Homeless people feel Northampton Borough Council is 'hostile' and punishes them, says Hope Centre boss

The homeless encampment outside All Saints Church
The homeless encampment outside All Saints Church

A major reason for homelessness in Northampton is the perception from homeless people that council-run services are "hostile and punitive", the chief executive of the Hope Centre says.

Robin Burgess made the comments in evidence submitted to a Northampton Borough Council scrutiny panel on homelessness and rough sleeping

Commenting on the council's outreach services, the local authority's night shelter in St Andrew's Road and its management of general homelessness applications, he said the services did not have the confidence of many of their clients.

He said: "Our view is that these services are run in such a way that is often perceived by service users and workers in other agencies as hostile and punitive towards homeless people.

"[It requires them] to navigate sometimes incomprehensible barriers of access and delivered with a perceived lack of compassion and empathy for their needs.

"Many homeless people do not present to the council and refuse to attend because of the attitudes we have described above. They know this is what they are going to experience and don't need more pain in their lives.

"They would rather sleep in a tent."

Mr Burgess cited an example of the attitude of some council homelessness staff.

When told that a rough sleeper turned away from the night shelter for £80 rent arrears had lost eight of his toes to frostbite, a council staff member allegedly said: "That'll teach him to pay his rent, then." It is not alleged that the comment was made in the presence of the homeless man.

In his coruscating evidence to councillors, Mr Burgess made a number of revelations:

- The scale of rough sleeper deaths in Northampton is far above that of any other UK area of comparable size

- Whereas the council says there are 29 rough sleepers in the town, the Hope Centre believes there are 60-80. The number of 'street homeless' - including those who sleep in tents, cars and sheds - could be as many as 100, Mr Burgess says.

- The council's head of housing allegedly suggested that the Hope Centre falsified the figures of the number of street homeless to increase donations.

- Emails between the council and the Government show Northampton lost out on central funding as a result of submitting low rough sleeper figures based on street counts, Mr Burgess said.

Mr Burgess does acknowledge the council achieves some success with men who are offered housing.

He says the overall solution for some street homeless would be housing, but with their tenancies supported by the Hope Centre using funding.

The borough council was approached for a response to Mr Burgess's comments but it declined to address them individually.

However, Councillor Stephen Hibbert, cabinet member for housing, said: “The most important thing here is that we do all we can to engage with rough sleepers and give them every opportunity possible to change their lives for the better.

“We recognise that, for a variety of reasons, we have all taken a slightly different approach to tackling rough sleeping.

“I’m pleased that we are now moving towards finding common ground and working out how best we can work together to change and improve the lives of people sleeping rough in Northampton.”