Report of the Interim Executive Director, Growth, Planning and Housing
6.1 Robert White, Lead Commissioner for Supported Housing and Rough Sleeping Strategy, introduced a report on issues relating to rough sleeping in the City of Westminster alongside an update on the recently published 2017 - 2022 Rough Sleeping Strategy.
6.2 Westminster sees the highest number of rough sleepers in the UK. Reducing rough sleeping and addressing the associated behaviours of the daytime Street population is a priority for the Council in a time where many local authorities are seeing an increase of people on the streets.
6.3 The new strategy will operate in the context of the national focus on reducing the numbers of people finding themselves on the streets following a tenancy ending and implementing the new Homelessness Reduction Act from 1 April.
6.4 The committee heard from Petra Salva, Director of Rough Sleeper and Ex Offender Services, St Mungos and David Eastwood, Services and Commissioning Manager, Housing & Land, GLA, who had been invited to the meeting as expert witnesses.
6.5 Ms Salva provided a brief summary of her career background which incorporated more than 25 years experience. She had over the last couple of years fed into the development of the Council’s Rough Sleeping Strategy, shaping how the local authority responds to rough sleepers.
6.6 Mr Eastwood explained that he oversees the Mayor of London’s rough sleeping services and rough sleeping policy for the GLA. He advised that the Mayor of London had recently published a draft rough sleeping strategy.
6.7 Whilst recognising that Westminster has a unique set of challenges when it comes to rough sleepers, members asked the witnesses how the City Council compares with other London local authorities in terms of the services it provides. Both witnesses had worked with most, if not all, London local authorities and considered that the Council was a trailblazer in this field and supported a great deal of innovation. Ms Salva commented that Westminster is often a testing ground for new approaches and that if a new offer worked in Westminster it would likely work everywhere. She also thought that the Council’s strategy was well thought out but stated that the authority could not address all the issues it faced on its own. She stated that the factors that draw rough sleepers to Westminster are the same today as they were a hundred years ago.
6.8 Members commented on the importance of the Mayor’s strategy incorporating a pan- London approach to rough sleeping with the provision of good mental health support and a range of hostel provision with facilities spread across London. Mr White commented that rough sleeping was a national issue and that it is hard to manage such an issue within the context of localism. He stated that there are national policies which should be drawn upon and developed such as housing provision and addiction. The GLA should galvanise local authorities to do more. Ms Salva stated that it was important to offer rough sleepers the right kind of services based on need and which address the complexities which lead people to sleep rough or return to the streets after being helped.
6.9 The Committee was pleased to note that of the 273 new individuals rough sleeping in Westminster during July-September 2017, 77% had no second night out and 96% had no more than two nights out. Mr Eastwood stated that whilst the response for new individuals rough sleeping was good getting people out of the three No Second Night Out hubs, which is designed as a rapid response, remains a challenge. This is due to the limited availability of affordable or supported housing which is much scarcer than it used to be.
6.10 Ms Salva stated that whilst it was encouraging that a high proportion of new people coming onto the streets are helped quickly there is a need to focus on long-term rough sleeping where people are helped but later end up back on the street.
6.11 The Committee asked about the number of long-term rough sleepers in Westminster and the average length of time they had been rough sleeping. Mr White explained that help for entrenched rough sleepers is managed by two teams. One is Westminster Compass which is delivered on behalf of the Council by St Mungo’s. A 4-year scheme which recently concluded had an original cohort of 190 long term rough sleepers. Not all of the participants had been rough sleeping at the start of the project but would have had ongoing complex needs. The project had a number of clear parameters and outcomes which included the number of contacts made by rough sleepers with services over the four-year project’s lifespan. Of the original cohort only 16 are still rough sleeping which is a significant achievement. The new contract will deliver services to a slightly smaller cohort of approximately 100 individuals due to a reduced demand.
6.12 The secondary team is the GLA Social Impact Bond (SIB). Mr Eastwood informed the committee that the new GLA SIB will help 350 of the most entrenched rough sleepers in London, 127 of which are from Westminster. This will see each identified long-term rough sleeper receive dedicated support from a member of St Mungo’s or a Thames Reach SIB worker to sustain a route away from the streets. This project will also for run for 4 years. It will have a different cohort of entrenched Westminster rough sleepers than the Compass Team so it will not be duplicating the service offer. To qualify for the SIB each rough sleeper has to have lived and worked in the UK and be in receipt of Housing Benefit. While the majority will be UK nationals there will be some foreign nationals who will qualify for the scheme. Given these requirements the scheme would not prove helpful in addressing the number of foreign nationals sleeping rough in Westminster.
6.13 Members asked about the street population numbers in the day and the evening. Mr White stated that there were approximately 200 people sleeping rough in Westminster per night although the figure fluctuates seasonally. The street population during the day is slightly higher at 250. He explained that the day and evening populations were made up of different people. The Westminster Street Engagement Team are looking to undertake four day counts to establish the composition of the street population during the day and their circumstances.
6.14 Mr White was also asked about rough sleeping in the Royal Parks. He explained that those people bedding down in parks at night do so because they do not wish to be found or engaged with. Due to safety concerns counting them at night would only be undertaken in conjunction with the Metropolitan police. The Council has greater control over rough sleeping in open spaces for which they are directly responsible. Addressing the behaviour of the street population within the Royal Parks during the day falls to the Royal Parks.
6.15 Whilst the committee welcomed the news that rough sleeping numbers are declining the perception from residents and visitors is that the problem in Westminster is growing. Members of the public are also unsure of how best to help rough sleepers which they may encounter. Mr White explained that the Council had last year launched a Real Change campaign to explain to the public how it could help rough sleepers. This had a minimal impact due to the limited budget available. The Council hoped to relaunch this in conjunction with providing Ward Councillor briefings.
6.16 Mr Eastwood advised that the first ever campaign by the Mayor of London on how people can help rough sleepers had been launched. It provides links to specific organisations where people can report rough sleeping issues, promotes services available to those on the streets while a One London portal funding stream will distribute donations to identified homeless charities.
6.17 Members asked about the impacts on service levels where budgets across the public and charitable sectors are reducing. Barbara Brownlee clarified that savings in service had been achieved through the re-contracting process. Any bed spaces that had been reduced have been re-provided elsewhere although they may be used differently. Ms Salva was asked about the impact of budget reductions for St Mungo’s. She stated that the organisation has had to rethink its focus and look at other opportunities for raising funding. It has also had to access income through selling properties and taking out mortgages which it had not had to previously. Some activities such as helping rough sleepers to access employment could no longer be provided although these were being offered through other organisations.
6.18 The Committee was then updated on a High Court ruling on Home Office policy regarding the questioning, detention and removal of EEA nationals currently rough sleeping who cannot demonstrate that they are exercising their obligations under free movement. Officers explained the impacts of this for the City Council. Mr White advised that in the absence of such powers it will be challenging for the Council to counter this problem. Ms Salva clarified that the use of these powers could be justified where rough sleepers were engaging in criminal activity. Mr Eastwood stated that in light of the judicial ruling public sector bodies would need to look at what incentives can be offered to EEA nationals to remove them from the streets. He referred the committee to the fact that there had also been a reduction in the number of EEA rough sleepers in boroughs that had not used such enforcement.