“I don’t trust anybody. I used to have friends, but not anymore. I don’t trust them”. Josh, 22, was rough sleeping behind the Dudley Council for seven months.
“My mom just lives around the corner, but she won’t help me out with nothing,” he says, with his strong Black Country accent and nervously moving.
Josh, who suffers from anxiety and paranoia, is the second oldest of a family of five children, “and the smartest,” as he proudly and smiley says, “because I have my own place” to live.
After being “kicked out of a hostel due to my aggression,” he was offered an emergency accommodation by the local authority in December, but in Oldbury; 30 minutes away from his home-town.
“He was reluctant to take it because it is based out of Dudley”, says Vi Wood, the only person in whom Josh now trusts.
Wood is the founder of “Leslie’s care packages for the homeless”, a local organisation created after nearly became herself homeless. Since 2016 she is collecting goods for people in need. “She needs to take a break (from helping people) once in a while”, Josh jokes.
He was finally convinced to accept the place offered by Dudley Council. The town had the lowest rate of homelessness across England in the second quarter of 2017 (July-September), but among those that the law classed as homeless, clarifies charity Homeless Link.
Only one out of 20 people who applied for housing in Dudley was prioritised and provide with accommodation by the local administration, according to Department for Communities and Local Government figures.
But the actual legislation only assists the most vulnerable homeless. A new change in the law will increase administrations’ duties.
Housing activists, however, warn about the need of increasing the resources and collaborating between councils and charities to comply it.
Three years in the lead
Dudley has kept the top position since 2015, and since 2011 its rate does not overtake the two digits. It is the only town in the Black Country that has reduced the rate in the last seven years.
“Dudley provides a very successful early intervention approach to preventing homelessness”, said the Council. “As a result, the number of people who go on to be accepted as homeless is low”, they added.
But local authorities in England are only obliged to accommodate those who are considered “unintentionally homeless”, so, who have not done anything that caused them to be homeless; and “in priority need”. This mainly includes families with children, pregnant women, victims of domestic violence, people in an emergency after a disaster or who have mental problems or disabilities.
If they are classed “not in priority need”, the local administration must give them advice. “However, we frequently provide support beyond the government guidelines,” says Dudley Council.
And those “not in priority need” made up almost a third out of all housing applicants in Dudley during the second quarter, a figure that has risen 133% over the last 5 years.
Volunteers are “filling the gap”
“I work with the ones that are ‘not in priority need’ because they are single male or young people without children” among others, says Matthieu Lambert, Black Country executive director of Hope into Action, a church-based group that fights homelessness and gives support to vulnerable people.
Charities, churches, voluntary sector and food banks take care of those not prioritised and left out by the actual law, as Faye Hall, Project coordinator of Dudley Young Health Champions, points out.
“Local authorities rely on volunteering sector to fill the gap” caused by cuts in social funding, says Hall.
“Now, after years, they realised that they have to fund the volunteers extra to do that”, she adds.
But “while provisions are going down,” says Matthieu Lambert, they are seeing “an increasing pressure” in their services. People demanding more and more help, who are not shown in statistics.
The governmental homelessness figures “have no correspondence with the situation on the ground”, he warns.
The numbers only represent those who approach a local authority.
“In many of the overcrowded accommodation, people who officially are living there are only a part of those actually living”, Lambert says.
And there is a “vast number who is relying on the generosity of others and they are not anywhere in the system” or people that simply “don’t tell anybody that they don’t have anywhere to live” or they are migrants and not eligible for housing, he adds.
Vi Wood precisely risked being a homeless because of her migrant status.
German, married a British citizen and living in Dudley since 2002, she was “put on immigration control (by Dudley authorities) and said that I have to prove my working status” after her husband´s death.
food parcel delivered today, to a gentlemen in Cradley heath pic.twitter.com/vYuo4O7GNr
— Leslie’s Care Packages (@Vi2015UK) January 11, 2018
“I was put through grieving and fighting for my own home”, she says. And in August 2016, she decided to keep her husband memory alive by collecting goods and giving them to people in need.
“I set up then the Facebook page “Leslie’s care packages for the homeless”, start to ask my friends for donations, and take it to the people in need. And, to be honest, from day one it was amazing,” she explains.
Wood has won two local prizes since then, and she is one of the finalists of the Big Thank You Awards 2017. But what is more important is that “people donate every day and it’s expanding”, she adds.
The new law for England
The Homelessness Reduction Act will become effective in April 2018, and it will increase the obligations of local authorities in England.
It is an amendment to the actual Housing Act 1996 Part VII and it is based on the one introduced in Wales. Among its main changes stand out an earlier intervention and a new duty for local administrations to provide accommodation regardless intentionality, priority need or local connection.
That will increase the number of people helped by local administrations. With this new legislation, Dudley homelessness rate would have been almost 8 out of 20 instead of one out of 20.
“They (local authorities) will have to do more work for anybody who comes to them and is homeless” than they are doing now, explains Vicky Hines, Shelter’s Birmingham Hub manager.
“But that will not necessarily mean that they put them in a house straight away”, she adds.
When a person is prioritised for housing and there is no available accommodation, s/he is sent to a temporary one until the local administration can get a permanent one.
“The problem is the supply of accommodation”, says Hines.
“Local authorities are under an immense pressure to get permanent accommodation”, and “unless we get more units of affordable accommodation, the problem will continue”, she adds.
According to the Statutory Homelessness in England 2017 report, almost two-thirds (64%) of councils are struggling to find social tenancies and the temporary accommodation has risen 48% in England and 64% in Birmingham between 2010 and 2016.
Collaboration at local level
Despite the government pledged 72.7 million to cover the first two years of the Act, the Association of Housing Advice Services estimated that London councils alone could need £161m, says the report “Comparison of homelessness duties in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland”.
“We urge the Government to support the Homelessness Reduction Act with a well-resourced, cross-departmental homelessness strategy, that addresses the root causes of homelessness”, commented the Homeless Link’s Chief Executive, Rick Henderson, on October.
Council “staff are being trained and we hope to be prepared for the implementation” of the law by April, says Dudley Council.
But it is “absolutely impossible for a local authority on its own to comply with the statutory requirement of the new legislation”, considers Mattheu Lambert from Hope in Action.
Lambert thinks that councils “will have to be more reliant on a partnership with charities and volunteering sector to identify the needs of each individual and build support around them”.
“Maybe authorities offer a place to stay in Birmingham, but they (homeless people) don’t want to leave their own hometown” as Josh’s case, explains Vi Wood. “So, they refuse, and then authorities think that they made themselves homeless. But ask why they refuse!”
Josh wishes to live in Dudley, but “I’m going to keep encouraging him to stay in that place” until he can be moved to his hometown, she says.
They have also plans for the future: making Josh a volunteer in Wood’s organisation. A way to “give him some responsibility”, she says while finishes off quickly her chocolate.
Times goes by and they have to run to their next appointment with the Summit Support House, an institution that helps vulnerable people to recover their lives.
Wood is determined to support him and Josh is taking her hand.
“I have my brain switched on (…) I make sure I was fed every day, I´ve fluids and I´ve fit clothes and all that”, tells Josh. “I´m smart. I’m 22. I’m in my prime”.