Dealing with COVID-19 has brought new opportunities to engage with homeless people and rough sleepers in Portsmouth, including the hardest-to-reach. Local partners hope to capitalise on this work to achieve a longer-term impact on the number of ASB complaints.
The local context
The Portsmouth City Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Partnership Group reports to the Health and Wellbeing Board and includes cross-party councillors, voluntary and statutory services and people with experience of rough sleeping. The group oversees the city’s rough sleeping strategy, which is currently being refreshed.
Portsmouth City Council takes a twin-track approach to ASB linked to homelessness and rough sleeping – support for the individual and enforcement where necessary. The community safety manager is based within the housing directorate and works with other council departments, commissioned services and the police, as well as managing a team of 16 community wardens who deal with incidents of ASB using all the tools available. Complaints typically come from the public, shop owners or visitors and can include aggressive begging, drug-related activity, shoplifting and dangerous drug litter.
If a report of ASB relates to a member of the homeless community, the wardens will engage with the individual concerned, dealing with the behaviour but also offering support. They work closely with the housing needs and advice team and two council-commissioned organisations providing homeless outreach and accommodation: the Society of St James and Two Saints.
Roy Goulding, Portsmouth’s Community Safety Manager, said: “Individuals will invariably engage at different times and may take a while to moderate their behaviour, so it is important to recognise that one size does not fit all and an individual action plan of support and enforcement should be developed for each person. Through this approach, which includes an element of enforcement via a community protection notice route, we have been able to get support and accommodation for some individuals dealing with very complex issues. Of course, not all those that are homeless are responsible for ASB, so those individuals would just receive appropriate support.”
The COVID-19 pandemic provided new opportunities to work with every homeless and rough-sleeping person in the city. In March 2020, the immediate need to lift everyone off the streets led to the council procuring accommodation and 24-hour support, mainly in local hotels. While this was costly, some additional Government funding was available.
Within a month the council had secured temporary housing for more than 200 people, roughly half of whom had been hidden homeless or were newly homeless. Everyone was provided with a housing caseworker to support them with a personalised housing plan, along with support from the outreach teams. Physical and mental healthcare support was put in place along with smoking cessation and health screening sessions.
This intensive support was made possible by the hard work of the community wardens, housing officers, commissioned services, homeless healthcare team, police, outreach services and other council officers and councillors, at a very challenging time. It was funded through the Government’s Rough Sleeping Initiative and the Next Steps Accommodation Programme.
Impact and outcomes
By the end of 2020, Portsmouth City Council and its partners had helped 444 people through this process (not all of them required ongoing accommodation). By the end of January 2021, the partners had supported 60 people into the private rented sector and worked with landlords to accommodate a further 60 into shared houses. About 70 people were continuing to live in former student accommodation blocks, which may be used on a longer-term basis until more permanent housing options can be found; around 40 others were living in HMOs provided by a specialist provider.
Once people were in safe accommodation, they were more likely to accept help – such as immediate support for drug or alcohol dependency. This has helped to prevent problems from escalating. At the time of writing it was too early to have evidence that this work had reduced ASB, and lockdowns meant there was far less footfall in the areas where most complaints would usually be generated. However, there was likely to be a significant reduction based on the number of people who had received support.
Roy Goulding said: “There were several individuals who had been really difficult to engage with, but during the pandemic we managed to bring some of them into accommodation in a supported environment. Once they were there, some built really good relationships with the support staff and accessed help to prevent them returning back to the streets, reducing the health risks that living on the streets presents.”
While this period of intensive support will not have solved every ASB problem caused by homelessness, the opportunity to better understand the needs of this vulnerable group of residents has changed some lives for the better and is expected to reduce the impact of ASB on local communities.
In December 2020, Portsmouth was awarded funding from the Next Steps Accommodation Programme to continue its work to help rough sleepers. This funding will run to March 2024. The council’s public health team secured additional funding from the Rough Sleeping Drug and Alcohol Treatment grant and worked with NHS colleagues to gain rough sleepers mental health funding to support these key areas of need.
- Even the most complex individuals that have not engaged for a number of years can reach the point where they are ready to work with partners. A solid and consistent joined-up approach ensures that opportunities can be taken when they are ready to engage.
- Individuals will engage at different times of the enforcement process and may take a while to moderate their behaviour.
- Joined-up working and information sharing is important – between partners and, importantly, between the community wardens and outreach teams.
- Individuals in accommodation are in a better place to tackle the other issues they may have such as substance misuse or health concerns.