West Sussex council’s proposal to cut help for rough sleepers by £4m will have drastic consequences
Rough sleeping in England has gone up by 165% from 2010-2017, as cuts have hit. Photograph: Paul Zinken/DPA/PA Images
Kurt Cavanne spent eight weeks living rough in the woods of West Sussex before support workers at the Open House hostel in Crawley found a bed for him. “It was a Friday. I’ll never forget it,” he says. “They turned round to me and said ‘As of this afternoon you have got a bed.’ I cried. It was the first time I remember crying since I was a kid. I’d been living in the bushes, and now I had a roof over my head”
Alcoholism and the collapse of a relationship had tipped the former bus driver on to the streets last year.
From the hostel, Cavanne was referred on to the Sands facility, run by the Stonepillow charity, where he dried out. He now has a room in a shared house. He’s five and a half months sober and has enrolled on a bridging course to allow him to study social work at university.
For Cavanne, housing support isn’t just a “nice to have”. So, he’s staggered that the services he credits with saving his life are now under threat as a result of council cuts that will strip millions from local housing support services. “The government is making a big mistake if they screw all this up,” he says.
The scale of the cuts planned by Conservative-run West Sussex county council has shocked even those who have become used to the drip-drip corrosion of municipal budgets over years of austerity. By 2020, the £6.3m the council currently spends on housing support services for rough sleepers, victims of domestic abuse, care leavers, and frail older people in the county, will shrink to just £2.3m (the original proposal was to cut it by 100%).
An entire social infrastructure of hostels, drop-in centres, and floating support teams built up over years is at risk of being dismantled, say charities, and a vital pathway to recovery and independence for thousands of society’s most vulnerable people broken. The cost will be high, they say, both in terms of human lives, and the knock-on effects on the NHS, child protection, homelessness provision and the criminal justice system.
“There will be more rough sleepers on the street and more people will die,” predicts Stonepillow chief executive Hilary Bartle. The details of exactly where and how the cuts will fall among local services had not been revealed at the time of writing, but the impact is expected to fall on a spectrum of bad to very bad. At a minimum, hostels that run on a 24/7 basis will revert to night shelters, turfing clients out on to the street during the day. “At the very least we won’t be able to support the service at the level we do now,” she says. “In some cases the charity providing the service may just disappear entirely.”
Bartle chairs a coalition of 13 organisations affected by the cuts. Between them they provide a range of services that help vulnerable people get and maintain tenancies and live independently. The services are designed to help them stay physically and mentally well, and to navigate the complexity of daily life, from work to the benefits system. Without that support, the alternative too often can be homelessness, crime or family breakdown. As a powerful film made by the coalition testifies, many of their clients, like Cavanne, believe that without support they would be dead.
The coalition calculates that for every £1 spent on the housing support contracts, £7.50 is saved on wider services. It estimates that the West Sussex services between them helped 845 people maintain their tenancies in 2017-18. Had those tenancies collapsed, the cost to public services would have been £19m. “The question is not whether we can afford such services,” says the coalition, “but whether we can afford to be without them.”
The timing of the cuts come as the latest official figures show an upwards trend in rough sleeping across West Sussex over the last decade. In 2011, 50 people were sleeping rough in the county’s affluent south coast towns, compared with 94 in 2018. Stonepillow’s hostels in Chichester and Bognor Regis have long waiting lists.
Meanwhile, the government is supposedly committed to halving levels of rough sleeping by 2022 and eradicating it by 2027. It introduced a legal duty on English councils to prevent homelessness a year ago. But it has also starved councils of half their grant funding since 2010. There is, Bartle, points out, a major contradiction at the heart of government policy.
In a sense, the West Sussex cuts are the inevitable consequence of government policy since 2009, when the ringfence protecting housing-related support was lifted. According to the National Audit Office (NAO), there was a 69% reduction by English councils on this support, known as Supporting People funding, between 2010 and 2017.
Over this period the NAO concluded, ministers “lost their grip” on the causes and costs of homelessness. Rough sleeping rose in England by 165% during this time (4,677 people bedded down on the streets or in sheds and tents in 2018), and there is evidence that in some areas there was a big increase in the number of people returning to rough sleeping after at least a year away from the streets. Research by homelessness charity, St Mungo’s, found that of the 10 councils with the highest levels of rough sleeping in 2017, eight had cut funding for tenancy support services by at least 25%.
Last summer, when the government launched its rough sleeping strategy, it announced it would also undertake a review of housing-related support. The danger, says Bartle, is that by the time it reports, the local housing support infrastructure will be beyond repair. Neighbouring Hampshire county council plans a 42% cut in housing-related support from August, and it will not be alone as councils hack back budgets to bare legal minimum levels. “If suddenly someone decides they want to reinvest in housing support it will be too late, because the buildings will be gone.”
West Sussex county council leader Louise Goldsmith said last month: “In an ideal world we wouldn’t do this [the cuts to housing-related support] but unfortunately we’re not in an ideal world.” The council has made £145m of cuts since 2010 and faces a budget gap of £51m in 2019-20. “In my heart of hearts I’d hoped we would have been able to keep it ... But because it’s not our main statutory duty, then we have to look at everything.”
A county council spokesman said that phasing the cuts over two years would give time for partners “to find solutions to prioritise people in greatest need but also deliver the savings that we have to make”. The spokesman added: “We are working collaboratively with all partners in line with the government’s homelessness strategy and we are committed to having a joined-up approach to help reduce homelessness.”
Bartle is unconvinced. The cuts suggest there is no joined-up thinking about tackling homelessness: “Ultimately, people who lose their services will die; they will get stuck in that revolving door of homelessness; there will be nowhere to go when they pitch up. No support services; no outreach services. You will end up with a system that is just chaotic. You will end up with churches opening their doors and people sleeping on pews.”
As Cavanne says: “If it wasn’t for Stonepillow I’d be dead. I wouldn’t have survived the winter.”