When you see someone sleeping rough in the street, what do you want to do? Fortunately, many people have an immediate urge to help – to support the person inside, out of the cold and into services.
Why support for rough sleepers may not be immediate
It’s difficult to understand how, in this country, rough sleeping has risen steadily since 2010. While homelessness charities and local councils work hard to support individuals away from the streets, resources are tight and unfortunately, there is no emergency response to end people’s rough sleeping.
You may have questioned why this is; how StreetLink and the wider homelessness system work; why it can sometimes appear to take a while for someone sleeping rough to receive support, even after you’ve sent a StreetLink alert to connect them to local services.
When we receive your alert, the information gets sent to the local authority or rough sleeping outreach team responsible for that specific area. These are not run by StreetLink but have an agreement with us that they will action the alerts as soon as possible – usually on their next outreach shift.
This means that response times and processes vary locally. In cities or London boroughs with high numbers of rough sleepers, the teams may go out to find and work with rough sleepers every night. In other areas, they may go out less frequently, but the average is every three days. Shifts take place overnight or in the early hours of the morning rather than in the day, (when people may be on the streets, but not necessarily sleeping at that location).
The exception to this pattern is during periods of extremely cold weather, when outreach teams typically go out more often. In these cases, they may be able to take rough sleepers straight to a temporary winter night shelter or offer them an emergency bed for the night if this provision is in place.
We don’t advise individuals stay where they are and wait to be found by the outreach team, however; it’s important they take other steps to end their homelessness if possible. During the day, they can access free day centres, which offer advice on the support available, food, showers and similar, and there is an option for you to direct them to these services while making your StreetLink web or app alert.
Alerts that include detailed information about a person’s location are really useful, but sometimes the outreach team may have difficulty finding the individual, either because they have moved elsewhere, or the location given in the alert is not their overnight sleep site. However, workers make every effort to locate people, and typically they will go out several times to look for them, (although this also varies locally).
Once the workers have met and spoken with the person sleeping rough, they aim to link them up with the available local support services. Ideally, they will be able to move off the streets and into a homeless hostel (paid for by Housing Benefit).
Although bed spaces are not always immediately available, the team will put a plan in place or make other temporary arrangements. Individuals may also be referred to treatment services including mental health and substance misuse to aid their recovery in those areas of their lives.
Some rough sleepers may have multiple and complex needs, including mental ill health or experience of trauma. This can make it more difficult for support workers to engage them in the first place, and mean that it takes longer to support them away from the streets. Whatever the circumstances, once services are aware of those sleeping rough, they will continue their efforts to support them.
We are conscious that we are working within an imperfect system, which needs more resources in order to be able to swiftly and effectively support people off the streets.
This is not an excuse, however, and despite the above challenges, we know that StreetLink is an important part of the system needed to tackle rough sleeping. Even when progress in supporting individuals seems slow, all information that StreetLink receives is useful, helping to produce longer-term solutions to the problem.
With your help, thousands of people have already been supported into accommodation and services. Our ultimate aim is to continue to evolve and improve our service to support as many vulnerable people as possible for as long as this help is needed.
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Louise is the communications manager at Homeless Link. Louise is currently on maternity leave.
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