Despite the best efforts of charities and the borough council, Northampton still has a serious homelessness issue, writes Alastair Ulke.
The Chronicle & Echo has been contacted many times this week about a camp of rough sleepers in the former Poundland entryway in Abington Street.
“They’re abusive,” said one woman who lives above the empty shop. “I hear them fighting with each other or acting up, shouting at people walking past. They use drugs and alcohol and go to the toilet in the backalley.“
But when the Chron approached the rough sleepers, a man named Nicky, 30, he said: “Where else can I go?”
It’s a good question? What’s stopping them - or any other rough sleeper - from getting off the streets?
“People don’t understand the frustration, and the loneliness.” This is Bobby, who sleeps behind an office in Northampton and has been homeless for nearly 20 years. “I’m going to be 60
next year. I don’t want to live like this when I’m 60. I’m just sick of it.”
Bobby met the Chron at the Hope Centre in Ash Street, a charity for people in unstable housing, where he can get a free breakfast every day, plus medical aid, clothes, and help claiming benefits.
The building also has rooms for rough sleepers - but Bobby cannot have one, because he does not have a “local connection”. In fact, many services cannot be accessed in Northampton because of this policy, which means a user without a local family has to have lived in town for six out of the last 12 months, or three of the last five years to be “local”.
This also bars him from the new night shelter. Last year, Northampton Borough Council pledged to bring the number of rough sleepers in town down “as close as possible” to zero. As it stands, an estimated 25 people sleep rough in Northampton.
It was this strategy that led to the opening of the Night Shelter, in St Andrew’s Road, a communal space with showers, hot food and sleeping space for 20.
“I love it here,” says one user, Chris, 29 and a father of three. “I’ve been here four weeks. Before this, I was living in a tent in Lings Wood.
“I never wanted to be there. Going back to tent every night was doing bad things for my mental health. But I felt I didn’t have a choice.”
Chris was finally pushed to go to ask for help after his tent was stolen one night.
He said: “I feel like my life’s back on track again. It’s a good laugh here, it’s safe.
“Some people on the streets just need saving. Other people can help, but they really need to save themselves.”
The borough council say their outreach workers speak to the men and women camped at the Abington Street Poundland “every day” but they have refused any help.
Cabinet Member for housing and wellbeing Stephen Hibbert said: “We never turn anyone away. They will have been told they can come to the night shelter and stay as long as they need.
But they will need to work through their issues and make progress, however long it takes. We won’t give up on them.”
CAN A TOWN EVER RESOLVE PUT A STOP TO ROUGH SLEEPING?
In 2016, Northampton Borough Council pledged to reduce the number of people sleeping rough in town “as close to zero as possible”. But just how achievable is this goal?
A Northamptonshire Healthwatch paper says the number of rough sleepers in England grew by 16 per cent in 2016, and pointed to high rent rates and relationship breakdowns as main causes.
The council’s “Changing Lives” strategy, published last year, set out how it would tackle homelessness by 2019 with 10-point plan, including establishing the night shelter.
But the council cannot force rough sleepers to access their help. They have to choose to take it, and the recent encampment in Abington Street shows some will always resist it.
Cabinet member for housing Stephen Hibbert said: “The homelessness problems facing Northapton are national issues. All we can do is keep a dialogue open. It’s up to them to respond to that.
“I met a man who told me to my face he did not want to come to the Night Shelter. Two months later, I walked in to find him there. Since then, we’ve managed to get him into stable housing. It just takes time.”
Since it opened, the Night Shelter has never been at full capacity. With services like it and the Hope Centre available, how can anyone choose to stay on the streets?
Councillor Hibbert said: “Some rough sleepers will convince themselves they belong on the streets. No one should have to sleep rough in Northampton. We will not turn anyone away.”