By Chloe Camarthan:
As the winter months begin, homeless people who are fortunate enough to be awarded a council property face a further battle to fill their empty homes. With central government tightening its belt and stripping vital support services for vulnerable people across the country, Leicester City’s Labour Council claim to be doing the best they can for its people under the circumstances. However affected people and organisations are skeptical about decisions to fund reconstruction of roads, buildings and parks whilst cutting services to homeless and impoverished people.
Councillor Andy Connelly argued that the council wanted to focus on services which prevent homelessness, and that the cut in funding was restructuring of services which would focus on prevention, moving away from a crisis-orientated approach. They also seek to help people out of the “cycle” of repeated incidences of homelessness. They have attempted to increase help that STAR tenancy support services can give to people who have been homeless.
Down Not Out spoke to recently re-housed individuals in Leicester to find out how the restructuring of services is supporting them to maintain their tenancy and escape the cycles of homelessness.
“The hardest thing is the first night”, council tenant Jan told us; “My friend gave me her old mattress, so I had that, but nothing else – no carpet, no furniture, no wallpaper, no curtains. On the first night I felt so alone, I just sat on my mattress and cried. It was over a month before I started getting things for my flat….They [STAR support workers] were nice but I felt like they didn’t have much time for me because they were so busy, they were always rushing around. When I went there they were seeing people in the public waiting area because they didn’t have enough rooms. I felt sorry for them.”
Tenants reported a variety of negative affects on their health as a result of lack of support when placed in a new property by the council. Those in recovery from addiction found the stress of moving into an empty flat and the absence of support lead to increased likelihood of relapse. People with mobility problems reported having to sleep in unsuitable conditions due to being unable to afford a bed. Those with learning difficulties and mental health problems told us they were left without support due to an inability to navigate an often complex system.
Housing Association tenant Siraj was placed in a block of flats by the council after leaving a hostel in Leicester. Siraj, who suffers from learning difficulties and is terminally ill, felt he had little control in or understanding of the process.
“I didn’t know where the flat was. I didn’t know how to choose on the computer. I went there and they gave me the keys so I took them. But it’s a bedsit and its far away from my community. All the people in the building scare me and I am scared to walk to see my friends. I’ve never lived on my own before.”
Siraj was left in his empty property, unaware of how to contact anybody for help with repairs, furniture, benefits or living skills.
“I didn’t know what to do. I was staying over at my friends for a while because I was too scared to go to the flat, then he said I couldn’t stay there any more so I tried to get used to it. But my heater and hot water wasn’t working and I didn’t have any furniture except an oven and I don’t know how to cook. What am I supposed to do? I went to the shops but I didn’t know what to buy except biscuits and bread. In the end I phoned up a lady I used to know and I said ‘please, you have to help me, please, nobody is helping me and I don’t know what to do’. She found me a worker who is helping me with my furniture, but I’m still confused about everything else”.
Siraj is relying on a friend he has to visit several miles away to provide meals and do his washing. The block Siraj lives in has a laundry, but he cannot read the instructions on the machines, and nobody has shown him how to use them.*
Siraj was put in touch with STAR, who helped him find furniture, and a neighbour informed him of who to contact for repairs.
Joe, a Leicester activist against austerity who was formerly homeless, said “we take it as an insult when we see them digging up the same streets over and over again when they are taking away our services. They say it’s an investment, but we think it’s better to invest in human beings”.
We are now in phase two of the City Council’s Homeless Strategy, which claims to “focus more on prevention and increased support”, “ensure that anyone who is homeless will be able to move on into appropriate accommodation” and “give access to appropriate care services”.
*Down Not Out referred Siraj to adult social care to help with his support needs – and we taught him how to use the washing machine.