Spike in Cambridge homelessness pushes services to the limit

Image credit: Tom Dorrington

As World Homeless Day was marked this week, rising homelessness in Cambridge has put the city council and voluntary sector under increasing strain.

Leader of the city council and Labour councillor for Coleridge, Lewis Herbert, spoke to The Cambridge Student, saying that homeless figures “have mushroomed in the past year”.

As Cambridge News reported on 21 May, recorded homelessness has gone up by 41%. There were 262 cases of people or families recording themselves as homeless to the city council in 2014/15, whereas in 2013/14 it was 186.

A spokesperson for Homeless Link, the national homeless membership charity told TCS: “By any objective standard homelessness appears to be rising.” The official rough sleeping figures nationally have risen by 55% since 2010; Cambridge peaked in 2012 but is still above the 2010 figure.

He added that, in the East of England, there are increasing numbers of rough sleepers who are migrants.

Rising pressure is being felt by the local charities, including the shelters Jimmy’s Night Shelter and Cambridge Cyrenians, the drop-in centre Wintercomfort, and the student society Streetbite. Wintercomfort’s Services Manager James Martin spoke to TCS: “We have felt the rise in demand for our service over the past few years.”

He said average daily attendance in September has risen from 45 people in 2013, with a maximum of 62, to 65 average and 79 maximum in 2015. “The effect this has had on our ability to deliver a service has been difficult”.

Jane Heeney, Services Development Manager at Jimmy’s, told TCS: “We have seen a gradual rise, especially amongst younger people, women and people in employment.”

Homeless Link said: “Throughout England these rises and the increased need for services has coincided with reduced funding to homelessness services from local authorities facing unprecedented budget squeezes.”

It costs Jimmy’s £1,400 a day to run their shelter, which has been running since 1995, and a chunk of that cost is funded purely through donations. They are a 22 room facility.

The Cyrenians, meanwhile, are housing over 70 homeless men and women, and possess 24% of all temporary beds in Cambridge, according to their website. They currently say on their website that applicants will have to wait “at least two weeks” before getting Short Stay Accommodation, and that priority is given to those with a local connection.

The city council does have mechanisms for those who are about to become homeless, including an Emergency Homeless Application, and a Cambridge Street and Mental Health Outreach team. Lewis Herbert told TCS: “We have a comprehensive policy, especially through supporting the voluntary sector and we have a number of housing units reserved for the homeless.”

However, he highlighted the spike in numbers, and central government policy as handicaps. This strain may increase after the city council offered to take a number Syrian refugees in stages two weeks ago.

University students are involved in charity provision, Streetbite being one voluntary vehicle. This society aims to give the homeless decent food. Streetbite committee member, Charlotte Furniss-Roe, said to TCS: “Cambridge’s homelessness problem is severe for such a small city and it does seem like it’s getting worse even in the two years I have been here.”

She said those “sleeping rough are only the immediate face of the problem – unseen homelessness is a far more extensive issue. In Cambridge, the high prices of the housing market mean it is extremely difficult to move the homeless from temporary into permanent accommodation, and then from a position of danger and real instability into temporary accommodation, so we see a lot of the same people.

“While our society is doing what we can ... we can never have a big enough pool of volunteers to draw on.”

This is not a new problem. The number of recorded homeless has increased every year since 2011/12, and The Cambridge Student reported a five-fold increase in the city council’s street-count of rough sleepers three years ago, one which was leading some to lift the lids off tombs in Mill Road Cemetery for shelter.

Also, last year, The Tab ran a series of articles on homelessness, including interviews with rough sleepers by Jamie Webb and an opinion piece by Rachel Tookey. This Wednesday, local firefighter George White of Parkside Place Community Fire and Rescue Station has called on the public to donate sleeping bags and rucksacks.

Cambridge city has been held up as a model example for the rest of the United Kingdom by Jeremy Cliffe of The Economist in August. But it seems Cambridge, while prosperous, also  has a problem with homelessness and debilitating poverty.

Of course, many of Cambridge’s actual or potential homeless population are probably off the statistical radar and, Kevin Price, the executive city councillor for housing, has previously said to Cambridge News it was the “just the tip of the iceberg. He explains: “a lot of our efforts are focused on preventing those in precarious housing situations actually becoming homeless, through, for example, access to debt and housing options advice and maintaining tenancies.”

On 27 March, it was reported in Cambridge News that around 12% of the city are living in poverty, according to Campaign Against Child Poverty.

This cannot be separated from the pressures on charities focused on poverty generally, such as foodbanks. Nationally, in 2014/15 enough emergency food for three days for over a million people was distributed, according to the Trussell Trust.

The numbers have been continually rising since 2008, when the figure was 25,899. In Cambridge, it was reported that in 2014/15 almost 5,000 people were helped by Cambridge Food Bank.

Recently, a Cambridge University Foodbank Society was established to try and redistribute leftover food from student rooms to the foodbank. They told TCS: “What is needed is a directed interaction from the University with these organisations to reduce food waste.”



Read more: 

News | Right to buy 'perfect storm' blamed by charities for homelessness spike

Comment | Conversations with Cambridge's homeless population

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