Despite the affluence of York, shelters for those without a bed for the night are struggling to cope, as Bobby Higson discovered whilst volunteering
If asked to list the first images that come to mind when thinking about York, it’s fair to say poverty, desperation and substance misuse are not top of the list. Instead, we think of a prosperous tourist destination, an affluent student population and the postcard-picturesque streets and lanes, which we students flit through day to day. But beneath the gothic towers of the Minster, the greenery of the campus fields and the china teacup charm of Betty’s, there exists a pertinent lack of affordable housing for many people; a problem which in many instances is exacerbated, if not begun by, the issues of mental health, domestic violence, irreconcilable family breakdown and substance addiction.
The situation in York for the homeless today remains precarious. The City of York Council’s Homelessness Review and Strategy points towards part of the problem: excess demand for affordable accommodation, a thriving higher education sector and rising land and property prices. In addition to this, a projected population growth of 21% between 1996 and 2021 assures us that homelessness is a serious issue to be tackled and will continue to be in the future. In 2004/2005, 1,489 homeless presentations were made to the council with an acceptance rate of 28%.
But government statistics do not reveal the true extent of the problem. There are also the so-called ‘hidden homeless’, those who are not yet included in government statistics because they haven’t made contact with the council. The Government only collects statistics on those people who have applied to local authorities for help, which tend to be families with children and others considered to be especially vulnerable. Official figures, therefore, do not include overall statistics on the number of single homeless people. The levels of homeless single people and childless couples is continually under-recognised and so remains ‘hidden’ – ‘hidden’ because friends and families of members of this group are more likely to give them food and a bed for the night. In an attempt to identify the scale of the problem, the charity Crisis has suggested that there are 400,000 single homeless people in England.
The streets reveal the harsh realities beyond the government figures and council literature
So who are the homeless in York? Though there are some who may have been on the harsh end of insurmountable rent and mortgage arrears, the sad fact is the majority comprise those whose circumstances are of a far graver severity – young offenders, care leavers, ex-offenders, those leaving institutions or teenage parents with nowhere to go. The second most common reason for homelessness in York involves the breakdown of relationships, a majority of which comes about as a result of domestic violence. Though York has been successful in keeping the number of people sleeping on the streets down, there remains huge challenges in the anticipated increase in homelessness figures; a challenge York City Council have acknowledged and are determined to fight.
But as I walk through the streets of York, covered in snow and bitterly cold, I come across one homeless man who reveals the harsh realities beyond the government figures and council literature. As the cars speed past, spitting sludge onto the blanket covering his legs, Graham talks about his situation.
“I’ve been homeless for fourteen months, yet the council won’t recognise me as homeless and so I can’t get help.” But why is this, I ask. “I dunno”, he says. “It’s fucking stupid. I’ve got three kids here in York, I’ve had a council house, I was born in Fulford hospital yet the council won’t recognise me as homeless.” He speaks with an indignant and angry tone; a product of more than a year of living on the streets and hand to mouth. Why the council won’t recognise him, or can’t recognise him, he doesn’t say. However, situations such as Graham’s affirm the problem of homelessness that won’t register on official figures. I ask him whether York is doing enough to re-house the homeless, and his answer is clear: “No. No way.” I offer him some soup and tea and ask what he thinks about the work of the night shelters that offer a bed for the night: “Yeah they help,” he reflects, “but they’re always full. Always turning people away. There just isn’t enough room.” It’s a desperate situation and as I leave him, the weather turns slightly colder. Tourists flock past, cameras poised at the Minster.
He is not alone in being hidden from the statistics. The numbers only go so far. Beneath the economics, volunteers like myself see the human face of homelessness issues “often, the harsh realities of spiralling patterns of drink, drugs, domestic violence and depression. It’s the statistics regarding young homeless people that really drive the point home. Government figures show that a significant proportion of young homeless people are young offenders or care leavers. In the period of 2004/2005, the second biggest category of priority needs acceptances of ‘homeless households’ were sixteen and seventeen year olds and vulnerable young people. The fact that some sixteen year olds have nowhere to live, don’t know where their next meal is coming from and have no-one to depend on is an incredibly unsettling truth, especially in modern Britain.
Night shelters need more help and suffer problems of excess demand over supply
The situation does not bode well given the statistics regarding the levels of education of the homeless. Compared to the general population, homeless people are less likely to have acquired educational or vocational qualifications. Crisis indicates that around 30% to 50% of homeless people are reported to have no qualifications. According to a 2001 review for Scottish Homes of life skills training for homeless people, “many homeless people do not have the basic literacy and numeracy skills required to deal with day-to-day living”. The undertaking of re-housing and resettlement programmes are likely to be more of an arduous task, given this stubborn disparity in literacy and numeracy levels. Attempting to resettle someone into the community with a lack of a basic education is therefore an uphill struggle.
There are groups in York that do work tirelessly against the tide of homelessness, such as the Peasholme Resettlement Centre in Stonebow, Baseline, the Salvation Army and the Arclight Shelter on Leeman Road, whether it is trying to re-house somebody or merely providing them with a bowl of hot soup and a bed for the night. Such organisations desperately need more help, and are fraught with problems of excess demand over supply. Though the Arclight shelter has been operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year since December 2003, beds are just in too short supply.
Talking to the staff at the Arclight revealed some of the problems. Though they can offer someone a bed for the night and a hot meal, there just isn’t enough room for everyone. The work of Arclight thrives on the hard work of a dedicated staff and group of volunteers, but with only 42 beds to offer, people are often turned away back into the streets from which they’ve come. Staff can only provide them with some food “a few sandwiches maybe to see them through the night. The current building is cramped and does not meet hostel inspectorate standards and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) considers the living conditions to be amongst the worst in the country.
However, the ODPM suggests that the problem of national homelessness is getting better and is encouraged by recent findings. The 2005 rough-sleeping estimate shows 459 people were sleeping rough in England on any single night, while in 1998 there were 1,850 rough sleepers on the streets on any single night. The Government trumpets the success of this reduction as a result of effective partnership between local authorities, voluntary sector agencies and others.
In recent months though, the situation in York for hostels hasn’t been so rosy. Plans for the creation of a new Arclight hostel and relocation to the former Shipton Street School were halted because of opposition from nearby residents with worries of the levels of noise and crime that such a move would entail. Arclight was eventually forced to drop the proposed move and, because of the delay, lost Â£750,000 of the Â£2.58 million of Government funding allocated to the proposed project. Furthermore, though the number of rough sleepers may have declined, the long-term ‘entrenched’ rough sleepers “those with drug or alcohol problems – have become proportionately more significant.
Though York City Council has met national targets on cutting numbers, there remains a significant challenge in the prevention of a new generation of rough sleepers. In attempting to rebuild the lives of those made homeless, the maintenance of suitable and stable accommodation can be troublesome. Tragically, some will simply pursue the cyclical path of rehabilitation and the subsequent falling into old habits “as one worker put it, “to be clean, yet to be back on the gear in a matter of months.” It’s a sad fact that many people who have been resettled, provided with housing, merely end up back at shelters such as these, unable to hold down a job and unable to silence their addictions.
Student worries of debt and fees appear to be battered into insignificance. Though we may have anxieties about our finances as students, watching our loaned pennies along the way, let us remember that at least we have somewhere to go home to. In a city of affluence and a nation of rising living standards, it seems starkly disconcerting that homelessness remains rife. So, what can we, as students, do to help? Well, whether it’s donating to homeless charities, wandering over to the Student Action office to volunteer or putting our hands in our pockets to buy a Big Issue, we are doing something. Surely, it’s time we raised greater awareness of the problem here in York and engaged practically, helping where we can. Should accident of birth or circumstance have dictated otherwise, it could have been us climbing into the bunk bed of a shelter tonight and it could have been us with our hands stretched through the hatch of a soup kitchen. Let’s be grateful it’s not.
Charities in York: how you can get involved
18 The Stonebow, York, (01904) 627228
The Peasholme Centre is a Charitable Company. Founded in 1988, it provides crisis and resettlement services to single homeless people. The Peasholme Centre Charity enables individuals to access accommodation for their needs.
The Salvation Army
York Corps, Gillygate, (01904) 630470
A charity and social services organisation offering a variety of programmes including soup runs, breakfast clubs, evening support groups (emotional, spiritual and physical), provision of food and clothing, and advice and referral.
Women’s Aid (York)
PO Box 457, York, YO1 9YJ
Refuge (01904) 646630, Outreach (01904) 646036
Provides accommodation, advice and support for women and their children escaping physical and/or emotional violence.
Bullnose Building, Leeman Road, (01904) 630500
Arclight works closely with York City Council, The Peasholme Charity and The Salvation Army as a key player in the delivery of York Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Strategies. A night shelter, providing food and beds.
You can also contact Ben Pickett, YUSU Student Action Officer, on [email protected] or extension 3133 for more information.