Faith Rhiannon Clarke
Cardiff, December: it’s cold and wet but the city centre is laced with lights, the merry-go-round is a blur of colour, there’s an ice-rink, flat-pack style log-cabins selling mulled wine, a market offering bespoke, hand-made gifts…
Then there are the weathered tents, the people cowering by the cash-points, the stained duvet rolled up in the doorway of the closed-down shop, the woman who asks you for change outside Tesco while your hands are full of shopping bags.
But homelessness is like a puppy: it isn’t just for Christmas – it’s for weeks, months…years.
Anybody who has lived in Cardiff over the last five years will tell you that while the city has become increasingly metropolitan, homelessness has become an increasingly visible problem. The juxtaposition of rough sleepers against the string of designer brands, city apartments and blocks of student accommodation is stark.
That the number of rough sleepers on our streets is no longer shocking to many locals reaffirms the scale of the issue. If before it was a matter of whether to buy somebody a cup of coffee or spare some change, now it’s a question of who to help, when there are so many in need?
Last year’s Rough Sleeper Count for Wales was 313, a 30% increase on that of the previous year, with the capital’s figure the highest at 53. That said, statistical data on homelessness is merely an indicator, and is never wholly reliable. Data compiled over a two-week period and strengthened by that of organisations, faith groups and even the police, estimates 92 rough sleepers in Cardiff, and 345 throughout Wales.
So what is being done to tackle the problem? Cardiff Council’s Rough Sleeper Strategy for 2017-2021 discusses a need to work with the Business Improvement District (BID) in better managing the homeless community.
FOR Cardiff is one of the teams representing the business community, aiming to make ‘Cardiff’s City Centre more vibrant and welcoming’ for visitors, locals and business owners.
Executive director Adrian Field says, ‘Within our business plan businesses have outlined a desire to help deal with the issue of homelessness.’
He spoke of their scheme Give DIFFerently, which raised over £5000 through encouraging shoppers to make contactless payments, which were then distributed among charities such as the Wallych, Huggard, Salvation Army and Shelter, to purchase essentials such as furniture, clothes and phonecards for service users.
Adrian suggests that ‘it’s a long-term way of helping them [rough-sleepers] get off the street rather than giving them cash directly.’
One thing outlined on FOR Cardiff’s website is a new team of police officers who will address issues such as aggressive begging, anti-social behaviour and retail crime.
Adrian explains that there have been issues with the homeless congregating outside businesses and sitting at tables and chairs having not paid for anything, and even defecating in carparks and lifts.
Del, who has been sleeping rough in Cardiff for several years, was frustrated by the label ‘aggressive beggars.’
‘They go on about aggressive begging but it just isn’t a thing – where are the aggressive beggars? I can understand if people get intimidated when somebody comes up and asks them for money, but that’s not the intention – we don’t want to scare people,’ he insists.
Sat in the doorway of a vacant office block, a weathered novel in his lap, he apologised to me for raising his voice over the issue, but it was clearly something he was bothered by.
It’s not unusual to see a homeless person being ‘moved on’ from a doorway or pavement in Cardiff city centre. Earlier this year, several of the homeless community had grouped together and created a petition to protest the hostile policing they’d experienced during sporting events such as the Six Nations, where they seemed to be pushed to the outskirts of the city.
However, FOR Cardiff insist that ‘aggressive begging’ is only one part of their new policing scheme, and that the local media have sensationalised it greatly.
‘I think there’s been the perception that the police come along and immediately arrest them or issue what are called section 35 notices,’ Adrian explains. ‘That’s not the first resort at all – they’re following a specific pathway that the council and South Wales police themselves have set up.’
Not everybody is behind the BID and Council’s approaches to managing homelessness in Cardiff. Adam Johannes, an activist and the secretary of Cardiff People’s Assembly has spoken passionately about the issue.
‘Unfortunately, many Welsh Labour Councils have responded to the side effects of extreme poverty with punitive measures,’ Adam says. ‘We must not allow vulnerable people and victims of extremist government policies be reduced to an anti-social behaviour problem.’
But Cardiff isn’t alone in mass homelessness. The Guardian reported that over 440 people died on the streets of the UK over the past year.
The link between governmental policy and homelessness cannot be ignored. The roll-out of Universal Credit throughout the UK means that almost 2 out of 5 households who receive benefits will suffer cuts of around £52 per week.
£52 a week is the difference between eating or going hungry; £208 a month pays somebody’s bills, or half of their rent.
‘Behind the statistics lies suffering on an almost unimaginable scale,’ Adam says. He spoke about how the current political period is reminiscent of the 1980s, when London’s Cardboard City – made up of cartons, mattresses and makeshift braziers – became a symbol of the heartlessness of Thatcher’s Britain – only a mile from the glittering towers of London’s financial centre.
‘Austerity cuts, benefit cuts, injustice in housing has created a perfect storm and is turning inner cities into tent cities,’ he says.
Yet the issue isn’t limited to rough sleepers. Homelessness is often interpreted as having no literal roof over your head, but what about those who dwell in hostels, temporary accommodation, or are hanging on by their fingernails in rented accommodation – these are the people left out of the statistics.
Paul Gwilym of Boomerang Cardiff, a poverty charity, had his own business five years ago but became homeless for nearly a year when his landlord sold up and he couldn’t afford elsewhere.
‘It made me realise how poor the services are for working families,’ he said. ‘I didn’t turn my back on the system, I believe the system turned its back on me.’
Between April 2017 and March 2018 The Trussell Trust food bank network said 98, 350 3-day food bags were given out, with 29% of those going to families on low incomes or relying on benefits.
Paul comments on the gap between the minimum wage and the living wage – ‘what about the £60 difference a week?’ he asks. ‘That’s a gas bill, that’s an electric bill. That’s the choice of a person feeding their kid beans on toast for five days of the week or putting heating in their gas or electric. Is that a society you want to be a part of? It’s certainly not one I want to be part of.’
Dealing with homelessness isn’t just ensuring there are emergency beds available when somebody is cast to the streets, we need to address why people are losing their homes in the first place, whether it’s extortionate rent, agency fees, zero-hour contracts, Universal Credit, a lack of social housing… these are all driving the issue.
The UK can look to countries such as Finland for inspiration. It’s the only EU country where homelessness is decreasing year-on-year. So what are they doing differently?
They’ve simply employed a social housing initiative called Housing First. ‘It involves avoiding all temporary solutions,’ explains Adam, ‘treating a homeless person as a fellow human being, listening to their individual needs, and giving them their own flat or place in supported housing.’
Juha Kaakinen, the CEO of Y-Foundation, the organisation behind Housing First says, ‘All this costs money, but there is ample evidence from many countries that shows it is always more cost-effective to aim to end homelessness instead of simply trying to manage it.’
Aside from the economic factors, it creates a greater force of solidarity within a nation. People are given a sense of worth and a quality of life, and this gives more of an initiative to work and put money back into the economy.
It contrasts greatly to Cardiff and the UK’s policing approach, which at best, seems to brush the issue under the carpet, and at worst, is vilifying and dehumanising.
Homelessness on this scale isn’t in need of management, it’s in need of an emergency approach on a governmental level.
As the fifth biggest economy in the world, we should be looking to eradicate UK homelessness entirely.
As Adam simply puts it, ‘We need a war on poverty, not a war on the poor.’
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