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Joanne Roney: We cannot simply wring our hands over the lack of a national homelessness strategy

Joanne Roney
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National statistics on the increasing issue of homelessness paint a stark picture.

The National Audit Office last year pointed to a 134% increase in the number of people rough sleeping since 2010 and the latest national figures, unavailable as I write this, were expected to reflect a similar rise.

But you don’t need graphs and tables to illustrate the situation. Anyone walking down the street in a major city – and Manchester is certainly not an exception – will soon see evidence with their own eyes of the extent of the challenge. It’s a challenge for society as a whole but local government, working closely with partner organisations, has a significant role to play in addressing it.

The most visible manifestation of the problem is rough sleeping and, while this can sometimes be wrongly conflated with begging, there is no doubt that it’s a complex and troubling picture.

That such scenes are being replicated, to a greater or lesser extent, the length and breadth of the land suggests that there are underlying national causes, most significantly welfare changes and the ongoing impacts of austerity.

There needs to be a concerted national approach to tackling this issue, which is currently lacking. Yet this does not mean we should either wash our hands of the issue or wring them in despair. We need to put them to work more than ever and that’s exactly what we are doing in Manchester.

The city has built a homeless partnership, bringing together a wide range of charities and voluntary sector organisations, faith groups, business and other public sector services to co-ordinate work to address homelessness, recognising that only this concerted approach will make a difference.

The pioneering Big Change Fund, a coalition of charities with which the partnership works closely, is harnessing public donations to help improve the lives of homeless people, whether through funding a new pair of boots or the deposit for a flat.

As a council we have invested and will continue to invest considerably in strengthening our services, whether through bolstering our outreach work or through making more emergency and move-on accommodation available.

This approach has built trust and established a firm focus on treating people as individuals and wrapping tailored support around them.

Getting a roof over their heads is vital. That’s why we have more than 50 accommodation and housing officers, recognising the different needs of different people.

But just as crucial is backing them to address the underlying issues, which can be anything from debt to mental ill health or drug and alcohol misuse, which have contributed to them becoming homeless in the first place, so they can move on to stable accommodation and sustainable independent lives.

Absolutely integral to this approach is the insight and involvement of people who have themselves experienced homelessness, not just in helping co-design services but in many cases in helping to staff them.

A great case in point is our new homelessness prevention centre in Chorlton, south Manchester, where a number of staff members have themselves gone through homelessness and come out the other side.

The Longford Centre illustrates another increasingly important element of our approach: getting as far upstream of the issue as we can, intervening with support as early as we can and preventing as many people as possible from becoming homeless in the first place.

The 38-bed Longford Centre caters for those who have only recently become homelessness and is designed to provide the intensive support and inspiring activities that will stop them falling into a downward spiral and becoming homeless for the long term.

We have also developed new services to work with people before they lose their homes and reach crisis point. Our housing options service works with people at risk of losing their homes and has helped prevent more than 100 households from becoming homeless in recent months. Our commissioned debt advice service is working closely with families in private rented housing to help prevent them losing their tenancies.

The successes of such pre-emptive work, and that to help people move out of temporary accommodation and forward in their lives, are less visible when more and more people are at risk of homelessness all the time but that does not mean we should not welcome them. Prevention, as the old saying goes, is better than cure. Right now we and a whole raft of partner organisations are working tirelessly on both.

Joanne Roney, chief executive, Manchester City Council


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