Chesterfield is an attractive market town, but in recent months, visitors to our town have been alarmed by the amount of rough sleeping and street drinking that now diminishes that attractiveness.
This was brought into particular focus this Christmas when David Fuller, a homeless man, died in an abandoned property in Brampton.
I am writing this to lay out the issues that have led to this alarming development and the steps I, and others, are taking both to reduce rough sleeping and support the people involved.
We are seeing rough sleeping levels in Chesterfield that would previously have been expected only in a city centre location, and also experiencing increased street drinking and substance misuse that has also created antisocial behaviour.
I am regularly contacted by constituents concerned about the unacceptable behaviour they’re seeing in town, as well as dozens of emails from people wanting to help the genuine rough sleepers who are at great risk on the streets this winter. Why is it happening?
Chesterfield is by no means unique in suffering like this. A report published by the public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, at the end of last year, showed that since 2010/11 rough sleeping has increased 134%, and the number of homeless households forced into temporary accommodation was up 60%. The report is clear that one of the driving forces behind the increase in homelessness are the Government’s welfare reforms.
Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit no longer cover the rent and Council Tax bills, which means that many people on benefits fall into arrears and are evicted from their properties.
In addition the bedroom tax caused significant rent arrears, the sanctions regime leaves people who have nothing without a weekly subsistence income and the lack of stable work means that many people’s work patterns see them falling behind on their payments.
We are currently in the longest period of static wage growth in history just when property prices continue to rise due to the lack of new affordable housing being built.
A time when Welfare Policy is leading to increased poverty and desperation is also the worst possible time to drastically cut Local Government spending, because this funding has led to the closure of homeless hostels, and cuts to funding for the charities providing homelessness prevention, and Council tenancy support services.
These cause of these social problems all reside in Westminster and are a direct result of deliberate Government policies. As Chesterfield’s representative it is my job to argue and to vote against the policies that cause this, which I am doing.
But whilst the cause may lie in Westminster the problem is ours to deal with. The cost of trying to deal with homelessness is costing local government around £1.1bn a year, at a time when the Government are continuing to slash hundreds of millions from council budgets.
Whilst this is a national issue with national causes, conversations that I have had, both with local homeless people and with Police and Homeless charities has identified a number of reasons why Chesterfield has seen such a noticeable increase.
Firstly, Chesterfield has a higher amount of social and Council housing than most towns of a similar size, and so the numbers affected by issues like the bedroom tax are greater.
Secondly, whilst Chesterfield’s population is around 100,000, the town centre acts as the focal point for people across a much wider section of North Derbyshire.
Thirdly, homeless people have travelled here from many larger cities due to it being both safer and the wider network of charitable support that is here than many other areas.
We also lack adequate hostel services, and the Borough Council are now looking at introducing a night shelter.
There are also clearly people who are not homeless, as such, but spend time with street sleepers, and so the numbers hanging around on the streets during the day are greater than the number sleeping rough at night.
So what are we doing locally?
Whilst many people understand why Government policy has led us to this appalling situation, they rightly expect us to take action locally.
We are adopting a multi-agency approach locally to ensure that everyone with expertise and the ability to contribute is involved in addressing the issue in Chesterfield.
One of the most important things I am doing is helping individual constituents who find themselves homeless or at the risk of homelessness.
I have supported homeless families living in B&Bs or other temporary accommodation to secure council housing.
I am helping constituents who find themselves in rent arrears to try to address these before they become homeless.
My office supports people every day with getting benefits back in place, accessing appropriate debt advice and liaising with landlords to try to give tenants more time before eviction proceedings are instigated.
I am also helping constituents to access emergency accommodation. For example, just before Christmas my office ensured two homeless men, who were sleeping in a tent during sub-zero temperatures, secured a place at a night shelter in Derby.
In another case, we arranged for the Council to provide a house to a family that had been evicted and had rent outstanding rent arrears, and also arranged for temporary accommodation in the period leading up to their new Council house being ready to move into.
I have also supported lots of constituents with their applications for housing, to ensure they are rehoused as quickly as possible.
Alongside supporting individual constituents, I work specifically across the Town to support those who support the homeless.
I have provided documentation to support letters for grant applications made by Pathways, which have helped them secure thousands of pounds in additional funding.
I also joined with Framework Housing Association and Pathways with their sofa push event in Queen’s Park, which has helped raise awareness of the ‘sofa-surfing’ problem in Chesterfield, as well as raising funds for the vital work done by both charities. I wrote to the Prime Minister in the summer to highlight my constituents’ concerns about increasing homelessness and to urge the Government to provide additional funds in the Autumn Budget to help local authorities to tackle rough sleeping.
I also wrote to the Secretary of State for Work & Pensions asking him to pause the roll-out of Universal Credit due to the heightened risk of rent arrears and eviction for UC claimants. I continue to attend summit meetings arranged by Derbyshire’s Police & Crime Commissioner, Hardyal Dhindsa. The meetings have brought together representatives from Chesterfield Borough Council, Derbyshire County Council, Derbyshire Constabulary, local businesses, homelessness support charities, health & treatment services and other agencies, to create a proactive approach to tackling rough sleeping, antisocial behaviour, street drinking and drug abuse. The majority of homeless people are victims of circumstances, and our priority will always be to ensure that everything is done to try and get people to engage with support and advice, to help them address their issues. However, for those who will not engage with offers of support the police and council officers will have powers to issue fines which could potentially lead to prosecutions.
The Council’s new Public Space Protection Orders aim to stop the behaviours we have seen in the town that are causing disruption and concern. The new powers allow police to confiscate alcohol and prevent people loitering near cash machines and shop doorways begging, allow Police to issue fixed penalty notices for urinating or defecating in public and stop people setting up tents in inappropriate areas. These new powers are about ensuring genuinely homeless people are being encouraged to engage with support, whilst helping the police and council officers to take action against those who won’t engage with help.
When I went down to Beetwell Street myself to talk to people in sleeping bags in the area, there were people who despite being offered Council flats, felt they were better off on the streets. They had been evicted before and weren’t wanting to be housed.
The Council does have one bedroom flats for rent, but that doesn’t resolve the issues with the Welfare policies that I referred to earlier.
The voluntary sector are also playing a massive role in trying to address homelessness in Chesterfield. Two church groups have set up homeless accommodation services in Chesterfield (unfortunately one has had to close temporarily due to a fire) as well as providing soup kitchens, counselling, benefits and other support in Chesterfield, we are well served with charities, church groups and voluntary organisations working with the council and police to help homeless people engage with support and move towards permanent housing and more stable lives, but the barriers that face them are substantial. I expect that there are more challenges to come with the roll-out of Universal Credit and further reductions in council funding. Because Universal Credit is paid to claimants and not to their landlords, I expect arrears and evictions to increase but I can assure you that in Chesterfield we are doing all we can to weather the storm. What we need now is the Government to wake up to the homelessness crisis they have created and to provide people and councils with the resources they need to ensure homelessness reduces to the levels it was before they came to power in 2010.