It’s that time of year, when the halls are decked, the carols play, and your thoughts might turn to Dickensian depictions of Christmas and Ebenezer Scrooge learning the importance of helping those in need.
Few things conjure up the image of a harsh Victorian Christmas like visible hardship and homelessness. The untimely spread of the Omicron variant brings the most vulnerable on our streets and in our communities into jeopardy again.
Fortunately, we know how to help them. We’ve done it before in Christmas past. The Prime Minister himself has praised the heroic national effort to protect vulnerable rough sleepers at the height of the pandemic. It was called Everyone In and it did what it said on the tin. From a standing start, local government – spearheaded by district councils on the frontline – pulled together to get more than 30,000 rough sleepers safe and off the streets. It really was a phenomenal effort: this was nine times the last official estimate of the total number of rough sleepers.
This is emblematic of what district councils do to help the most vulnerable in their communities. They’re on the frontline of hardship, connecting groups and people across our towns and villages, and intervening when things look bleak. The Norwich Food Poverty Alliance is network of local community groups, convened by the City council, providing food, volunteers and support to the vulnerable via a Community Hub. Burnley BC is working with local partners and charities to offer anything from debt advice and mental health support, to help picking up prescriptions and walking the dog.
But there’s no room for complacency about Christmas present. A hard winter is looming. This is a time when many gather with their loved ones for festive cheer. But for those in need it’s a time of cold drawing in, pressures mounting, and the starkness between their situations and the Christmas idyl becoming all too apparent.
Everyone In was a great success, yes. But over half of district councils surveyed this autumn had seen people housed during the pandemic back in the homelessness cycle. 70% reported an increase in need for temporary accommodation over the summer. Most depressingly, 40% reported rough sleeping increases since the spring of 2021. Much of the hard work done in the pandemic by councils and their partners to transform the life chances of those who need it the most is at risk of becoming undone.
District council housing and benefits teams see the true picture of hardship as it emerges on the ground. They’re best placed to sound the alarm bell early. They’re telling us there are large increases in families struggling. Nine in ten report growing numbers of residents with mental health needs.
All the while the pressures keep coming. 76% of councils say that landlords are selling up property and putting strain on the rental market. Many people are still in debt and unable to find an affordable place to rent. Zoopla have reported rents are at a 13-year high. Local Housing Allowance rates are again frozen, meaning housing benefit remains the same whilst rents climb. The result? More people can’t afford to rent and get pushed onto housing waiting lists and towards homelessness
Is there any hope to be had? Well, much like Dickens’ Christmas ghosts, district and borough councils believe in the power of prevention. They’re priming themselves for this hard winter in all manner of ways:
- Many councils bring together action groups - such as Colchester BC’s Winter Strategic Group convening healthcare, voluntary and community sector partners to respond directly to warning signs.
- Maidstone BC is using a cutting-edge new data tool, allowing its staff to access a holistic picture of a household’s situation through automated case summaries. It provides alerts about households at risk of homelessness so the council can take early action.
East Devon DC has set up a new Financial Resilience team to address the underlying and complex roots of poverty that often get overlooked. This team works with local Citizens Advice and other community organisations to provide holistic support to vulnerable residents.
When homelessness prevention isn’t enough, our districts and boroughs take the action needed to stamp it out:
- Nuneaton & Bedworth BC are preparing their ‘Crash Pad’ spaces again this winter, for the third year running. Essentially a hostel for the homeless; they’ll provide crucial beds in comfy rooms on these cold nights.
- North Northamptonshire Council has brought the vacant Euro Hotel in Wellingborough back into use as temporary accommodation for the homeless.
- Somerset West and Taunton Councils have committed to using supported shelter Canonsgrove, which provided accommodation earlier in the pandemic, to supply housing for another two years.
Of course, this Christmas COVID has sprung another nasty surprise. Districts councils will once again be at the forefront, delivering the new Protect and Vaccinate programme in towns across England to make sure every rough sleeper gets a jab and their shot at a better future. They’ll be going the extra mile to get the vulnerable into secure accommodation, facilitate mobile vaccinations and deliver outreach support to get jabs to those who are hardest to reach.
- Many councils are offering over their staff and their venues to the programme, such as Gedling BC offering up its conference centre as a vaccination hub.
- Maldon DC’s own offices are acting as a vaccination hub, with the help of an army of volunteers.
So, it needn’t be a bleak midwinter. Let’s raise a glass to local councils and the work they’re doing to help ensure we all have a healthy and prosperous Christmas future.
Cllr Sam Chapman-Allen is chairman of the District Councils’ Network