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Mark Field MP: A sudden influx of new arrivals

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Mark Field MP: A sudden influx of new arrivals

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Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Central Government and also in Housing

Mark Field MP: A sudden influx of new arrivals Mark Field MP: A sudden influx of new arrivals

The Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster explores the reasons behind a sharp rise in rough sleeping in the heart of the capital.

As the winter air chills, many Londoners’ thoughts turn to those who lay down blankets and boxes for the night in the dark corners of our great city. Seeing fellow citizens sleep rough makes us all ask questions about what we can do to help and where we might collectively be falling short.

To many of us who live in central London, it seems that their number is increasing. Local authorities have an obligation to undertake regular counts of those sleeping on their streets. Figures from Westminster City Council indicate that the number of rough sleepers has increased sharply. A total of 2,440 people were recorded bedded down in 2012/13 whereas the number in 2009/10 stood at 1,693.

For as long as London has existed, people have slept on its streets. There are myriad reasons why. But over the past few years, we have tended to see two distinct categories of rough sleepers with very different stories to tell.

The numbers of so-called ‘traditional’ rough sleepers in Westminster has remained at present relatively static. They tend to be people with addiction problems (52% of homeless people use drugs, 20% drink alcohol at harmful levels), those who have been affected by family breakdown or people with mental health difficulties (nearly half have a long-term mental health need).

This group is often well known to outreach teams who patiently conduct long-term rehabilitation work. Homelessness services provide support to over 40,000 people each year, delivering cost savings and better outcomes for the vulnerable. In January, I had the privilege of seeing an example of this incredible work when I visited the Lodge, a project run by St Mungo’s just outside my constituency to get long-term rough sleepers into a safe, warm and supportive environment.

There is then a second group of foreign nationals, many of whom have no recourse to public funds and therefore require an alternative policy response. People from Central Eastern European countries now make up 32% of rough sleepers in Westminster.

This is of no surprise - following the enlargements of the European Union of 2004 and 2008, Westminster experienced a sudden influx of new arrivals from Eastern Europe, often via Victoria Coach Station. In advance of these enlargements, Westminster City Council and I warned repeatedly of the increased dangers of jobless and unqualified nationals from the new EU accession countries ending up sleeping rough on the streets but proper plans were not put into place.

These nationals were particularly at risk of homelessness as the law prevented them from accessing benefits. So while most new arrivals arrived with a firm idea of where they would work and live, the likelihood of them descending into street life was exacerbated for those that did not.

A lot of work has been done by Westminster City Council to help these individuals, sometimes by reconnecting people with their families back home and assisting with repatriation, providing language services that can help people into work. In recent months, this issue has taken on a new dimension still in my constituency, with Roma encampments appearing at Marble Arch and beyond. Looking at Westminster’s nationality data, individuals from Romania are now the largest other nationality group outside of the UK with this group now making up 12% of those seen on the streets.

The pressure on local authority budgets is enormous. Westminster City Council and our local borough policing teams are now diverting vast resource into dealing with this and there is pressure on funding for housing related support, which includes funding for hostels and supported housing for homeless people and those who have experience of domestic violence and substance use.

The government has allocated £470 million for investment in homelessness prevention for 2011-2015. This funding is welcome but it is allocated to local authorities without specification of how it is to be spent and, in the current financial climate, is not always being used effectively to prevent homelessness.

Sleeping rough is often just the most obvious symptom of a complex web of social and economic problems conspiring against an individual. We need to make clear to those not yet in Britain that sleeping on London’s streets is not a viable option while ensuring that our local authorities and police have the resource they need to support those with long term need.

While it can seem that rough sleepers have been left alone as society’s forgotten, work is constantly being done to help individuals off the streets. But there are no easy answers and it is work that requires patience and resource in equal measure.

Mark Field's article appears in the 'Politics' edition of 24housing magazine out today. Other contributors include: Kris Hopkins, Emma Reynolds, Lord Freud, Clive Betts, Stephen Williams and Tim Farron.

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