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.

Living Off the State: What Covid-19 Reveals about UK Attitudes on Claiming Benefits

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 and UK lockdown, many in the UK are now left worrying about their jobs, homes and finances. The government has faced a sudden and urgent pressure to support thousands of people as they find themselves without work and income – and suddenly, people who never expected to are living on benefits.

With so many more people having to depend on government grants, benefits, and special payment arrangements, I couldn’t help but think how the idea of ‘living off the state’ has taken a dramatic new angle.

Fascinatingly, the otherwise relatively ‘hands-off’ Conservative Party have been forced to spring into action, providing huge sums of money to try and support businesses and individuals who risk losing everything as they have to adapt or close due to the pandemic. Politicians (including the Prime Minister) who have consistently voted for cuts to benefits, implemented austerity measures that put huge strain on the NHS, as well as under-funding health and social care, education, and social housing, are taking actions we never would have expected.

As a benefits advice worker, I have seen countless working-class and extremely poor individuals struggling to get by on Universal Credit. Before the pandemic, for over-25s the standard rate was £317.82 a month, while under-25s got just £251.77. It is no surprise to see food bank numbers on the increase and street homelessness up by 141% over the last 10 years. Now, with the outbreak of coronavirus forcing almost 10 times as many people to apply for Universal Credit, Rishi Sunak has announced that Universal Credit will rise by £1000 a year. Meanwhile, Statutory sick pay has gone up (as of 6th April) from £94.25 to £95.85 a week.

Obviously in times of crisis the government has to take unprecedented measures to keep the economy afloat. However it is particularly hard-hitting looking at Boris Johnson’s voting record, showing he has voted to reduce spending on welfare benefits 19 times – that’s every single time he has voted on benefits spending. He has literally always voted for benefits cuts.

Why should this bother me? It’s increasing and that is wonderful news, right?

It is indeed wonderful news that those claiming benefits will have more to help them in times of poverty and need. I am bothered by the conditions it took for this spending to take place. Because it wasn’t until people that our government could relate to, those they knew and, crucially, respected were having to rely on state intervention to survive, that they decided to increase the amount available. It wasn’t until the economy on a larger scale was at risk that action was taken to alleviate financial hardship.

In British society, as far as I have seen, there is a common idea of what ‘kinds of people’ are on benefits. So many clients of mine are embarrassed that they have to ‘live off the state’; they know the stigma and they are aware that others will think they are lazy or even immoral. Because usually the poorest people are on benefits, many middle class people and professionals do lead very different lives to those claiming benefits. They think of them as other, often as less intelligent or not hard-working enough. Right wing politicians often push the idea that if only you try hard enough, you can overcome hardship and become financially comfortable. One look at the benefits system shows that their philosophy is based on the theory that if you make life on benefits as difficult as possible, and if you tell those with severe disabilities and illnesses they must work, then they will be forced to do so.

The thing is, the welfare state was always meant to be a safety net. It is supposed to support those in need, who struggle to find work or maintain work due to health issues beyond their control. Yet still, the stereotype of benefits claimants is lazy, less intelligent, rough, or even violent.

Covid-19, however, has imposed just a couple of the adversities so often faced by those in this country who live below the poverty line onto ‘the rest of us.’ That is, onto those who have been lucky enough to find themselves in work over recent years, or with good enough health to sustain employment.

With Covid-19, the safety net that helps those in times of sickness, or lack of job opportunities, is suddenly needed by a massive percentage of the population.

It was this extension of job-instability and financial anxiety to ‘the rest of society’ that partly prompted the Conservative government to finally raise benefits to something resembling an amount you can survive on.

It’s not just benefits; the government has offered to pay 80% of the wages of those being ‘furloughed’, those made temporarily redundant due to lack of available work. Again, this is really great and necessary to keep people going and the economy functioning – but I can’t help recalling other times in history when people lost their jobs due to workplace closures beyond their control and were given no support by the government. Think of Thatcher and the mine closures in Wales and the North of England; work became nonviable, and to this day entire towns built around collieries are still suffering the consequences of the government failing to provide alternative opportunities. There are countless other examples of industry and factory closures that have taken people’s livelihoods and have followed the same path.

Where was this compassionate safety net then?

It takes the middle classes to be hit, even for Johnson himself to be infected with Covid-19, for the welfare state to kick into action properly.

Where has this compassion been for the last 10 years?

As people have starved to death from benefits cuts, relied more and more on food banks, and struggled to feed their children, austerity-enforcing politicians turned a blind eye and allowed the NHS, homelessness support services, addiction services, social services, and endless other amazing facilities to be starved of resources. I can’t help but think this is related to the class backgrounds of the majority of those who run our country. They have been irresponsibly detached from the realities of daily life for those who usually experience intense poverty. It took a pandemic and the extension of some of these difficulties to ‘everyone else’ for the welfare state to be taken seriously and supported properly.

If one good thing comes from this crisis, I want it to be an increased understanding of the instability, anxiety, and distress experienced by benefits claimants on a regular basis. As more and more people have no choice but to rely on the state, I hope they realise how lucky we are to have the welfare state, and how difficult it can be psychologically and financially to be forced to live off it. I hope this will lead to a revitalised approach to the welfare state and its importance as we finally recognise that we would be nowhere without it.

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.

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.

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