The rise of homelessness in Wales is an avoidable tragedy – we should help them, not shun them
Mabon ap Gwynfor, Plaid Cymru Denbighshire County Cllr
When you hear something about homelessness what do you think of?
In my experience, most people when asked this question think of rough sleepers. Many conjure up images related to drug overdoses or alcohol misuse.
After all, that’s what we’ve been shown in news items and current affairs programmes on the television over the years.
It’s sad to say that Wales and the UK has a growing number of rough sleepers, and some do indeed suffer from substance or alcohol misuse and need our help.
Many rough sleepers also suffer with mental health issues. They are vulnerable people who deserve our compassion and require suitable support services to address their complex needs.
In 2018/19 there were an estimated 349 rough sleepers in Wales. Needless to say, that’s 349 too many. However, that figure itself is also probably far too low, as the method of assessing the number of rough sleepers is fundamentally flawed.
It’s done by having someone walk around on on Friday night in November to count the individuals that are literally lying down on the floor.
This fails to take into account the fact that rough sleepers sleep during the day in the winter months and walk around at nigh time to keep warm, and also that many authorities drive rough sleepers away from town and city centres – pushing the ‘problem’ elsewhere.
But homelessness is much more than rough sleeping. Rough sleepers only represent a very small percentage of homeless people in Wales. There were over 11,000 households (not individuals) in Wales that were deemed to be eligible and needing assistance because of homelessness in 2017-18.
Many of them stayed with family or friends. Others were placed in temporary accommodation. And some found other alternatives. And too often the temporary accommodation is pitifully inadequate for their needs and are overcrowded. Hardly any have somewhere to call home.
Such is the case with Faye (not her real name) who I met this week.
Faye is a mother of three, and in July last year she and her boys, aged 19 and 10, found themselves homeless through no fault of her own. Since then they’ve been placed in ‘temporary accommodation’ – a hotel and the Rhyl sea-front.
Last week she heard that the ruling cabinet on Denbighshire County Council effectively considers her one of society’s undesirables. The Council have informed the hotel in question that all homeless residents placed there by the Council will be moved out because of the “potential negative impact on the tourist and regeneration programmes for the town”, and just to make a fine point of it, “We all know how much money we have been spending on regeneration in Rhyl.” Note the quotation marks.
Yes, this was actually said out loud. This has quite rightly been called out for what it is: social cleansing.
Just think if you were in Faye’s position. How would you feel?
This is Faye’s story.
Twenty years ago, she received the best news that she could imagine. She was told that she was pregnant with a healthy baby boy. She watched as her tummy grew, full of expectation.
However, as the baby became a toddler she was told that her pride and joy suffered from crippling health problems that meant that her beloved son would live his whole life in endless debilitating pain.
Then to make things worse the relationship with the baby’s father soured and became violent, to the point where she had to leave.
She moved eastwards to Rhyl and found herself a house to rent. Because of the boy’s several health conditions, including Type 1 Diabetes, Faye can’t work. She’s a full-time carer, easing her son’s interminable pain as much as she can and ensuring that numerous medicines are administered to him daily.
Her eldest son is on tramadol, co-codamol and numerous other medication and might soon have to be prescribed morphine.
He can’t go out, play with friends, go for walks, in fact he can hardly get out of bed. He’s consequently plagued by depression and anxiety which require another set of medicines.
To make life a little bit more bearable for her son in Rhyl she asked her landlord if he would be willing for her to make adaptations to the house – a bedroom downstairs; a wet-room; and other changes. The landlord refused, and over time the house became unbearable for her son.
She didn’t know what to do or who to turn to. Her son was in constant pain and failing to put on weight. Her other son was suffering breakdowns in school, and she was in a pit of despair.
So, she contacted a housing charity for assistance, and they in turn put her in contact with the Homeless team on Denbighshire County Council.
In July last year, she was declared homeless and placed in temporary accommodation, in a hotel in Rhyl.
She and her boys have now been there for seven months as the authority struggle to find a suitable housing solution for her and the other dozens of families who are placed in temporary accommodation, with diminishing resources and a lack of social housing stock.
Life for Faye and her family is extremely difficult. She can’t cook food as and when she wants, because she’s got no kitchen let alone an oven. She can’t even store food, because she’s in a hotel.
Her son’s type 1 diabetes means that he needs to get food on a regular basis, but they must go out to eat several times a day, which is far more expensive than home cooking (added to this, she recently found out that her son’s eyesight was diminishing because of his diabetes on top of everything else).
She had to fight three years to get PIP for her now adult son, and her own income is pitifully low, because of her role as a full-time carer. On top of this Faye and her family are homeless.
She needs to stay in the Rhyl area because this is where her son’s health network is; and her other son is in school there as well. The fact that she’s only a couple of miles away from the hospital also gives her ease of mind.
Faye and her family are real people. I spoke with them at length this week.
They’re not mere statistics. They’re not undesirables.
In fact Faye was extremely well presented, and proud. She’s the polar opposite of the image some have of a homeless person.
Yet, without knowing her, without having spoken to her, and without discussing with her, she’s been told that she doesn’t fit the image that the Council wants to portray.
She’s told that her presence there isn’t good for the new image that the Council are trying to create for the town.
She’s homeless. She’s extremely vulnerable. She has a young family and one very poorly young man in her care. What has she done to deserve being treated this way?
What’s gone wrong with society? Why has she found herself in this position in the first place? She needs our help.
Both the Westminster and Cardiff Bay Governments are culpable to a greater or lesser degree for Faye’s situation. But neither can Denbighshire County Council wash their hands of any responsibility either. Last month they passed a budget which included cutting £74k from the Homeless budget (my Plaid colleagues and I voted against the budget).
Homelessness is an increasing problem and the stats haven’t caught up with Universal Credit yet. We’re likely to see homelessness on the rise again.
We shouldn’t accept it. But we need to admit that it’s a thing. We can’t just brush it away and pretend that it’s not happening.
We can’t just try to move it along because it doesn’t fit a false image that we’re trying to create. Life isn’t Instagram after all.
So, what’s to be done?
I can’t pretend to know the answer. I do know that austerity is making things infinitely worse. It means that there’s less money made available for the services that prevent homelessness and assist those in need.
There’s less social housing, and there’s a chronic lack of single unit homes for single people and couples. Austerity needs to end.
The best way to tackle homelessness is to provide people with a home – a housing first policy. Housing is, after all, a basic human right.
But it’s far easier to tackle the problems that have led to an individual or a family being made homeless and subsequently putting them on the correct pathway that suits their needs if they’re in a secure home, than dealing with their problems if they’re in the midst of all the chaos associated with being homeless. So, we need to invest much, much more in developing social housing.
Our development plans need to reflect community need, and not answer the demands of developers. We don’t need more five-bed executive homes here. If anybody does desire such a house then they can buy a plot and build it.
What we do need are more houses to rent at an affordable level. We also need to tackle the fact that many private landlords now refuse to accept people on benefits. I’m currently dealing with four families who are either homeless or about to find themselves homeless.
In three of those they’ve been refused private housing because they’re on benefits. In two of them the young mothers are victims of domestic abuse.
So, it seems to me that we need more refuges for the victims of domestic abuse as well.
And as a short-term action here in Denbighshire we need to reverse the decision by Denbighshire County Council to cut £74k from the Council’s homeless budget in order to give the homeless prevention team the funds they need to do their job (it’s worth noting here that they do fantastic work, and they can’t be thanked enough).
People shouldn’t become homeless in 2019. It’s an avoidable tragedy, yet it’s been allowed to happen at an increasing level.
Faye and her family just want their dignity back. They simply want to live their lives in stable accommodation and concentrate on making life more bearable for the eldest son, while giving his brother the best opportunity for him to develop to be the best he can be. Is that really too much to ask?
Let’s raise our voices to say that we won’t accept this, and that we demand action to end homelessness.
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