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Young, homeless and invisible

HOMELESS AND HOPELESS: Funding cuts mean that help available to young people forced to sleep rough is in short supply

AT FIRST glance, it looks like just a pile of mouldy cardboard resting on a pile of old clothes or some other detritus.

Yet underneath, I find Richard, a 24-year-old black man who now calls this skanky shelter outside the back of a shop on William IV Street in Charing Cross, central London, home.

“I had to move out six months ago because my dad went berserk when he discovered I was seeing a white girl. I’ve been stuck here ever since,” Richard says.

“I think Hitler and Stalin got on better than me and my father. Our relationship disintegrated because he expected me to only go out with and eventually marry a person from my own race, whatever that is.”

Once someone finds themselves on the streets, even if they didn’t have substance abuse issues beforehand, all the statistical evidence points to them being far more susceptible to addiction.

Richard is no exception.

“I started drinking every day to numb the boredom and emptiness,” he confesses.

SHELTER

It’s only after he says this that I notice an empty can of Tennent’s Super (extremely strong) lager jutting out from his makeshift shelter.

Added to the risk of substance addiction, all the statistical evidence points to the fact that homeless people are more likely to be at risk of developing mental health problems and being exposed to violence.

So it is vitally important that people like Richard get out of the harshest of environments as soon as possible. The longer they are on the streets the harder it becomes for them to leave.

But what are their options?

Unfortunately, he is just one of a growing number from Britain’s black and minority ethnic (BME) communities who are rough sleepers - those who have to bed down in the open air (on the streets, in parks) or in cars and stairwells.

As a response to the 2008 financial crisis and the recession that followed, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government elected in 2010, imposed a series of austerity measures to try and resurrect the British economy. 

This meant that not only has central government drastically reduced its funding to homeless charities and several other housing organisations, but local councils have also had their ability to help people like Richard curtailed because of budget cuts.


STATUS: Many homeless black people in the UK are failed asylum seekers

The government’s own figures point to this having a significant impact on the number of rough sleepers. According to the Office for National Statistics in 2013 there were 2,414, a rise of over 37 per cent since 2010. 

However, experts say they are particularly concerned about how homelessness is dramatically impacting the black community.

Take London as an example. The last census figures (2011) show that although people from BME communities make up 13.3 per cent of the capital’s population, they make up 15 per cent of those who are officially homeless.

It is a disparity that exists all over the country.

HOUSEHOLDS

According to housing and homelessness charity Shelter, people from BME households are more than twice as likely to be homeless as those from white British households.

This means that increasing numbers are finding themselves in the same position as Richard. But why is this?

Judith Higgin, from homeless organisation St Mungo’s Broadway, says it
is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons why there are more BME
people ending up destitute.

“People can become homeless for a plethora of factors,” she says. “In
London, people of many nationalities and backgrounds can end up
sleeping rough, These can be people from the UK, or from Eastern
European countries, with no recourse to public funds account, or
asylum seekers from Africa or other countries. In terms of our
clients, around a fifth of our residents are black/black British, with
52% white British. We support people who can be facing a mix of mental
and physical health problems in connection with their homelessness, as
well as other problems that can make it difficult to recover from
being homeless and get back into work.”


STATUS: Many homeless black people in the UK are failed asylum seekers

These “other problems” can include having fewer qualifications;
existing in a lower income bracket; experiencing greater unemployment
or experiencing health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure
and kidney failure – all health issues that are disproportionately
likely to affect people from BME communities.

If black people were faced with just one of the aforementioned considerations, it might not make a huge difference.

But put together, it is easy to see why it is frequently harder for people from BME communities to secure decent housing in the first place, and then hold onto it.

Arguably, cultural factors are among the reasons why we suffer from higher levels of homelessness. Larger families than white Britons are common, meaning it is not always possible for older children to stay in the family home.

And, as is the case with Richard, a black man or woman born in the UK can have widely divergent views from parents born in Africa or the Caribbean, leading to relationships breaking down.
Sadly, local authorities do not have dedicated resources to help homeless black Britons.

SUPPORT

There are organisations which offer tailored advice and support such as the African Caribbean Community Initiative, Ekaya and Steve Biko housing associations.

However, many other homeless charities that also provided these services can no longer do so because of a lack of funding.

Organisations like Centrepoint and St Mungo’s Broadway provide help to people of all ethnic backgrounds.

Many have outreach workers who build up trust with rough sleepers and give them support, in the hope of helping their clients find appropriate accommodation.

In the end, homelessness is a desperate situation with the odds heavily stacked against those unfortunate enough to find themselves there.

If you’re worried about somebody who is sleeping rough, inform your local council’s housing section, a relevant charity or Streetlink (www.streetlink.org.uk),  a government-funded service that’s trying to stop people from having to bed down outside.

You could just help turn someone’s life around.

* Some of the names in this article have been changed for anonymity.

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