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'If you're feeling lost and alone, you need somebody to stand next to you'

Declan Flynn, Bench Outreach
Declan Flynn, Bench Outreach

A radical, yet simple, approach is helping Deptford’s entrenched rough sleepers off the housing merry-go-round and into a permanent home, writes Neil Baker

Declan Flynn works for a charity that helps homeless people in and around Deptford, South London. He’s been doing it for just over a decade. But one of his clients had been sleeping rough for even longer.

“We found hostel places, but it always failed to work out,” explains Declan over a mug of tea in the converted pub where Bench Outreach, the charity he works for, is based.

Surviving on the streets for that long is an achievement in itself. On average, homeless people are dead by the age of 47 – that’s 30 years younger than the general population. Drug and alcohol misuse, street violence, stress, suicide and illness – both physical and mental – take a heavy toll.

For this particular individual, whose name and gender Declan wants to keep private, the standard route off the streets didn’t work. It’s a journey of many steps: curb your anger and you might get into a hostel; treat your drinking and you could move to a shared flat. But at each step you must comply with rules and expectations imposed by other people. Mess up, and you have to start over.

“It’s like a merry-go-round,” says Declan. “People can lose whatever shred of self esteem they had left. Sometimes, it’s more attractive to say ‘leave me alone, I’m going to sleep on the streets.’”

But in January 2014, something changed for Declan’s long-standing client. Bench started to pilot a radically new approach to helping entrenched homeless people, called Housing First.

The model is “staggeringly simple”, says Declan, downing his mug of tea in one long gulp, before explaining how it works. Bench offers entrenched rough-sleepers a safe, permanent home of their own, supplied by the London Borough of Lewisham – with no strings attached.

They don’t have to accept any treatment for drug or alcohol problems to get their home, or to keep it. They just need to get the rent paid on time, and follow whatever rules apply to any “normal” tenant.

“We tell them they can get on with their drug-taking and their drinking, if they so wish,” explains Declan. “But something magical happens. You show somebody enough faith to give them a home, and lo and behold they become attached to it! They start thinking, ‘if I want to hang on to my home, maybe I should look at my drinking? Maybe I should not have the wild parties? Maybe I need to play ball with society, on my terms, because I’m in a house now.’”

Declan’s long-standing client was among the first to try Housing First. Two years after they were given the keys to a permanent flat, they’d changed themselves enough to become an active and valued member of the resident’s association.

It’s quite a turnaround, but one that’s been widely repeated. Housing policy specialists at The University of York recently evaluated nine Housing First pilots across the country, including the one run by Bench Outreach, which was started with money from Deptford Challenge Trust.

The researchers found that 74% of the entrenched homeless people housed under the model had managed to keep their homes for a year or more. Their mental and physical well-being improved. Their drug and alcohol use fell, as did their anti-social behaviour.

The model saves money, too. Giving someone a Housing First home is between £4,794 and £3,048 per person a year cheaper than putting them in high-intensity supported housing. That saving climbs to over £15,000 a year if you factor in the reduced contact people have with the police and emergency medical services.

London badly needs some fresh ideas on how to tackle entrenched rough-sleeping. There were 7,581 people seen sleeping on the capital’s streets in the year to March 2015, according to data from CHAIN (the Combined Homelessness and Information Network). That’s a 34% increase on 2012. In Lewisham, the figure climbed to 199 people – that’s a 268% increase compared to 2012 and the fourth biggest rise in London.

Bench can’t offer Housing First to all the homeless people it sees; there wouldn’t be enough suitable housing available. And anyway, not all of them would want it or are ready for it, says Declan. The charity’s core work remains sign-posting homeless people to other services, advocating on their behalf, running a Sunday soup kitchen, and providing housing advice and tenancy support.

A growing number of people are turning to Bench for help, “but all that means is that things are getting worse,” says Declan. “We are very good at what we do, but this is not a competition; it’s not the private sector where we’re actively looking for customers. We should be looking for redundancy. But we’re getting 300 people approaching us for help each year and over a third of them are homeless. That’s staggering.”

These are people with complex, often intractable, problems. They are stuck in a system that doesn’t treat them as human beings. “Sometimes it feels like society wants to punish the poor, the homeless,” Declan observes. “It’s like, we might help you, but first you have to prove you’re worth something.”

By contrast, Declan refuses to judge the people who come to Bench for help. His meeting room has frosted glass walls, a round table and a potted palm in the corner. It’s the kind of space where you might discuss a better rate on your mortgage, not your crack cocaine habit.

“The people we see here range from entrenched rough sleepers to those with a benefits issue,” he says. One meeting ended with Declan calling an ambulance. More typically, he offers a hot drink, a safe place to talk and the knowledge that someone who knows the system is on your side.

“If you’re not well or you’re feeling lost and alone, you need somebody to stand beside you,” he says. “So what you can always do is sit next to someone and say ‘I don’t know how we’re going to sort this one out, but between the two of us I’m sure we can do something.’ Relationships are what change the world. Without the relationship, you have nothing.”

Often that means working hard to connect with drunk, drugged, or chaotic people; the kind of people who can be hard to help and – let’s be honest – most of us would cross the street to avoid. “It’s a long hard struggle and the victories can be very, very small,” says Declan. “You just do the best you can, and they do the best they can. But you know, we’re not doing too bad.”

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