OPINION: Homelessness: We Must Do Better

By Angela Ferguson

It’s hard to fathom that in 2020 we are still seeing people falling through the cracks in society and sleeping rough on the streets of towns and cities across the UK.

The sight of people huddled up in sleeping bags or on pieces of cardboard in a desperate attempt to keep warm and dry sounds like something that should belong in a Charles Dickens novel.

How, then, is this still a problem in a 21st century, developed country where a luxury holiday and the latest iPhone are just a click away?

A life on the streets is a dangerous one, with all sorts of risks, not least of which is trying to keep warm in the brutal depths of winter. It’s a sad fact that, at this unforgiving time of year, lives are lost as some people succumb to the elements.

There is a system in place to support people sleeping rough when conditions are particularly harsh. This is known as SWEP – the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol –and it kicks in when temperatures are forecast to drop below zero for three consecutive days.

SWEP was activated just last weekend in Chester and it means that local authorities like Cheshire West and Chester then have to offer emergency accommodation. This is alongside existing facilities including Hamilton House, where 20 beds are available while people are assessed and supported with a view to finding them longer-term accommodation.

SWEP might go some way towards supporting those sleeping rough in harsh conditions, but it has been described as falling short by the founder of one Chester-based charity.

Adam Dandy from the Share charity which works with homeless people has spoken out on social media, calling for SWEP to operate throughout the winter. Conditions, he argues, can still be harsh even when they don’t merit a SWEP activation.

Now, that would be one step towards supporting those living without a roof over their heads in the city and across the country.

The government has also pledged £236m in extra funding to tackle rough sleeping and this should surely be channelled to addressing this crucial issue.

And then we need to see the relevant charities and organisations supporting rough sleepers working together to tackle the wider issues.

In an ideal world, we would be able to stop people from falling into this vicious circle of homelessness in the first place.

It’s a complex issue, often wrapped up with mental health and addiction. And it’s not going away.

Until the right support is in place, we should continue to speak up and to do our bit to support those working to help the homeless. Then, we may feel a little less helpless the next time we pass someone huddled in a sleeping bag in a doorway.

One homeless person is one person too many. The time has surely come to solve this problem.

Photo credit: “Homeless Rough Sleeper” by Deadly Sirius is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

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