK’s benefits system is poorly funded, and designed without empathy or knowledge of the real lives of those living in poverty. Here’s one Bench Advice worker’s experience of what happens when the system goes wrong.

The death of Errol Graham was widely reported last week, a vulnerable man who died of starvation after his DWP benefits were stopped. His body was found by the bailiffs who had come to the house to evict him.

For advice workers like myself who assist vulnerable people to enforce their welfare benefits rights, this story is awful, but not surprising. Every single week I see clients with physical and mental health problems whose benefits have been stopped, sanctioned or reduced for reasons that are unfair, unclear, arbitrary or unlawful.

One of them has agreed for me to share his story. All names have been changed.

John is a long term client at Bench Outreach. He has significant mental health problems and poor levels of literacy. He is a vulnerable adult who cannot use a computer and needs support to access his Universal Credit (UC) account. 

Just after the New Year, John attended the office in a distressed state. He asked me to look at a letter he had received from the council tax department. It informed him that because his Universal Credit claim had been closed, his council tax reduction had been automatically stopped (see previous blog post The Domino Effect). Because John was not able to log onto his online UC account on his own, he had had no idea the claim had been closed. When we logged on to his UC account we discovered that his claim had, indeed, been closed and his payments stopped.

John is too unwell to work; he is not expected to look for work or participate in “work related activity”. His claim had been closed because he did not log on to his UC account and digitally accept his “claimant commitment.” His so-called “commitment” was zero hours of work. 

Despite a note on his journal from me explaining that John is a vulnerable claimant who does not have digital access, only one telephone call was made to John before his claim was closed and his only source of income stopped.

I assisted John to lodge a “mandatory reconsideration” asking the DWP to reconsider the decision in light of the circumstances. It took three weeks of telephone calls and emails to get his UC and council tax reduction reinstated, during which time he had no income and was reliant on the food bank to eat.

The system is not working for vulnerable, unwell clients like John. With a Conservative government likely to be in power for the next 5 years it’s obvious that Universal Credit is not going anywhere. At Bench Outreach we’d like to see the following changes, as a minimum, to support vulnerable and low income clients:

  • A much shorter wait for the first payment. Five weeks without any money is too long and the advance payment system just means that clients have a reduced income for months as they pay it back
  • A clean slate with regard to previous overpayments. The majority of our clients have crippling deductions from budgeting loans or tax credit overpayments, some of them from over 10 years ago
  • Fewer or no medical re-assessments for people who have long term conditions that are not likely to change or improve
  • If a client is vulnerable due to mental or physical health problems, homelessness, domestic violence etc the DWP should make be obliged to speak to the client, their support worker or agreed family members prior to stopping their payments 

John has his UC up and running again, he’s managing. He knows that if there’s a problem he can come to our office to get help and support. Bench Outreach shouldn’t have to exist, a compassionate society should support and protect vulnerable people like John and Errol Graham. Unfortunately the safety net is threadbare and our work is more important than ever.

Our guide to helping rough sleepers this winter

In the festive season, it is not only homelessness charities that are acutely aware of rough sleepers and those in destitute living conditions. It is impossible to ignore London’s growing homelessness problem when you can’t bear the ten-minute walk to the tube, let alone the thought of trying to survive a night outside.

The sight of rough sleepers in the coldest months can also bring a sense of hopelessness for those who can’t see a way to help- so we decided to make a list of things you can do to help homeless people this Christmas and in the following months, from helping them access outreach charities to recognising the signs of health emergencies.

1 – Download the Streetlink App

The best way to get rough sleepers the help they need is to use the Streetlink App or website to alert local outreach teams of rough sleepers. The more detail you can put about where and when the rough sleeper will be bedded down, the better. Describe their appearance and clothing and exactly where they are sleeping for the best chance of them being found. Outreach teams can offer a warm place to sleep and get the rough sleeper on the road to recovery with the support they need to get back on their feet.

You can also volunteer with Thamesreach’s London Street Rescue to go out with trained outreach workers and offer people experiencing homelessness somewhere to sleep. This can make a real difference, and the more volunteers there are, the more people they can reach and take to safety.

2 – Night Shelters

Supporting night shelters can help them to literally save lives by providing a safe and warm space for rough sleepers to stay. When the weather is expected to be below freezing for a few nights, emergency shelters open for extra space. Here is Homeless Link’s list of 2019/20 London winter night shelters, organised by London Borough.

Shelters often rely on volunteers- if you can spare the time, get involved! You can also contact a local shelter to see if you can offer donations of money, food, clothing, hygiene products, or bedding. Make sure you get in touch first to check that your resources can go where they are most needed.

Local to us in Lewisham are the 999 Club in Deptford, and Greenwich Winter Night Shelter. Check out their websites if you want to get involved.

Give clothing or bedding

If someone is rough sleeping, they are at risk of severe health conditions or even death from the cold weather at this time of year. If you are giving clothing or bedding, make sure it’s in decent condition and will last. Good things to give include:

  • Coats, hats, scarves, socks – you can find warm things fairly cheap in high street shops. If you have an old coat in good condition, consider donating it
  • Sleeping bags and blankets – if it’s raining, duvets may not be the best idea as they won’t last long and they can be absorbent
  • Polystyrene or roll mats- these insulate against the cold ground

If you’re not sure, ask someone what they need!

Food and Drink – and a chat!

Buying a cup of tea for someone is a great way of warming them up. Ask a rough sleeper their name and have a chat if you’ve got time- you’ll find you have more in common than you would have expected. Rough sleepers often find they feel invisible and ignored by society, and at Christmas passers by may find it easier to look away due to guilt. You might turn someone’s day around by stopping to chat, and that is well worth your 5 minutes.

Important: it is a myth that alcohol warms you up. If someone is extremely cold, alcohol can be dangerous. Alcohol makes you feel warm as it makes your blood rise to the skin’s surface but away from vital organs. This is why people who have been drinking are more prone to severe illness if they get too cold.

Health Awareness

Homeless people die in winter. According to Crisis, the average age of death for a male rough sleeper is 47. For female rough sleepers, it is only 43.

If you see someone who looks really unwell, don’t assume it’s nothing. Check and ask if they’re ok, and if they are not responsive, call 999.

Signs of hypothermia include:

  • shivering
  • cold and pale skin
  • slurred speech
  • fast breathing
  • tiredness
  • confusion

If you think someone has hypothermia, call 999.

People abusing drugs and alcohol are more susceptible to hypothermia- that often includes rough sleepers.

Drug overdose can also kill- according to the Harm Reduction Coalition, signs of opioid (e.g heroin) overdose include:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Unresponsive to outside stimulus
  • Awake, but unable to talk
  • Breathing is very slow and shallow, erratic, or has stopped
  • For lighter skinned people, the skin tone turns bluish purple, for darker skinned people, it turns grayish or ashen.
  • Choking sounds, or a snore-like gurgling noise (sometimes called the “death rattle”)
  • Vomiting
  • Body is very limp
  • Face is very pale or clammy
  • Fingernails and lips turn blue or purplish black
  • Pulse (heartbeat) is slow, erratic, or not there at all

If you see someone who may have overdosed, call 999 immediately and put the person in the recovery position. Death from overdose can be prevented, as paramedics and some police carry a special injection called Naloxone which can save people who have overdosed.

Talk to Frank has a more detailed guide of how to help a drug user in an emergency.

Make sure you tell paramedics everything you know- they won’t call the police if someone has used illegal drugs.

Get Political

The fact this blog post has to exist is an outrage. Homelessness needs to be stopped altogether, which means the government need to do better. Since 2010, the number of people sleeping rough has risen by 165%.

We always urge you to write to your MP! Make it clear that this issue matters to you. You can find your MP’s contact details here. Going forward, we must insist that this government keeps their commitment to ending rough sleeping.

Hit social media while you’re at it- share this blog, let people know that these issues are rife in our society.

Any Ideas?

We’re always trying to think of the best ways to help people who are experiencing homelessness. If you have any tips or ideas that we’ve missed, do let us know!

Welfare Benefits: The Domino Effect

A Bench Outreach advice worker talks about the slippery slope of benefits problems and how one DWP judgement can have devastating consequences.

Many of the clients who come to see me are on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). This means that they are not currently fit to work due to a mental or physical health problem (or both). Eligibility for ESA is determined through a lengthy form to fill in and attending medical assessments at regular intervals. These assessments usually take place in Marylebone – over an hour and a half on the bus from Deptford on the bus if you are on a low income, or a pricey taxi if you’re not well enough to use public transport.

If you are considered “fit for work” at your medical assessment, or you miss a medical for an “unacceptable” reason then your ESA stops. Immediately.  You can ask for a review of the decision (a mandatory reconsideration) and subsequently appeal but it’s not a quick process. How do you manage when there’s no money coming in in the mean time?

Losing one benefit is bad enough but what I see, time and time again, is that it sets in motion a “domino effect”. Receiving ESA means that you qualify for Housing Benefit which pays your rent (or part of your rent) and council tax reduction which is administered by the council. If your ESA is stopped, the DWP write to your local council who will immediately stop your Housing Benefit and council tax reduction.

This seems like madness. Just because your ESA has been stopped, does not mean you’re actually fit for work and it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve got a job and money in the bank to pay the rent. All this does is stack up rent arrears and increase stress and anxiety for clients who are already struggling.

Image result for job centre

The problem is not just confined to ESA. I saw a client, Sandra, last week who is the main carer for her son. He is in receipt of Disability Living Allowance (DLA), and she is reliant on Income Support, Carer’s Allowance and Housing Benefit. Sandra submitted her son’s DLA form slightly late as she was waiting for medical evidence.

Because the form was submitted late, her son’s DLA was stopped.

Because DLA had been stopped, Sandra was no longer entitled to Carer’s Allowance and this was automatically stopped.

Because Carer’s Allowance had been stopped, Sandra was no longer eligible for Income Support and this was automatically stopped.

Because Income Support had been stopped, Sandra was no longer eligible for Housing Benefit and this was automatically stopped. Her housing association had written to her to advise her that she was already in rent arrears.

Does any of this make sense as a compassionate and functional system? I don’t believe that it saves anyone any money and certainly not any time – it takes the best part of an hour to get through to ESA on the phone. It pushes the work out to advice services and charities which are already under pressure. It causes vulnerable people endless worry and sleepless nights.

People have asked if Universal Credit (UC) would stop problems like this. The short answer is no. There are hundreds of thousands of people still on legacy benefits such as ESA and Income Support. It is likely that many would be significantly worse off by moving to UC under natural migration.

In addition, the link between UC and HMRC means that the benefits system can trawl through all your previous earnings. It can, and will, flag up if you’ve earned even a penny more than eligibility for, say, Carer’s Allowance in the past and claw it back. There’s no limitation period so you can have ongoing deductions for overpayments from 15 years ago.

Of course if you weren’t eligible for Carer’s Allowance, you subsequently wouldn’t have been eligible for Income Support… and the domino effect continues.

Universal Credit: The Limits of Computer Illiteracy

In a world that increasingly depends on computers, the internet, and online communication, the barrier to accessing benefits is getting worse for those who struggle with technology.

Frustratingly, at least half of my working hours are spent helping people to access crucial benefits and housing services online, purely because so many clients have never had the opportunity to learn to use a computer. These services are supposed to be user-friendly, simple, self-explanatory. The main flaw? They are not designed to be accessible without a computer.

Today’s blog looks into the problems faced by those who are not computer literate, and the empathy and patience needed by professionals who help them, especially DWP staff.

Universal Credit: all ‘accessible’ online

Universal Credit, the new Welfare Benefits system, undergoes a huge amount of criticism. However, for most of my clients it has just one major problem: it is pretty much only accessible online.

To register for Universal Credit, the only way to get benefits for the vast majority of new claimants, you have to make an application online. This itself is a big barrier to many claimants, and is something we help people with all the time. But the process is never simple!

Barrier number 1: Poorer individuals and families may not have access to a computer at home. Library and community centre computers are a vital resource, but these services are not always open and often the computers are slowly dying from decades of use. The next best option is to get an appointment with an advice worker- that’s if there is a charity or citizens advice nearby that can help, if you can physically make it there, and if you can fit in an appointment around childcare or working hours. If you don’t know how to use a computer, that’s the only option.

Barrier number 2: For someone with learning difficulties or mental health problems, understanding that they need a username, password, memorable answers, and 16-digit identification code can just be too much. Many are struggling to cope day-to-day; remembering to eat and come to appointments is a struggle, let alone remembering a password.

Barrier number 3: Next, the claimant must have an email address- you can’t open a Universal Credit account without an email address, as they have to email you a verification code. Some clients have never emailed in their life, others have forgotten their email address long ago. Sometimes, a client will remember their email address, but when it comes to getting the verification code, they can’t remember how to log into their email. The Universal Credit website will not let you progress beyond this, meaning I’m often making email accounts as well as benefits applications for clients.

Barrier number 4: After entering what feels like endless details, the claimant has to make an appointment with their Job Centre to open the claim. To do so, you have to call Universal Credit.

Calling Universal Credit

As you can imagine, calling the DWP is never particularly efficient or enjoyable. Calling Universal Credit is often infuriating. At every stage there is an automated message that tells you it’s MUCH better to just go online and sort it out there. You then go through several automated questions, options to dial, and get through to someone after seemingly hours (but often more like 45 minutes) of listening to the tinny hold music version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Poor Vivaldi.

On a more serious note, this phonecall procedure makes you feel unwanted. The repeated attempts to persuade you to go online instead, the long time on hold, the reams of automated questions: they don’t want to talk to you at all. The worst thing is, you are only going to call if you aren’t able to navigate the online system. Being told to go back online is even more frustrating in this situation: if my client could understand the website, they wouldn’t be choosing to go through the painful process of calling.

Often, the advice you get when you eventually speak to a real person is actually quite helpful. Sometimes however, the processes for sorting out a Universal Credit issue are ridiculous. For example, if a client has forgotten their password, they need their personal 16 digit code. 16 random digits obviously aren’t memorable. They will have been written down on a piece of paper by someone at the Job Centre several months ago. When a client is homeless or vulnerably housed, the chances of keeping track of that piece of paper are low. For us in Deptford, our nearest Job Centre can take an hour to get to on the bus. If a client loses their 16 digit number, they have to make an appointment with the Job Centre to get it back before they can reset their password.

For some of our more vulnerable clients, this is simply too much. Having to call, wait, make an appointment, remember the appointment in 2 weeks, travel there, get the number, then make another appointment with me to sort out their account, is just a ridiculous amount to do when everyday life is a struggle. Some clients we see only once, and then they clearly give up with the process, never to get their benefits sorted out. This means they will certainly be destitute if they do not find work. For some, this means resorting to sex work or criminal activity to get by.

When Something Goes Wrong

Universal Credit generally do not send letters, even if you request. “Everything is available to see on your online journal!”, they smugly state at every opportunity.

This can lead to huge problems for claimants. If they can’t look at their online account, they may miss a Job Centre appointment that they’ve been reminded about via email or text on a phone or computer they don’t know how to use. Once, I opened a client’s account for him, only to see in big writing: “Job Centre Appointment in one hour”! He quickly ran to catch the bus and just made it- a near miss. Missing a Job Centre appointment can mean a cut to benefits; it can mean the difference between being able to eat and having to miss meals later in the month.

If the DWP makes a mistake (this happens a lot) and a client doesn’t receive their benefits for some reason, the client may not even realise until a month later, when their money doesn’t come through. Without being able to check online, they will have totally missed that anything was wrong until it’s too late. If they can’t manage to get an appointment with a benefits adviser, they will just have to wait until someone can help them log on and make sense of it all.

So What Can We Do About It?

  1. We must remind each successive government (as they seem to be coming and going every 5 minutes) that their decisions are hurting vulnerable people. They must see beyond their bubble of society where everyone is technologically savvy and privileged, and see the reality of those who experience poverty. We always say this, but seriously: write to your MP. They have to reply to you- your concerns are their job. Remind them there are issues other than Brexit.

We’ve made it very easy: just use this template letter and pop it into an email. You can find your MP’s contact details here.

2. Support local charities. To find out what help is available in your area for benefits/housing advice, there’s a great database on Homeless Link, here. We may be biased, but local organisations can make a huge difference to people’s lives and help them navigate the system we are currently stuck with.

3. Spread the word! Share this article, tell your mates, tell your family. Shout it from the rooftops because this system is not fair. If you have influence, use it to amplify the voices of those who are not heard.

Housing and Benefits Advice: A Typical Week

A brief insight into what kinds of problems are faced by homeless or vulnerably housed clients- this article describes what a typical (part-time) week might look like for a housing and benefits adviser at Bench Outreach. (Precise details changed to protect clients).

MONDAY

Monday morning is for chasing people up. I’ve got a heck of a to-do-list and several calls to make. I’ve made applications for three different clients to supported housing projects, but haven’t heard anything back for a over a month.

I find out that they are all still on the waiting list; I call each of them to explain. They are upset because they have been sleeping rough for long periods of time, but as they are not considered to be in priority need by the council, this is their best option to be housed. I feel uneasy as I end the calls, clients accepting they will just have to make do sleeping outside or in the night shelter for even longer.

In the afternoon, I hold a drop-in clinic at a local community centre in the poorest estate in Deptford. It’s noisy- there’s a children’s holiday club going on in the same room. We huddle in a corner and try and bash out a few benefits problems and social housing applications. Some clients are angry because, although they are overcrowded and need to move their families into a better council house, they have been waiting for well over a year. The council does not have enough properties and simply can’t help people quickly enough.

TUESDAY

I have several appointments booked today. The first one does not show up; often clients cannot attend if they are too sick, cannot afford travel, or simply have lives too hectic to manage. They may not be able to contact me if they don’t have a phone. Some are simply too anxious or depressed to attend.

Someone drops into Bench in a very emotional state because he has received a letter from the DWP about his benefits, but he is illiterate so he does not understand it. The letter says his ESA has been stopped- we think this is an administrative error and spend an hour on the phone waiting on hold, before being told it was just a mistake. No apology. This client has gone without money for a couple of weeks now and is behind on bills as a result. We make a plan together to pay the outstanding bills, and I manage to calm him down.

My next client has been issued a notice of seeking possession for a Section 21 eviction: a “no fault eviction”. She has lived in this flat for 11 years. She has built up a small amount of arrears because her rent has gone up beyond what housing benefits will cover, and she’s been £10 a week short for a few months. The landlord wants their money; I call them to negotiate, but they are adamant they will be evicting this client. The client is terrified and clearly badly affected already by this instability. I tell her I will update her with viewings of different properties nearby when I hear about them. This client does not know how to use a computer at all, so looking online independently is impossible.

Some good news! A client has engaged with mental health services to try and get help for their psychological problems. They have also agreed to get help with their alcohol dependence. This is great- it can be an extremely daunting thing for vulnerable adults to reach out when they need help. Hopefully this is the beginning of more independence, happiness, and health for this client.

WEDNESDAY

This morning I’m running a housing advice drop-in at a local drug and alcohol support clinic. When I arrive, there are already three people waiting. The first feels unsafe in their rented flat because violent drug-dealers are looking for them. They are not eligible for help from the council because if they leave the property, they become ‘voluntarily homeless.’ The client has called the police, but has not been taken seriously due to their prolonged history of drug use and precarious mental health.

Another client is in her sixties, and is feeling domestic violence. I refer her to a local refuge who will arrange a safe time for her to escape. Her family no longer want her around because of her drug problem. She began using partly due to the strain of this abusive relationship, and tells me she is fed up and has thought of ending it all. I offer to call an ambulance if she is feeling suicidal; she declines and gratefully agrees to the refuge option.

In the afternoon I attend the Lewisham Homelessness Forum- there are around 30 different charity workers, council homeless prevention workers, and DWP employees who have come together to discuss how we can target certain problems and update each other on our work in the borough. It’s uplifting to see so many different organisations all working together to help vulnerable people. We discuss issues like modern slavery awareness, how we can contact the government to make larger-scale changes, and how organisations can support each other if they need help.

The forum is also a wake-up call. We discuss the tragic deaths of 2 rough sleepers in the borough. It’s crucial to keep talking about homelessness and why it is ruining and ending people’s lives.

As our advice workers all work for Bench part-time, a three day week has been used for this article.

MORE INFO:

If you want to find out more about our services, head over to benchoutreach.com or email us at declan@benchoutreach.com. If you’re looking for housing and benefits advice, give us a call on 020 8694 7740.

You can also follow us on twitter @benchoutreach or like us on Facebook as Bench Outreach. Give this article a share if you want to help spread the word about the problems faced by homeless people.

If you’re as fed up as we are with the problems that this particularly vulnerable group of people faces, you can write to your MP. You can find out who your MP and their email address here. If you’d like to use our template letter, you can find it here and copy it into the email to your MP. It’s a really simple way of raising your voice and getting these crucial problems talked about. We need to work together if we want to tackle this problem and save lives.

Medical Reports: Lies and Misrepresentations

Having gone through the often extremely stressful experience of a DWP medical assessment, those claiming benefits then have to deal with the resulting report: a report that may bare no resemblance to what actually happened in the examination.

[TW: mentions addiction, eating disorders and mental health]

As a fairly new employee at Bench Outreach, I’d heard some horror stories about the lies told in medical assessment reports about vulnerable clients before. This happens when the assessor makes assumptions or miscommunicates a claimant’s medical problems, affecting their benefits claims. I had not seen it myself until very recently, and it was quite an unpleasant surprise.

Recently, a client I had accompanied to an ESA medical assessment received the resulting medical report in the post. I was totally shocked to read the contents. It did not properly represent their severe mental health problems or alcohol addiction at all.

As I mentioned in a previous post about medical assessments, some clients get extremely anxious and can not handle the environment of the assessment very well at all. The client I accompanied was shaking, sweating and could not understand simple questions as they would normally be able to.* The client needed prompting, reassuring and supporting during the assessment itself, which I was able to help with. They were wearing unclean clothes, including a stained t shirt, and looked very unwell due to lack of sleep and mental health.

The report said ‘coped well with assessment.’ It said ‘was well-dressed’. It said ‘behaved normally.’

These stock answers totally undermine the stress and strain of the assessment for the client, and misrepresent their severe mental health problems.

[Photo by Pixabay]

This was particularly striking because I had been in the room at the time of the assessment, taking notes right in front of the assessor. The idea that they could then write something that did not represent what actually happened, despite having a witness there, is particularly worrying for those who do not have anyone to go with them. For those without an advice worker to provide that support and to challenge the decision made, the system seems particularly harsh. It can even seem exploitative of the vulnerable position of those who do not have the understanding or stability to challenge a decision confidently.

Mental Health is still not being taken seriously.

There were several assumptions made based on the physical health of the client. This is far too common. For example, the report said the client ‘can brush their teeth daily.’ The client, while physically able, suffers severely from self-neglect as they do not have the willpower or mental well being to look after their self. They do not brush their teeth, and say they can barely wash due to depression.

The client also emphasised their suicidal feelings strongly in the assessment, but the report played this down, saying the client had ‘lack of intent’ as they had previously changed their mind about attempts to take their own life. This massively undermined the risk of suicide for this client, who regularly calls me to say they are feeling suicidal.

For this client and so many others, just getting through each day is a huge achievement. To juggle extra commitments like work-related activities, which have been assigned to this particular client following the assessment, can really push someone over the edge if their mental health is not stable.

Not only might they have work-related requirements to fulfil, but their money will be affected if they do not carry these out. Sanctions can be placed on those who do not fulfil requirements, which leads to them getting even less money from their benefits. The loss of income can in turn dangerously affect mental health, and the cycle continues.

The national conversation about mental health is definitely improving but we have such a long way to go. Judging by this and so many other medical reports, mental health still is not seen as a good enough reason to not be able to do basic tasks. It is still not seen as debilitating, despite obvious evidence that it can be.

We have seen similar cases surrounding eating disorders and substance or alcohol abuse. These illnesses are not seen as ‘bad enough’, as they are often invisible. There was a blatant lack of empathy from the assessor who saw my client surrounding his alcoholism. The monotone voice and tired expression was by no means encouraging, and I’m sure for many would have discouraged them from fully explaining their situation. For those with issues surrounding addiction, this is not a supportive environment and the feelings of guilt or embarrassment experienced by many with these problems could easily surface, inhibiting a decent assessment.

What can you do?

Things may seem impossibly difficult, but there are some things you can do to help. Never underestimate the power of individual actions!

  1. Write to your MP. The more we bring this problem up in parliament, the more likely we are to see change. You can find out who your MP is and their email address by clicking here, and if you need some help knowing what to say, you can copy and paste this template letter to email them, to raise your voice and encourage your MP to make a difference.
  2. Support local charities! (OK, so we’re biased, but hear me out!) Charities often don’t have the resources to accompany clients to their assessments. It’s always good to have an adviser or a volunteer to go with a client and hold the assessor accountable. Could you offer your time to go and help out? If you don’t have time but can donate money, that’s always hugely appreciated as well. Find out how to support Bench Outreach here.
  3. Share our posts and other news/articles you come across. Social media can actually be a good thing sometimes! So many people aren’t aware of these problems- I’ll confess that before I worked for Bench, neither was I. There are people suffering without a voice; use your online presence to amplify their voices. And your offline presence- start a conversation, get chatting!

Thanks for reading and supporting our work! Follow us on twitter (@benchoutreach) or like us on Facebook to stay up to date and get updates on further blog posts.

*This client gave permission to be mentioned anonymously.

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