Rough sleepers and single homeless crisis: ‘We are on a cliff edge’ – councillors warned

Rough sleeping in Mare Street

A bed for the night? Rough sleeping in a Mare Street doorway, Hackney, November 2023. Photograph: Julia Gregory. Free for use by partners of BBC news wire service

Increasing demand for support for rough sleepers and single homeless people with complex needs has put Hackney on “a cliff edge”, councillors have been warned.

Jennifer Wynter, the council’s assistant director of benefits and housing needs, told them: “Hackney is at the epicentre of a housing and temporary accommodation crisis – and levels of homelessness are increasing rapidly.”

Approaches for help in June 2023 were up 17 per cent from five years ago.

Last year, Hackney Council saw 1,038 single people with support needs and 519 with multiple support needs.

In June this year, 443 single people with one or more support needs were placed in temporary accommodation.

Speaking at the Living In Hackney scrutiny commission meeting on 22 November, Wynter told councillors: “What we are doing at an officer level is keeping the wolf from the door and in most cases preventing death and deterioration, but it only goes so far, and to a lot of us it feels like we are on a cliff edge now.”

She said more funding is needed, including support from NHS North East London, and a better link to the council’s housing strategy.

“Homelessness is everybody’s interest. These people are the very most in need. They’re all homeless because of what is happening in the rest of their lives.  Investing in this specialist supported housing will, long term, reduce costs to all organisations.”

Based on recent analysis of numbers accessing temporary accommodation, the council predicts that the demand for temporary accommodation will grow at around 8 per cent per year in the short to medium term.

However, Hackney Council provides just 179 places for people with complex needs, compared with 743 in Camden, 452 in Tower Hamlets, and 313 in Islington,

Wynter said: “It is really challenging when you don’t have recovery spaces for people.”

She added: “The 443 adults in temporary accommodation who would be better off in supported accommodation.”

These included 198 cases of people with poor mental health, 74 with drink or drug problems and 158 with physical health issues.

What is needed

A recent assessment (June 2023) of people who have been placed in temporary accommodation identified 433 people who had support needs and approximately three-quarters of that group have high to medium support needs.

To enable these people to recover, thrive and not deteriorate further thereby meeting the threshold for costly Adult Social Care (ASC) services, current supported accommodation capacity must be increased by an additional 325 beds.

The council currently provides 177 bed spaces: it funds 125 directly and a further 52 are funded through short term grants.

Wynter said the council needs to directly fund a further 325 on top of the current 125 to provide the necessary 450 bed spaces.

Funding cuts

In 2016, the council changed its housing-related support services for adults with complex needs, “achieving a reduction of”, i.e. cutting the funding by, £3.9m across the years 2017/18 – 2019/20.

This included slashing by 149 the number of supported accommodation units which were provided for homeless residents with mental health, learning disabilities and those exiting prison.

Three schemes for homeless people classified as ‘single homeless and rough sleepers’ (SHRS) were decommissioned with these residents being helped into housing or approaching the Council as homeless and being provided with temporary accommodation.

Councillors were told that “floating support” provision was expanded but has not provided for those with complex needs.

Charity response

Homeless charity St Mungo’s provides hostel accommodation in Hackney and is seeing more people in the 18 to 20 age category seeking help.

“That was unheard of years ago,” according to Anthony Simmons, St Mungo’s service manager.

The charity has been working with a number of people for five to six years and some of them have complex needs.

Simmons said: “There is no appropriate specialist support that we can sign post our clients to.”

He told councillors that three people the charity was caring for in Hackney have died in the last four months.

Some clients at the hostel in Mare Street have care needs. Simmons explained it did not provide care packages for them as this is not the hostel’s role but could not ignore the need.

Witnesses at the commission told councillors they were all seeing increased need for people with complex needs. These include poor mental health, substance abuse problems and trauma.

Simmons said: “The yardstick for us has moved, here we want to keep them in recovery, but in some cases now it is keeping them safe, alive.

“We are dealing with complexity of needs; we have reached our maximum.”

He said: “If there was an increase of provision there would be more options for people.”

Mental health needs

Hackney has the highest percentage of people with severe mental health needs in northeast London, but the lowest number of supported accommodation places for them.

Andrew Horobin, deputy director for adult mental health services in Hackney and the City of London at East London NHS Foundation Trust said: “We are seeing an increasing number of people with complexities that we don’t have provision for, or else we have to place in very costly inappropriate placements outside Hackney, because they’re the only people that will meet those needs.”

He said the “crisis in mental health services” means that some people have to be put up in hotels while they wait for more suitable places.

The bigger picture

The call for extra places comes as Camden Council was recently criticised after it admitted operational involvement in removing 11 tents being used by homeless people from outside University College London Hospital near Euston.

Hackney Council says it has not removed the tents of people sleeping rough in the borough over the past two years.

A council spokesperson said: “As per national legislation, we would not remove tents that are being used unless they were causing an obstruction to the highway or if there were issues of antisocial behaviour.”

In 2018, the council defended its ‘enforcement action’ against homeless men who were living in tents on Mare Street.

Three years earlier, Hackney Council faced a public outcry over the introduction of a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) which was slammed by homelessness charity Crisis as “criminalising the homeless”.

A petition was launched against the PSPO, which was withdrawn weeks later.

At the time, the council said the Public Space Protection Order was being put in place to tackle persistent “anti-social behaviour” such as begging, street drinking, and rough sleeping in designated “hotspots”: Hackney Downs, London Fields, Broadway Market, Mare Street and Regents Canal.