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We must face the messy, discomforting realities of rough sleeping if we are to end it

There is a shopping mall in London where over 50 people sleep rough every night. It represents the biggest congregation of rough sleepers in the capital. At 7.30 in the morning when I was there recently it was clearing rapidly of rough sleepers who were being hastened along by the amiable security staff. Around 20 people were still gathering together their belongings. There was an astonishing range of nationalities - English, Indian, Eritrean, Portuguese, Italian, Lithuanian and Romanian. Some were heading off to work shifts in restaurants and on building sites. One man proudly flourished his CSCS card, that highly prized proof that the owner has the required training and qualifications to work in the construction industry. He would be returning that night to the relative comfort of the mall. Relative, that is, to the other places where outreach workers meet rough sleepers in 21st century London – on buses, in public toilets, in hospital A&E departments, along canal towpaths, at e…
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The People in the Waiting Room

Aren’t reflections on a year always anchored by a specific episode in time? This is mine. In November I went out on a street outreach shift. By 6.30 in the morning we were at our first destination, a police station where the waiting area had become a haven for a group of people who would otherwise be sleeping on the street. The beaming desk sergeant waved us in; he knew my outreach colleague well. 

Four rough sleepers were spread out across the seats. First we spoke with a woman well known to our team who was awaiting a psychiatric assessment. Her conversation ranged erratically from her being immoderately grateful for our help to threatening us with legal action if we failed to resolve her homelessness. We updated her on progress and she once again turned down our offer of emergency accommodation. 

Next to her was a middle-aged man staring, preoccupied, into the distance. He did not respond to my outstretched hand but as my fingers brushed his wrist he grabbed my arm and I realised tha…

Street homelessness: The dangerous appeal of the street magnets

Amongst the front-line staff at Thames Reach, those undertaking outreach work on the street or managing our hostels for rough sleepers, there is always a sense of relief when the Christmas period is behind them. 
Christmas is a time when we can expect a surge in support from the public and, concurrently, there is also an increased risk of people dying on the street. This is because so much of the public’s seasonal largesse is focused on giving to people who are visibly present on the street and, in order to be in the position to be a recipient, those who have moved away from rough sleeping will often return to the street at Christmas. 
In late November, a Big Issue seller I follow who is active on Twitter tweeted that he had been forced to move from his usual pitch outside a supermarket because an intimidating former rough sleeper, now housed, had requisitioned it for the lucrative Christmas period.  Outreach workers meanwhile pay special attention to the vulnerable, often drug depend…

Super-strength lager is a beer for sipping, possibly from a wine glass - and other delusions

Steve was telling me about the delusional behaviour of the drink dependent person – the alcoholic, as he refers to himself. Not, he was quick to point out, a recovered alcoholic. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. In his view, you can’t risk relaxing and then relapsing. You need to be on constant guard.
At various times Steve had convinced himself that he could be a normal drinker. He would venture into his local pub and have a pint, then sit there all night trying not to think about a second pint. Having successfully reached last orders, he’d go home satisfied that his consumption of alcohol was under control.  But on the second night he would be the last to leave the pub having drank steadily all evening. By the end of the week, raging at the bar staff for refusing to serve him, his final ignominious departure was often assisted by the police. By now, out of control, he would buy six-packs of super-strength lager to drink at home. He preferred Tennent’s Super although the taste …

We need evidence-based action to end rough sleeping, not post-truth emotional spasms

In my first year working with homeless people an older colleague, with foreboding, informed me that the homeless people we were supporting were more complex, challenging and needy than anybody had previously experienced.  I remember being shocked, considering it remarkable that I should be starting at the very time when the profile of the homeless population was changing so dramatically. It didn’t occur to me to ask ‘how do you know?’ 
Every year since, I have heard something like this same statement made. I was therefore not in a condition to be knocked down by a feather when, as a predictable pre-Christmas truism, it was stated that those working with the homeless were encountering an unprecedented increase in ‘the range of complex issues’. Wiser now, I understand that what I first heard those thirty years ago was hyperbole.      
A degree of embellishment in the context of such an emotive issue as homelessness is, perhaps, inevitable. However, when hyperbole descends into factual mis…

Outreach work - not taking no for an answer

There is a crepuscular light and a chilly autumn wind is sending leaves upwards into the evening sky.  Nonetheless, I maintain the ritual of stopping to watch the skateboarders at London’s South Bank.  They cavort and shimmy in the cavernous space under the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the harsh concrete backcloth these days covered with vivid graffiti.  So much life and energy where there was once misery and desperation. For this was the place where, thirty years ago, the greatest number of rough sleepers could be found.  By the late 1980s, following some misguided and deeply damaging welfare benefit changes introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government and an absence of an effective strategy to address an inexorable rise in rough sleeping, over 120 people were sleeping around the brutalist architecture of the South Bank.  In the evening, huddles of rough sleepers would gather at tables within the Royal Festival Hall and wait for the arrival of the first soup run.
I was one of the outreach wo…

Ronnie wants a job. You had better believe it.

Ronnie sits slumped in his seat; impassive, listless and avoiding eye contact. In the chairs around the room the various professionals shift uncomfortably. This is the regular ward round at a rehabilitation unit for people detained under the Mental Health Act. As an alliance of organisations we are collectively seeking to support people to live a fulfilling life in the community and the first step is to help people to recover and stay well. 
Directed by the doctor chairing the review meeting we each introduce ourselves. Ronnie is clearly familiar with the roles of most of the people present. I’m preceded by the psychiatrist, senior nurse and the pharmacist. Then it’s my turn and I explain that Thames Reach supports people to manage their home and find work. Ronnie rapidly adjusts from being virtually supine to upright and alert. ‘Can I speak to you after – I want a job’. Regretful sympathy fills the room like an invisible mist as the group subliminally shares the view that a job is, wel…