SPECIAL REPORT: Can Northampton's strategy to tackle rough sleepers get back on track?
With tent-covered churchyards becoming an everyday sight in Northampton and relations between the council and homelessness charities strained, drastic measures are being taken to keep the town’s emergency night shelter open for the whole of winter.
Northampton Borough Council is almost certain to be successful in applying for a government grant aimed at helping to get rough sleepers off the streets and into supported living, the Chronicle & Echo can reveal.
The money will be used to extend the authority’s Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) from February through to the end of March for the first time. Currently the measure only stays in place for a matter of days when temperatures dip below freezing, such as the week just past.
The funds would see Oasis House in Campbell Street open as an overnight winter shelter for two solid months, offering rough sleepers the potential of 60 consecutive nights of respite from the chilling weather and a hot meal.
“This might give us a chance to work with those people who have been very difficult to work with for a long period,” said Councillor Stephen Hibbert, the cabinet member for housing.
But the council believes the move could be vital in getting its wider homelessness strategy back on track – two years after it was first announced.
Few can deny the Together We Change Lives plan of 2016, which pledged to bring rough sleeping down to zero, is faltering. Agencies involved in drawing it up have recently criticised the council’s 20-bed night shelter in St Andrew’s for having a strict admissions policy, though the shelter itself has been widely praised.
Rough sleepers must prove a local connection to Northampton to get a bed for the night, which has proved a particular challenge for Eastern European migrants. Alcohol and drugs are banned there – which is deterring those with serious addictions.
It is also male only.
But the 60-day SWEP protocol will require a far lower threshold to stay the night and could give the council, volunteers and the various agencies prolonged contact with homeless people of both sexes before moving them onto addiction counselling courses, mental health programmes - even into supported living arrangements.
Last Thursday, 29 people who would ordinarily be out on the streets bedded down in Oasis House because of the SWEP Protocol. Some 50 volunteers helped out in the operation.
But Councillor Hibbert has conceded that the relationship between the authority, homelessness charities and key stakeholders around the town has become ‘fractious’.
Handouts such as tents, sleeping bags and even food, he believes, are only enabling rough sleepers to stay ‘entrenched’ in encampments, rather than engaging with help.
Currently, tent sites sit on graveyards in All Saints Church, St Giles and Holy Sepulchre – but the cabinet member believes church leaders need to take a tougher stance in moving them on.
“They have very good, charitable intentions,” he said, referring to the church leaders. “How can we argue with that?
“But sometimes it is misguided.
“Are they actually helping people if they allow them to stay in tents in their churchyard?
“Is that a solution? It’s just a sticking plaster.
“They should be encouraging them into the night shelter.”
“It’s human nature to help someone who’s struggling,” an outreach worker tells me as we tour the town’s rough sleeper camps. “But it’s not always the best route to go down”.
We had just been to see shanty towns, some complete with vegetable patches, barbecues and tarpaulin-covered huts, that have become all-too permanent homes to dozens in the less well-trodden areas of Northampton.
Yet with temperatures set to remain below zero at night, Northampton’s outreach workers say many will remain living there. They have become settled.
While recent visible encampments to set up in town centre churchyards and on Abington Street have gathered attention, the problem facing the outreach team spreads far into the surrounding woods and canalside areas near Towcester Road, where mainly European migrants have set up sophisticated dens and, in one case, a rudimentary shower.
The Chronicle & Echo joined officers Mandy Wilson and Michael Bradshaw during their rounds last Thursday morning, the day the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) was launched.
But they say they are facing an uphill task trying to persuade many to get to the One Stop Shop a the Guildhall – where they could be referred for further help.
And they have a different view to many as to why.
They say organisations who hand out tents and sleeping bags are only helping to keep groups entrenched outside.
“If I was sleeping rough and people were giving me a tent, food and giving me drinks, I would think this is better than what I had before,” said Michael.
Quite simply, the workers say that many people, despite repeated attempts, will not engage with the services that might get them off the streets.
This is partly because they are being controlled by addictions to alcohol and drugs, and partly because they can all too easily get hold of the means to remain outside.
The town’s night shelter in St Andrew’s Road has a strict no alcohol or drugs policy – and those who turn up intoxicated are told they will have to sober up before being admitted.
On the street, those with addictions are free to drink or ‘score’ drugs.
“I went out to visit someone six times in one day,” said Michael.
“I even said I would fill the form out with him on the street to get him in the night shelter.
“But he said to me ‘to be honest I want to get in somewhere but I need to score’.
“Addiction is a powerful thing – and so is mental health.”
On the days when SWEP is active, outreach workers will go from tent to tent, blanket to blanket, around the town informing as many of the rough sleepers that they can bed down in Oasis House for the night.
Most appeared keen to take up the offer on Thursday morning.
But a small number, the outreach workers told me, would not.
Some groups of sleepers in the town, they say, have simply ‘settled’ into communities.
“If you have a well-established camp you are less likely to engage with services,” said Mandy, who has been an outreach worker for two years.
“Depending on the type of drug they will stick together in groups,” added Michael, shortly after pointing to a set of needles in The Holy Sepulchre Churchyard, not far from a nursery.
“Whether they are alcohol dependent. I guess it’s because they have got something in common.”
On the outskirts of town, in wooded areas behind B&Q, groups of predominantly Eastern European men have bedded in for the long run.
Some lack the necessary proof to get a space at the night shelter, others prefer to work and live outside.
But a shocking amount are caught in limbo because they work on a zero-hours contract.
Their employed status and fluctuating hours make it difficult for them to apply for benefits and they find it hard to rent in the private sector because landlords and agencies regard them as at risk of rent default.
A surprising number of the people sleeping rough on Thursday morning were preparing to go to work as flakes of snow began to fall on the top of their shelter.
One man, Michael, tells me of was taking ad hoc shifts packaging clothing in the day and returning to a tent in the woods at night.
The outreach workers say the best way to get people off the street is to get them referred to support services via the Guildhall One Stop Shop – where they can seek help to kick addictions and receive support to move them on to supported accommodation.
But – as the Chron and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported last year – people need to prove they have been sleeping rough in the town for six out of the past 12 months to get a place at the night shelter, which local charity workers believe is simply putting off Eastern European men from engaging with the council.
Between November 2017 and March 2018 the shelter was on average 52 per cent full. During that time seven rough sleepers died.
An officer who completes assessments of rough sleepers at the Guildhall One Stop Shop to see if they are eligible to stay at the night shelter, said our report failed to tell the full story.
All too often, she said, people complete the referral, receive the offer of a bed for the night – but do not turn up at the night shelter because they are so entrenched.
“It’s really frustrating,” she said.
“The other day I was walking to my car and I saw a woman. I said, ‘if you wait there I will walk you to my desk and we can get you referred’.
“When I came back she was gone.”
Stan Robertson, who’s Project 16:15 hands out breakfast to rough sleepers in Northampton, agrees that there are too many places to get overnight provisions and food in the town, with at least a dozen town centre charities and churches often providing the same service.
Many rough sleepers do not want to engage with services because they are worried that their tent will be cleared away as soon as they do.
But he says that a hardline approach of stopping handouts altogether is not the answer either. In fact he believes some would die as a result.
“The council is saying that if you give someone a blanket, they won’t engage,” he said. “That might be the case for some.
“But the people we are seeing in the morning don’t have a local connection to Northampton, they have been excluded from the night shelter or they are women who have been excluded from temporary accommodation.
“We can’t not give these people some kind of shelter.”