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On the streets

Jessie 3

A few weeks ago, a friend offered me a ticket to the Garden Court Human Rights Film Festival. Without knowing anything much about it—but because this friend is particularly judicious—I puffed from the wrong location to the right one in just enough time to collect my free glass of orange juice and squeeze onto the bench. And so it was that in the same week NPC published a report that looks in part at homelessness in Westminster, I watched a documentary entirely focussed on this issue.

In On the streets, filmmaker Penny Woolcock spends eight months sharing the lives of the homeless, filming as they eat, sleep and socialise and attempting to draw out the root causes of their dilemma. She becomes close to some of her subjects, and through fragments of conversation pieces together their harrowing back stories. Without commentary, but by opening a window onto their daily lives, we learn that most come from problematic family backgrounds, and that those who do not have a drink, drugs or mental health problem may find that the conditions on the streets create one. While many factors are unsurprising—neglect and childhood abuse being the major culprits—others are harder to grasp.

The issue is this: that the very real problems of homeless people have little to do with the lack of a roof over their heads or a bed to sleep in. They are deep-rooted and far less easy to remedy. More than anything else, Woolcock captures the feeling of camaraderie and kinship sleeping rough brings. Despite efforts of charities to move people into homes, the streets are often what they know best and where they feel safest.

Westminster means government, politics and royal weddings. The backdrop of historic landmarks—Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey—royal parks and unrelenting shoppers, are the enduring symbols of power and prosperity. But the UK is home to many hidden problems, and Westminster is no different. NPC’s report on Understanding social needs in Westminster reveals some startling findings. It is one of the most densely populated boroughs and has one of the highest population turnover rates. Inequality is stark, with pockets of severe deprivation in the north west and south. And it is home to a staggering 25% of all rough sleepers in England.

As the report shows, between 30%-50% of single homeless people have mental health problems, with Westminster ranked as the 10th highest area of need in the country. But personal factors are only one part of the story. Many of the structural shortcomings of our current social fabric help to explain the context of individual homelessness. These include:

  •  the state of the economy;
  • constraints on affordable housing in some areas;
  • social trends such as increases in family breakdown and immigration, which raise the number of households needing homes; and
  • weakness in other support systems.

New caps to housing benefits will mean that many people can no longer afford housing. Westminster Council has estimated that over 5000 households will be affected, with a significant proportion of those having to move out of the borough. Some might be at risk of homelessness.  With figures getting worse, it is clear that addressing the problems of homelessness requires a proper understanding of the size of the issue, and of its association with ill health. Without more affordable housing or better strategies to prevent homelessness in the first place, we need to support community organisations working on priority needs, offering targeted healthcare interventions and outreach programmes.

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