Dateline to end homelessness

Lancaster Council leader Caroline Jackson has been at the forefront of the city’s response to homelessness during the pandemic. She tells Jessica Brown about progress made and shifting attitudes

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In March last year, the government ordered councils to ensure all rough sleepers were taken into accommodation. Now restrictions are lifting – but there’s no clear picture of what’s happening to people who were taken off the streets.

Last April, I spoke to Caroline Jackson, then portfolio holder for housing at Lancaster City Council, now its leader, about the local authority’s response to the government’s Everyone In scheme, for a Big Issue North story.

Over the following 14 months, Jackson, of the Green Party, told me about her fears, frustrations and evolving philosophy about homelessness. During regular phone calls, she painted a picture of how the pandemic transformed the council’s, and the whole community’s, approach to tackling rough sleeping.

‘We gave ourselves three years to end rough sleeping in the area but we did it in 10 days.’

April 2020

Lancaster Council starts to get rough sleepers off the streets three weeks before the government ordered councils to do so. It arranges accommodation for around 30 people, with half going into hotels. Jackson is struck by how easy it was. She, Jo Wilkinson and Sharon Parkinson, the council’s heads of housing and of homelessness, have a shift in perspective.

“We gave ourselves three years to end rough sleeping in the area but we did it in 10 days,” she says.

In the past, Jackson admits she’s accepted street homelessness as an ongoing issue.

“I haven’t responded to difficulties, maybe in the hope they’d go away,” she says. “Now we want to manage whatever happens at the end of lockdown so that as many as possible stay in accommodation. How we do it, I don’t know. But having seen it’s possible, we don’t want to let go of that.

“Some would say you should be free to sleep on the street, but is that freedom, to be trapped by poverty, condemned to vulnerabilities and ill health?”

Earlier today, Jackson and her team encountered someone who was refusing to go into accommodation. The council insisted – because the virus poses too much of a threat for rough sleepers – but Jackson knows this won’t last.

“We’re saying: ‘No, you are going into accommodation because it’s the only safe way you can exist.’ But once lockdown’s over we can’t say that anymore.”

As a child, Jackson experienced family homelessness, although, the experience was very different to being street homeless, she says. “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be on the street but some people say this to us.”

Jackson wants to create an advisory group for ending homelessness, to help her see how to make this a reality.

May

Conversations about homelessness have deepened at the council.

“We need to be sure that my values accord with those of the people around me. This isn’t simply a practical matter – it’s a philosophical challenge,” Jackson tells me. “People need to be on a similar page with what they believe about homelessness. The decisions we all make proceed from there.”

Jackson puts together the advisory group, consisting of people who support homeless people, including Lancaster Council officers and agencies. The group, with its wide membership, has just had its first meeting.

“We talked about what we think we can do about rough sleeping. It got me thinking much more deeply about why people are on the streets.”

Once everyone gets past this “philosophical bit”, the action can commence, Jackson says.

This will involve working with the group Jackson has assembled of people with lived experience of street homelessness, who work in various support services.

“We need to be free from our past as much as people on the street. If we work with the lived experience group, we’ll have a real chance of recovering together.

“So often, my team is applying plasters. Officers feel hopeless because they house people off the street and don’t have enough money to do beyond minimum support. They work so hard and feel they achieve so little.”

Working with people with lived experience has been on her mind since January, when the council had a big homelessness meeting.

“During the meeting, people were sleeping rough on the front steps. They said they should come in and talk. I agreed but they were inebriated, so I told them they should have the opportunity to talk but this isn’t the time or place. We got the sense we needed to get back to those with lived experience.”

June

The health services have pulled together to ensure every rough sleeper has a multidisciplinary meeting to look at what provision is in place for them.

Jackson has been talking with the new lived experience group. They want to create a befriending service for rough sleepers, and have written a bid to the National Lottery Community Fund.

The council had already committed to Housing First, an international model whereby rough sleepers are taken straight into housing, but Jackson is starting to think support plays a more important role.

“The lived experience group say individual tenancies, no matter how much wraparound care there is, are too much for people, that they need greater provision, and that we need to think more long term. They’re right – Housing First won’t do for entrenched rough sleepers.

“We need to accept that people might be in chaos for years before they start to respond, and provide suitable accommodation that accepts that people might be using.”

Meanwhile, some people who the council put into accommodation in March now refuse to be housed.

“The lived experience group say rough sleeping isn’t the life anyone wants to live. They’re gearing us up to keep saying we don’t accept that the street is the right place for anybody. Our commitment to no people on the street is still there, but perhaps we’re more realistic about how hard it’ll be when lockdown is over.”

After trying to end it Jackson realised a minority feel comfortable sleeping rough. Photo: Alamy

July

Lockdown is easing, and it’s becoming more difficult to keep people in accommodation. Hotels want to go back to business as usual, so the council is faced with finding enough alternative accommodation. It’s a familiar feeling for Jackson.

“There isn’t enough accommodation of the right sort, so it’s a juggling act as we bring in every sort of accommodation we can find. How do we move on when there’s still not enough accommodation, and when we get an individual accommodation, there’s issues of isolation, of managing a coherent lifestyle? The same problems are there.”

Another significant challenge, Jackson says, is a lack of mental health provision and the issue of dual diagnosis.

“If someone has a mental health difficulty and a substance misuse problem, mental health services will say they can’t deal with them until they’ve stopped using.”

This is especially problematic for armed forces veterans, says Jackson, who is reminded of a time she met a veteran who was in supported living.

“He was punching a wall. When we talked to him, he jumped to attention and gave his name and number. He was going through flashbacks – it couldn’t be more obvious that he was in crisis and in huge need of support. We took him back to his accommodation and he attempted to throw himself under a car.

“These sorts of things set you back and you think: ‘How can we allow this?’ Saying that we couldn’t do anything for him because he was alcoholic isn’t right. Limiting support for people with a dual diagnosis is a real block on people progressing out of street homelessness.”

On a brighter note, the council is working with the local business improvement district (BID) and police to start Street Aid, where the public can tap their cards at terminals to donate to homeless people, who can apply for financial support through the scheme for something they want to purchase.

September

Jackson doesn’t feel like she and her team are “sitting on a knife edge” anymore – but the lack of mental health provision is still on her mind.

“Having worked through all the emergency stuff, we’re trying to get input from the NHS foundation trust that deals with mental health in the area. You have to wait for a crisis for the mental health team to get involved, and even then, they might not.

“There doesn’t seem to be anyone who’s responsible for rough sleepers with chronic mental illness, apart from their GP.”

Every known rough sleeper apart from one is in accommodation at the moment, but it hasn’t been a smooth process.

“Some people in accommodation with some kind of supported situation walk out on it and go back on the street, but we work through it and they go back into accommodation. There’s regular in and out, but it’s working because everyone is working together and knows when someone is in danger of leaving. In the past, those people have slipped out and stayed out.”

Some charities in the community are wondering about their futures, Jackson says, if rough sleepers don’t return to the streets.

“We want them to support people to come off the streets, but it’s not an easy conversation.”

Meanwhile, the lived experience group is piloting the befriending project, and is interviewing potential befrienders. The council, the police and the BID have been awarded funding to set up Street Aid, and are figuring out where the terminals will go. Jackson hopes it will be up and running by Christmas.

January 2021

Lancaster has been in tiers three and four, and the struggle to keep people in accommodation is continuing. She recalls people with lived experience warning her back in August that the council will end up with a cohort of people who’ve been on the street long term, who will need more than emergency accommodation.

“I can see now that you don’t cure homelessness by changing someone’s statutory situation. It’s about trying to get a coherent community response, which is based on how much respect you can give to individuals who are homeless, by letting them see they have the potential to be a significant part of your community.

“That’s what brings people back from being homeless. We need to change our culture, and we don’t do that by people working in corners.”

The lived experience group is awarded its National Lottery funding, and has volunteers and policies in place.

There’s also been progress with the homeless health welfare group, which grew out of original lockdown health provision. The clinical commissioning group’s commissioner has begun to look at mental health provision, and has pulled in numerous professionals from the trust to its last meeting.

“She challenged them about the notion that the NHS provides universal provision. There should be a system where those most in need have the most access, which isn’t how the system currently works. In local government, we target those in most need of support, so I didn’t realise that isn’t how it is in health.

“They discussed how health services could be more flexible to better reach homeless people, such as giving leeway for missed appointments or alternatives to needing a fixed address to send letters.

“They went away to think about it. At least the debate is opened up and new ideas are being considered.”

March

Two people are rough sleeping, and three former homeless people have died. The struggle continues to keep people off the street.

The lived experience group’s befriending service, Let’s Be Friends, has trained 14 people with lived experience to befriend people on the streets. So far, they’ve befriended 12 people.

And there’s another development. A group of GPs with connections to a homeless support group decided they’d like to have a parish nurse, who are employed by churches to work more informally with communities, to work with homeless people in the area.

“It will be a way of getting medical services to homeless people really effectively. We’re managing to connect homeless people with GPs, but it’s a difficult process. We still have the multi-agency meetings but trying to get the right service to a person is a slow business.”

The role is being advertised, and Jackson says the council is so interested in seeing how it will work that it’s going to fund the post for its first year.

May

The parish nurse role is still in the pipeline, but there have been some other advances. The health service has applied for funding from the government’s £46 million Changing Futures fund to improve outcomes for adults with multiple disadvantages, including homelessness, mental illness and substance misuse.

Jackson says the bid, which involves someone with lived experience working on the board, will bring mental health alongside health.

“The big thing to come out of the work we’ve done during the pandemic is involving people with lived experience, who are often key to working with those who are homeless.

“We need to respect their voices when we ask for lots of money to do things with people who are homeless – not just listening, but involving them and paying them to do some of the work that’s necessary.”

But there have been other changes over the last 14 months too. Street Aid has three terminals up and running now, with £2,500 in funding ready for people who are experiencing homelessness to apply for, and services across the community are opening up to each other.

“We all started in our corners, doing our own thing about homelessness, thinking we knew all the answers, and often being annoyed with those who had different answers. Now, every area of what causes people to become homeless has been opened up, and we’ve come to understand each other’s viewpoints.”

Fourteen months ago, Jackson saw rough sleeping as unfortunate but inevitable. When the pandemic forced her to face these thoughts, she oscillated to wanting no rough sleepers on the streets of Lancashire.

As with most things in life, the reality fell in between the two extremes. Jackson realised a small minority feel most comfortable sleeping rough but for most, it isn’t their only option.

But Jackson’s initial determination to end rough sleeping altogether was the perfect ground to push off from, to fight for all the changes the council has made over the last year that otherwise may have never happened.

As restrictions start to ease after a long 14 months, Jackson and her colleagues across Lancaster provide hope that the pandemic has brought with it lasting improvements in how decision-makers understand and support rough sleepers.

Photo: Jackson with Phil Moore, manager at Lancaster Homeless Action Service (Rebecca Lupton)

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