Challenging the council on their spending on people forced to sleep rough

Recently I posed some questions to West Berkshire council to try and find out the financial impact – in terms of cost savings to the council – charitable and volunteer-led organisations have had over the 2017/18 winter.  There are two new volunteer-led, otherwise financially unsupported initiatives I am thinking of in particular. Both were set up in direct response to need and to the failings in local and national government provision, to ‘plug the gaps’.  Both offer slightly different types of support, but each has had a massive impact not just on the well being of people who need help, but also in raising public awareness of what continues to be a growing problem.  Even the last few weeks have seen a rise in the number of people using the Soup Kitchen newburysoupkitchen.org.uk , to record levels. The Healthwatch rough sleeper report Click here for report further highlighted the issues.  At the health and well-being steering group some pushback occurred to have the report quashed,  as it was too close to the truth so personally, I am glad it was published.

So what did I ask? Here are my questions, and my own views on the answers I received.

How much did the Council spend during the winter of 2016/17 helping the homeless with emergency accommodation in Newbury?” 14/06/18

Cllr Hilary Coles – WBC Profile, as the Executive Portfolio: Deputy Leader, Planning, Housing and Waste

responded in writing on 15/06/18:

Between October 2016 and February 2017, the Council spent £365,135 on commissioning services at Two Saints and £82,407 on Bed and Breakfast costs. 

I am pleased to inform you that for this financial year 2018/19, West Berkshire Council has been awarded £210,000 by the Government specifically to tackle rough sleeping and to address rough sleeping nationally with the aim of halving it by 2022 and eliminating it by 2027. We will be working with our partners to make sure that there are sufficient measures in place using this funding to meet this aim. The funding will include measures to remove barriers faced by people who are threatened with homelessness. This may be to pay for something as basic as money for identification documents to providing housing with intensive support for very vulnerable people who struggle to engage with existing services.

In my opinion this is a somewhat self-congratulatory response from Cllr Cole.  Until very recently WBC has not offered any help or even acknowledgment of the work done by The Soup Kitchen or by West Berkshire Homeless over the last winter.  And the success of the grant application mentioned would not have even been possible without WBH’s help with the process.  In fact councillors actively tried to discourage a ‘solidarity sleep out’ while they sat in their chambers the same evening passing yet more financial cuts to vital services and quite possibly raises in allowances to themselves.

Let’s look at these targets more closely. Why are they so far in the future? Will the councillors setting target dates still be in post to take responsibility for fulfilling this pledge?  I challenge the council to act now: there is no time like the present.  Use the grant to fund the work of WBH and other charitable groups shown to be successful. Volunteer led groups  are getting people off the streets, into accommodation and into work.  They need help from both council resources and financially to maintain this success and provide continued help to people in dire need, also clear measures are needed to ensure long term prevention.  One Glimmer of encouragement is that the health and wellbeing board are talking about taking responsibility for a night shelter of some description. Having said that, we are now in July and no plans have been published yet.  Please though WBC, Don’t just waste it on salaries – get it to the people that actually need it.

What do you think? I know many of my labour colleagues have very different perspectives – might we debate this at an extraordinary CLP meeting for example?

I also asked on 14/6/18

How much did the Soup Kitchen and West Berkshire Homeless save you in winter 2017/18?

Cllr Hilary Coles responded 15/6/18:

It is not possible to quantify the amount saved as the services provided are different to what the Council is obliged to provide. The Council commissions the Two Saints hostel to provide Severe Weather Emergency Provision (SWEP) which was underused as homeless people were using the night shelter. There were sufficient spaces at Two Saints under SWEP to accommodate all homeless people without the night shelter being provided.  The service was extended to include day time and food due to the severe daytime cold temperatures.

In my opinion it is pretty easy to quantify this. You simply need to look at what it cost the to run the Night Shelter, and equipment donated to the soup kitchen.  Donations of more than £13,000 to West Berkshire Homeless managed to house up to 13 clients through the coldest months of the winter.  Not to forget the human gift of the volunteer hours: 3 shifts a day for average of 3 volunteers over a 93 day period. People cost money at the end of the day and those volunteers saved an awful lot.  There has clearly been a reason for the increase of rough sleepers. Hilary Cole will have you believe it’s a choice (as said in a BBC southwest interview in December 2017).  As highlighted in the Healthwatch report some people sleeping rough did make a choice: a choice not to use the grudgingly supplied, obligation of West Berkshire Council, due to poor management, abuse, substance temptation or they were refused due to debts as concluded in the Rough Sleepers Report .  HWWB found there were sufficient spaces if you ignore all of those things.  But in my view you can’t ignore them.  The statement above almost says “we’ve got it covered, you aint needed”, but again in my experience as a volunteer, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Having spoken to a number of people forced to sleep rough, and those providing help, it’s clear that councillors are not being proactive. They are only reacting to the pressure put on them, and the eyes of the people of West Berkshire opening.

Tom Tunney

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