Many councils have been, through both necessity and opportunity, asked to do things differently over the past few months. How we look after the most vulnerable people in our communities has figured highly for most of us and meant we’ve accelerated plans we’ve already had in place – often in hope more than expectation.
Taunton is not unique in having a significant number of rough sleepers. It’s the county town, with good transport links and is known locally for the help offered to the homeless. As a new authority (Somerset West and Taunton replaced two old districts in May 2019) with a new administration for the first time in a decade, we’ve been fortunate that fresh ideas and initiatives have been welcomed.
As the pandemic struck and additional support came from government to move rough sleepers to safety, we pulled together the numerous partners from our Streetwise programme to try something different from booking hotel rooms for a quick fix.
An empty student accommodation block just outside Taunton, Canonsgrove, became the site for a new multi-agency project involving our rough-sleeping team, Mental Health Services, Turning Point, Arc, the Salvation Army and many others. With the YMCA Dulverton Group stepping in to provide expert management of the facility, we diverted our existing rough-sleeping funds topped up by the government funding to kick-start the programme. People were housed in a safe, socially distanced manner. Outdoor space was available for those residents who felt safer camping. We worked with every resident in drawing up an individual plan to help with primary care, mental health and drug and alcohol addiction – including providing alcohol and methadone where necessary.
As residents engaged with their personal plan, levels of addiction dropped. We had a man who was clean for the first time in 15 years. Another said his one-day supply of heroine lasted 8 weeks. Levels of depression and anxiety dropped. Discussions about life after lockdown became common-place.
The police reported a drop in call-outs to deal with repeated anti-social behaviour. The NHS reported a reduced demand for their drug and alcohol services and rough sleepers attending A&E. So not only was the cost of providing accommodation cheaper than a hotel, the wider economic and social savings were also substantial.
We communicated early and openly with the local community, including Parish Councils to let them know what we were doing and how it would be managed. Initial concerns dissipated and offers of community support and even an icecream delivery to Canonsgrove became commonplace!
With this combination of hard data and personal anecdote we are building a powerful case to government to keep this going.
We have funding in place until the end of July and our challenge now is to ensure we don’t lose this momentum. We were fortunate that we could source good accommodation quickly, had partners in place, and a great team of officers to pull it together. Ambition coupled with opportunity. Our long-term measure of success will be how many people we can move into suitable accommodation, how many we keep clean, how many can find work and support themselves. With the additional financial stress on services across the county we hope that the risk of not funding the scheme will outweigh the risk of slipping back into old habits and old ways of managing the issue. Police time, court time, NHS time, volunteer time, council time. This can’t happen and we will do all we can to make this project part of our 'new normal'.
Federica Smith-Roberts is leader of Somerset West and Taunton Council