Our outreach teams, out on the streets, daily. - 10/09/2018
What most people see when they walk around the city centre, through the underpasses, or to catch a train, is people sat on the street, often tucked inside a sleeping bag, begging for change.
Peoples’ reactions can probably be grouped into 2 main themes;
* How awful, that poor person, why isn’t something being done to help them? It’s a disgrace that they are homeless in 2018. What are the Council doing? Why aren’t they being supported? I’ll give them some change to help them find somewhere to sleep or at least so they can eat later.
* I’m sick of seeing people begging on the street, making people feel uneasy. The Council should do something to get rid of them. It shouldn’t be allowed.
And both reactions are completely understandable. All that you see is the person sat there, and it could be your son or daughter, your brother or sister. And then you walk a little further up the street and you see someone else begging, and that image stays with you all day, nagging at you that something needs to be done, someone needs to do something to sort it out one way or another.
What you don’t see is all of the work that goes on in the city to engage with rough sleepers and beggars, offering help and support, with accommodation, substance misuse, mental and physical health, benefits, food and clothing.
To learn more, I joined the street outreach team from Framework on one of their daily 6am walks around the city, checking on well known rough sleeping spots, and keeping track of who was where. Weather Watch had been on (which is the city’s emergency weather protocol whereby extra crash pad accommodation is offered to anyone who needs it) so it was a relatively quiet shift, but still there were people sleeping rough in the city centre even in freezing temperatures.
The outreach team engage with anyone they find, asking if they have accommodation, if they need help with anything, and signposting where appropriate. They leave their card with a freephone number on and aim to catch up with everyone later in the day, most often at one of the day centres, Archer Project or Ben’s Centre, where vulnerable people in the city are able to get a hot meal and access support and advice.
We found a man huddled in a doorway, under a thin sleeping bag, shaking from the cold. The outreach team knew him by name, as they did with almost everyone we came across that morning. He confirmed that he has accommodation, but it was a 50 minute walk away from the city centre, and he has a health condition which makes getting there difficult, so his preferred option is to sleep rough.
That’s correct, you didn’t read that wrong – for various reasons, one of which is a problem with his legs, he choses to sleep rough.
The next man we came across was perched on a shopfront ledge on Division Street, and he was less willing to chat, although the team recognised him as somebody who they’ve previously had on their caseload. Their card was left, and the man was reminded what time the day centres opened for a hot drink and to get out of the cold.
Along with walking the city centre throughout the day, the team also check on entrenched rough sleepers who prefer to sleep away from the city centre, and have done so for months or even years, refusing all support offered to move on.
We checked on a man sleeping in a disused electricity bunker tucked away on a busy student road, with filth and stagnant water around him. His response to the calls of, “you ok mate?” were “I’m not in”. And for some people on the team’s caseload that’s as much as they’ll get. The man has previously had a mental health assessment and was deemed mentally well, and his refusal to engage with support services left the team helpless as to what they could do. Other than continue to check on him, in the hope that one day he says, “come in”.
Another man with no recourse to public funds sleeps away from the centre, half in and half out a hole in the wall. He is supported by the local community with food and other essentials, but refuses all suggestions that he access the support available in the city. Again, nothing that can be done until he accepts the help offered to him, other than check on him, and let him know the team are there.
Next our attention turned to beggars who had claimed pitches in the city centre. One young lad was sat by the door of the station, cheerily greeting people on their way to work, huddled in a sleeping bag. Again, he was known to the team, and they chatted about who was about, who’d been up to what and with who. He was insistent that he wasn’t telling people passing by that he was homeless, as he has a flat but admitted he hadn’t been staying there recently. The team urged him to go back home to the warm, and he said if it got colder he would do.
We circled back through town to the Framework office, checking on a couple more rough sleepers and beggars on our way, all of them friendly despite the early wake ups and the freezing temperatures. Next job for the team, after a coffee was beginning work on their daily written report to the council, detailing rough sleepers and beggars encountered, and the route we walked, before more outreach throughout the day.
So, what did I learn?
1) The street outreach team know the names and background of pretty much everyone who sleeps rough or begs in the city centre.
2) People will sleep in car parks, on ledges, in doorways and even bunkers half underground, whatever the weather.
3) Everyone sleeping rough in the city has been offered support and advice, numerous times every week. For various reasons in their chaotic lives, many choose not to accept the help offered for weeks, months or even years.
4) The team genuinely care about people on their caseloads, and work hard to try and get them sorted with accommodation, drug and alcohol support, food parcels, benefits etc – the support is offered daily and will continue to be, in the hope that one day it will be taken.
5) Most people who sleep rough in the city have accommodation. It may not be ideal, in terms of location, but consideration is always given to a person’s background, their history and physical and mental health before they are placed.
6) Most people who beg are not homeless, and many of them are begging to support substance addictions. By giving money to people who beg, we are enabling those people who have drug and alcohol problems to continue to lead destructive lifestyles, and not helping them to move forwards with their life.
Alison Riggott, SheffGives