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Tuesday, 22 August, 2000, 17:36 GMT 18:36 UK
Sleeping rough - The Homelessness Tsar answers your questions

The number of homeless people sleeping rough on the streets of Britain has fallen by a third in the last two years, according to the latest government figures.

But that still leaves more than a thousand people with no roof over their head, and an extra 9.5 million has been pledged.

What more needs to be done? Louise Casey, head of the Government's Rough Sleepers Unit answered a selection of your questions in a live forum.

  Click here to watch video coverage of the forum  

Jenny Parks, UK: Should I give money to the homeless? Do Big Issue sellers "perpetuate" the problem of homelessness?

Louise Casey: I feel that it is very much down to you to decide whether you want to give to people who are on the streets. We don't know who is out during the day apart from "Big Issue" vendors. We do know that there are people who sleep out on the streets in the early part of the morning who are terribly ill, who need a great deal of help and the charities helping them often need a helping hand either through volunteering or mentoring. I would actually encourage people to help rough sleepers through other organisations and through their time. As regards the "Big Issue", it was groundbreaking when it was set up in that it provided a really good alternative to the public handing money out on the street. What I like about the "Big Issue" is that it is moving people away from homelessness. We've just given the organisation some money for the next couple of years to bring down the amount of time someone might actually sell the paper and to help vendors with education, training and employment.

Paul, England: Over the weekend I followed two police officers around the streets of Oxford, and watched as they threatened every homeless person they came across with arrest unless they "moved on". This appalling behaviour from Thames Valley Police was apparently the result of a tourist, who had complained about being asked for spare change by beggars as he took in the local scenery. What is required to improve the lot of homeless people is not just the "sticking-plaster" solutions that have been offered by the Rough Sleepers Unit so far. The decriminalisation of 'begging', so that a homeless person who is politely trying to scrape together 20p for a cup of tea cannot be arrested, is a priority. I'd like to know why Ms. Casey is not campaigning for this basic but essential change to the law.

Louise Casey: Well, obviously, begging is very different to rough sleeping and I don't know who the police were approaching during the course of the day. I don't know whether those concerned were people disturbing the general public or whether they were just sitting there and the police decided to give them a hard time. I'm concerned about rough sleepers who are out in the early part of the morning rather than beggars and others who are out on the streets during the day. Begging, itself, isn't a criminal offence unless it's aggravated begging. It has to be proved in court that the person involved is actually hassling the public.

Sara, UK: Given the apparent dramatic decrease in the number of people sleeping rough - has there been a marked increase in hostel and single person accommodation? And if so where? What long-term solutions are there in place for these people who clearly need more than just a roof over their heads?

Louise Casey: When the Prime Minister launched our strategy in December, the main elements were: helping people out there tonight as well as concentrating on drug, alcohol and mental health problems. We've put a lot of specialist workers out onto the streets so if a homeless person has a mental health problem, we're actually dealing with that. Obviously, we've built new hostels where they're needed and some of that will be happening over the next 12 months. However, a lot of this marked decrease is, I think, down to what we have done in helping people with their problems through detoxification etc. The problem of rough sleeping is much more complicated than just providing hostels.

Gary, England: Who will get the extra 9.5m, given that out of a total budget of 250m only 4m was allocated to be used by rough and ex-rough-sleepers themselves? Remembering that a total of 40m worth of bids went in for this 4m. Surely, not the charities again?

Louise Casey: It's 200m over three years. We're already putting through decisions we made last year about, I think, 20 to 22m outside London. There's a further 9m that we announced today which brings us up to just under 30 for outside London. In London, we're putting about 80m into building homes and the rest of the money is going into projects for former rough sleepers who are rebuilding their lives. A lot of the money is going into charities and other organisations that have long track records of working with people on the streets. The 4m is not a small amount of money in terms of the Rough Sleepers Unit budget and we've done some really courageous stuff with groups such as "Huge Move".

Sarah, England: Congratulations for being on course to reach the Unit's target. However, as you are well aware, there is still a lot more that needs to be done. We would like to know more about the Unit's prevention strategy for young homeless people. We are aware that the Unit's long term efforts will be targeted on young people leaving care, people leaving prison, and people leaving the armed forces. However, this is merely the tip of the iceberg, not all young homeless people are care leavers nor are they always visible in rough sleeper counts. What will the Unit be doing to ensure that there is a sustainable solution for all vulnerable young homeless people? Has the Unit considered the vital contribution that Family Mediation can play in preventing homelessness by sustaining indigenous support networks?

Louise Casey: I'm acutely aware of how much work we've to do to prevent particularly young people but also those who are coming out of the armed forces who quite often are not young, ending up on the streets. As regards prevention, the Department of Health for example, is putting a lot of money into something called "Quality Protects" which is trying to protect the quality of care-leavers' lives. We're also working closely with local authorities in England. We recognise that the prevention strategy is tough work but ministers and the team in our unit take it incredibly seriously.

Darren, UK: You say that the number of homeless has fallen, but I still see as many homeless people living rough in Brighton, where I live. What are you going to do to stop the influx of homeless people, to popular towns like Brighton. Most homeless are there because the tourists are easy pickings. Judging by their accent most are not from Brighton, but other places in the UK.

Louise Casey: In terms of rough sleepers, although there are some new people who come from the surrounding areas, a lot of them are actually from Brighton and Hove. We've had quite a determined strategy in place for a few months with a contact and assessment team going out regularly and working with organisations like Brighton Housing Trust. We're helping people with quite severe problems who've been out on the streets for some time. However, we recognise that we cannot be complacent.

Chris, England: Do job centres provide openings for homeless people and schemes to house them with the earnings from the work they find them?

Louise Casey: We find that rough sleepers find it more difficult to get into mainstream services such as job centres largely because of mental health problems, drug problems and alcohol problems. Initially, we want to help people into hostels and other forms of accommodation and then link them in with job centres. In London, together with the Employment Service and the Departments of Health and Social Security, we're setting up a one-stop-shop service so that there is somewhere that is very accessible for all homeless people in London, not just rough sleepers.

Anke, UK: I live in Oxford where there are many homeless. A high percentage of the homeless have mental health problems and are not capable of taking care of themselves. Another large group of homeless men are members of the armed forces. Would it not make sense to try to address the root causes, i.e. arrange for some mentally ill people to be in a safe environment rather than on the streets. And would it not also require the army to address drink problems and arrange training etc before their personnel leave after 10 or more years of service?

Louise Casey: I agree with these points and that is essentially what we're doing. I feel it's scandalous that there are too many people with mental health problems out on the streets. We're having to put significant sums of our resources into trying to help some of those people but it will take time before we make any progress. Regarding the armed forces, Tony Blair appointed Hilary Armstrong who's the Minister for Local Government and Social Exclusion (who's effectively my boss) to chair a committee of people from right across government. A year ago, the Ministry of Defence wouldn't have even conceived doing as much as they're now doing in terms of helping people who are potentially going to end up homeless. Today in our progress report, we're announcing that Catterick Garrison, which is one of the main army camps in the country, is actually putting a special project together which means that anyone in the armed forces who is vulnerable will get extra help.

Helen Price, England: What can the average person do to help the remaining homeless?

Louise Casey: A simple question but a very difficult answer. Effectively there are all sorts of organisations out there both within your local community as well as nationally that need help. I, myself, started out many years ago, washing up in a night shelter one night a week. However, it is important that people who have been rough sleepers are helped to become part of the community again through initiatives such as befriending schemes.

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See also:

14 Dec 99 | UK Politics
Blair pledge to reduce rough sleeping
13 Dec 99 | UK
Homeless 'abused by public'
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