‘Blame cutbacks – not professional beggars’

Homeless people camping in the centre of Portsmouth earlier this year
Homeless people camping in the centre of Portsmouth earlier this year
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Last week the news reported police and the council in Portsmouth were launching an operation against ‘professional beggars’. Here Alan Burgess from Unite Community argues why they are wrong

So, a joint task force made up of councillors, police and NHS officials is to tackle homelessness in Portsmouth. It is reported that ‘their mission will be to help street-dwellers who are asking for support – and deal with those taking advantage and abusing the system’.

This smacks of ‘tuff love’ and an administration in control and on top of the situation. I am not convinced.

For three months this year I had a street sleeper surf my sofa. Repeatedly we engaged Housing Options. They could not help because John refused to sign on. He wanted to work. Through the efforts of Liesl Rose of Helping Hands we found John day work painting and decorating. During this period I set up a meeting with Housing Options. There were complex flow diagrams illustrating the re-organisation of the service. The nub of it was, Housing Options like many council services had to bear the brunt of austerity cuts and contracted its provision. It tried to do this in the most cost effective way by outsourcing service to the charitable sector.

A more realistic picture is not one of ‘professional beggars’ but honest people in a desperate plight doing the best they can to access services, which are fast dwindling because this government has slashed local government spending.

Yesterday I bumped into Michael. A Portsmouth lad, he has had a few brushes with authority. Over the eight years he has been homeless he has visited Housing Options over 100 times. 100 times.

On one occasion frustration boiled over and an altercation occurred.

The police were called and Michael was escorted off the premises in handcuffs. The officer took him round the corner, took off the cuffs and said ‘on your way’. On your way where? Back to the streets! This is the reality of trying to engage support. There is none for many. Demand vastly outstrips capacity.

According to Michael the re-organisation of provision has lead to a drastic cut in beds for the homeless. Centrepoint, now called Yew House, has shifted its bed capacity from 40 beds to six. Hope House has reduced its capacity from 80 to 40.

A contact who works in the Portsmouth homeless sector informs me that last year the 28-bed provision at Yew House was so inadequate in meeting demand that they took in 40 to 45, some sleeping on chairs. Next year the churches will offer accommodation in January and February.

But that will not cover the cold nights between now to Christmas.

I challenge Donna Jones Conservative leader of Portsmouth City Council to an open public debate: ‘This house believes Portsmouth City Council cuts and austerity has caused the crisis in homelessness not professional beggars or persons from outside the city’.