Walking through Reading town centre is a grim business at the present moment. There are lots of people begging and numerous people with sleeping bags. It is a tragedy. As someone who has worked for Launchpad for ten years it has never been this bad and it fills me with despair.
Is there a simple solution to street homelessness? I wish there was. It would help immensely if 5,000 new homes at affordable rent were built in Reading tomorrow. Many of the problems we see are due to the simple lack of housing. As there is little chance of 5,000 houses being built in Reading where does that leave us as a community?
Reading has an incredibly caring community and has a council committed to helping the homeless. In bad weather there are 40 free bed spaces available every night, half provided by Bed for the Night and half via Reading Borough Council’s Severe Weather Emergency Programme (SWEP). Every morning from 5am St Mungo’s will be out checking who is on the streets, trying to get them on to Reading Borough Council’s Homeless Pathway and into accommodation or getting them train tickets to their home town or pointing them to places they can get advice, guidance or something to eat and drink. CIRDIC offers free meals; Launchpad has a Drop-in advice service three days a week. There are lots of services for people, but it is often difficult for them to accept help.
There is also a difficulty about the choices people on the streets make. A former client I knew called Hugh*, used to have one copy of the Big Issue. He used to say one copy of the Big Issue on a Friday night would get him £45 without ever even selling the Big Issue. Hugh was a heroin user and that £45 bought him heroin. Giving money to street beggars has inherent risks; offering food and drink doesn’t. Personally I wouldn’t give money. It is highly likely to be used to buy alcohol and drugs.
If I had a magic wand what would I do? I`d build 5,000 houses at an affordable rent and give long leases so people could have real homes. This would allow families to grow up in one place and have a future which is planned rather than one that is based on moving from one property to another every 6 to 12 months.
I`d ask other local authorities to take responsibility for homelessness the way Reading does. We take homelessness seriously, unlike so many local authorities who simply move the homeless problems to other towns and other communities.
We should be immensely proud of groups such as CIRDIC, Faith and other community groups who do so much good work. We should also be proud that we have a council that takes it’s social responsibility seriously.
If you’re worried about someone sleeping rough, get in touch with StreetLink at any time, they are a national service that connects people to appropriate local professional support. There is no need to approach someone you don’t know to ask them about their situation. This is the job of local services and many people sleeping rough have deep-rooted issues that require professional help.
*name changed to protect people’s identity