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Monday, December 01, 2003

On the streets

I was up early this morning so as to be able to join the Swansea Shoreline Project on their breakfast run for the homeless. As always this is a sobering experience, made more so by the recent efforts by the Council and others to move rough sleepers on as much as possible. This is all very well but it does not solve the problem, just displaces it. In fact since the night shelter in the City closed down last year there hasn't been anywhere for rough sleepers to go. This is particularly bad at this time of the year due to the cold. There is also no day centre in Swansea so as well as the insecurity of the night, rough sleepers are also on the move during the day. The new anti-social behaviour legislation is being used against them, though to be fair the Police are trying to be helpful. In addition, from 1 January new bye-laws will outlaw drinking on the streets in the City Centre and that will inevitably impact on the homeless population.

I spoke to one rough sleeper who said that they had tried to sleep under a train parked in the station but had not been able to settle in case it moved off during the night. Others referred to the lack of facilities, to harrassment by the authorties or to physical assaults on their person and their anecdotes were backed up by the dedicated team of professionals who are employed to help them. It is not an easy situation by any means. The Welsh Assembly started with the aim that nobody need to sleep rough by 2003. That target was rightly abandoned simply because it was unachievable. There was neither the committment on the part of most Welsh Councils (or the recognition of a problem in many cases) nor the resources to do what needs to be done in terms of new facilities, tenancy support, rehab etc. The amount of money for homelessness grants has increased sevenfold since 1999 and much of it is now paid on a long term basis. But as with the NHS we have yet to see evidence of real changes on the ground, though hopefully they will come. The ruthless effort in England to get people off the streets has proved to be short-term and unsustainable even with the massive resources that were put into that initiative.

The fact is that in 2003 we have not really progressed beyond the Elizabethan Vagrancy laws of the 16th Century. People sleep rough for a variety of reasons but large numbers of them live chaotic life styles, have alcohol or drug dependency and/or mental health problems. They need support to get back on their feet. Those who are given tenancies often return to the streets. I have come to the conclusion that we will always have people sleeping rough. Our job must be to help them survive those stages of their life and to assist them in finding alternative and viable life choices. If we don't do that then we have failed as a civilised society.

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