Homelessness in Northampton: Is the strategy working...or are there more people sleeping rough than ever before?

Picture by Alex Sturrock
Picture by Alex Sturrock

Last winter as temperatures plummeted, a homeless man with learning disabilities found his way to a severe weather emergency facility in Northampton.

The cold had already taken effect. The man ended up with such severe frostbite that he had eight toes amputated.

Weeks before getting this emergency care he had tried to gain access to the newly set up Northampton Night Shelter but he was only allowed to stay for one night before being turned away because he had rent arrears at former temporary accommodation.

Despite being set up in early 2017 to “keep homeless people safe, warm and dry” the Bureau of Investigative Journalism Local has, in a special report alongside the Chronicle & Echo, revealed how some homeless people are being turned away when there are spaces at the hostel. A Freedom of Information request to the borough council showed the facility in St Andrews Road was on average only 52 percent full over the last winter.

Local agencies working in the community say seven homeless people died during that time, three of them known rough-sleepers. They claim a total of 12 homeless people have died since July last year and say several those who had died were rough sleepers, but some had been recently housed.

The borough council strongly disputes any link being made between any deaths and access to the night shelter. The council also says its rough sleeper count is significantly lower than those being quoted by other agencies.

In November 2016, the Chron reported on the death of 31-year-old, Vadims Aleksejevs, who was found face down in a makeshift campsite in the town. A little after 10am that day, he was pronounced dead by paramedics. A coroner’s report concluded that the cause was the cold weather conditions he’d been sleeping in, combined with drug and alcohol use, and warned that there was a risk of similar deaths occurring. Assistant Coroner Hassan Shah wrote in his report: “In my opinion, there is a risk that future deaths could occur. Action should be taken to prevent future deaths and I believe your organisation has the power to take such action.”

The borough council did take action.

The new shelter, taking up to 20 occupants, was set up as one of the top priorities in the council’s “ambitious, multi-agency” rough sleeper strategy, titled ‘Together we change lives – ending the need for people to sleep rough in Northampton’.

The strategy pledged to bring the number of rough sleepers down to zero.

But this week, as we put the success of the night shelter under the spotlight, homeless charity the Hope Centre has claimed there are still 48 known rough sleepers in the town. One example was the homeless camp that pitched up on Abington Street for 10 weeks, growing to up to 15 people at one stage.

Chief executive of the Hope Centre, Robin Burgess, says not enough is being done to support rough sleepers during the day.

He said: “People are right to be concerned. But there doesn’t seem to be an obvious solution to rough sleepers’ housing needs.

“We need more direct housing intervention. We see 120 people a day who we help get off the streets and into work, training or support.

“We need to see other services play their part to offer night shelters and provisions to get them off the street.”

Over these pages, the Bureau has detailed how some homeless people have been unable to get into the night shelter and others, particularly Eastern European men, are struggling to engage with the service.

But the facility is dividing opinion.

Councillor Stephen Hibbert, Northampton Borough Council’s cabinet member for housing and wellbeing, says it has been a success and disputes the recent figures provided by the Hope Centre.

The council’s own rough sleeper count is much lower.

“We’re not sure where their figures come from or what they include,” said Councillor Hibbert of the Hope Centre stats.

“Most of those who remain on the streets are, for a variety of reasons, unwilling to engage with the excellent support services available. Hand-outs are a big part of this and we would urge people, rather than giving directly to people begging on the streets, to donate to those support services instead.

“Our night shelter has benefited a significant number of people during its 18 months in operation and aims not only to offer warmth and shelter, but also a way for rough sleepers to get off the streets permanently.”

The borough says the rough sleeper count has dropped from 25, when its strategy was announced, to just 13.

Several local volunteers and homeless workers told the Bureau that they felt the numbers didn’t match what appeared to be a visible increase in people sleeping in doorways or in tents.

The Hope Centre said that 34 people bedded down there in one night last winter alone. This was in addition to the 10 or so who were already in the council-run shelter as well as those who remained outside. This seemed to indicate a clear increase in the number of rough sleepers in the town.

“We’ve never said that figure is a true reflection of the number of people sleeping rough,” Phil Harris, the head of housing at the council told the Bureau.

“I can categorically say that there was no attempt to not find people. It’s disappointing that organisations have criticised the count without looking at what we’ve actually said.”

Mr Harris believes much of the criticism aimed at the council is unfair and says some local charities are encouraging rough sleepers not to engage with the council’s services and not to use the night shelter.

“There’s a constant running down of the council,” he said. “We see these organisations presented in one way but behind the scenes it’s sinister and I’m not paranoid. There are councillors doing regular night shifts at the shelter, I do shifts too.

“It’s a bit galling being attacked for doing your job but we have a personal mission to change people’s lives.”

The night shelter works on a referrals basis and around 80 percent of are admitted. “We have 20 spaces but we don’t actually want that occupancy,” he says. “The more people that are there the less effective the service will be.”

The council also stressed that the night shelter has had many successful “guests”, with over 120 moved on in a planned way, and with over 4,700 overnight stays in the shelter as of May.