Oliver Townsend sets out a new scheme for the public to alert services to someone sleeping rough
In the many debates and discussions about devolution, it is easy to overlook the positive impact it has had on some specific areas of policy. However, in the housing sector, we can be confident that it has made a very real difference.
One of those key differences is with the Housing (Wales) Act 2014. This Act is revolutionary in the way we approach homelessness, ensuring that local authorities are primed to act earlier to prevent homelessness before it occurs. It has been well-received by services, to the extent that elements have been adopted by England in the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.
There are areas for Wales to improve, of course. Shelter Cymru have identified some areas where homelessness policy in Wales needs to be looked at in more detail. But it remains a good example of where devolution has been a success.
The Housing (Wales) Act is positive, but it pulls into sharp focus the areas where we need to do better. Some of those are identified by Shelter Cymru in the article above. Others have been identified by members of Cymorth Cymru. Increasingly, there is a concern that the most complex cases, with the most vulnerable individuals, are becoming harder to prevent. One argument is that whilst the Housing (Wales) Act is extremely successful in preventing general homelessness, it is not yet having the same success in addressing challenging, complex experiences.
In part, this could be one of the reasons for the apparent increase in rough sleeping, noted by several organisations on the frontline, including the Wallich – and shown in the Welsh Government Rough Sleeper Count this year. A caveat has to be issued here that the figures in the rough sleeper count are not directly comparable to the previous year owing to methodological changes, but any trends will be comparable from this point forward.
Rough sleeping as a stubborn challenge
Rough sleeping therefore, can be seen as the stubborn challenge facing Welsh housing policy. It is clear that more work is needed to support those with the most complex needs. It is also the element of homelessness that is most visible to the public.
The policy responses to rough sleeping need to be developed over the coming years, as some of the responses will need services to operate differently. One way in which the sector could develop is with a more widespread adoption of a trauma-informed approach – linking services to the adverse childhood experiences agenda. Housing departments and services across Wales should aim to ensure their services are welcoming, focused on the individual, and that they take into account the backgrounds and experiences of the person they are supporting. This would help to reduce the numbers of those failing to cooperate referenced by Shelter Cymru above.
Changes to policy and practice in homelessness however, will take time. And in the short term, it is vital that the public mobilises to help the sector in addressing rough sleeping.
This is where Streetlink comes in.
It was first set up as an English system, but over a year ago was launched in Wales. Since then, it has received almost 800 referrals from members of the public.
Quite simply, it gives the public a way to alert services to someone sleeping rough.
Sleeping rough is dangerous, debilitating, and desperate. It harms health, causes isolation and loneliness, and every day of sleeping rough leads to further distance from society. Recent research by Crisis highlighted the appalling abuse and violence that many rough sleepers experience.
Streetlink operates on a very basic level. A member of the public can flag up the person sleeping rough online, by visiting www.streetlink.org.uk. Once this referral is completed, it is flagged up to the relevant local team, who will ensure that it is looked into and that the person on the streets receives the necessary support.
One of the first steps in addressing the problem of rough sleeping is to understand where it is, how much of it is happening, and how long it has been happening for. There are some areas in Wales for example, where referrals are much higher than the rough sleeper count. Cardiff in particular, has received over 600 referrals, but the rough sleeper count suggests only 85 people sleeping rough. Now, some of this disparity can be explained by double-counting, but there still remains a huge gulf between the two numbers.
On the flip side, in Wrexham, there were an estimated 61 rough sleepers last year, but only 24 referrals.
It means that public engagement with Streetlink is mixed, and we are missing out on the full impact it could have.
What can you do?
The challenge is obvious, and the solution deceptively simple: more people need to know about Streetlink, and more people need to flag up people sleeping rough.
For that reason, Rough Sleepers Cymru, of which Cymorth is a member, is asking people and organisations to become Streetlink Champions. This involves signing up as a Champion, where we will send you a poster to display in your windows at home or at your work.
We also encourage people to talk about Streetlink as much as possible. Tell your friends, colleagues and family.
Together, Wales can reduce – or even end – rough sleeping altogether.