COLUMN: Tackling the complex issue of homelessness in Boston

Opinion
Opinion

Boston Borough Council portfolio holder for homelessness Mike Gilbert writes about the tackling the issue in Boston...

Homelessness is a real issue that affects real people; it occurs here in Boston as it occurs in every other town and city in the country. People become homeless for more reasons than most of us can imagine; domestic abuse, family breakup, loss of employment and being served notice to quit by a private or social landlord for reasons such as not paying the rent – such causes are presented to the council week in, week out.

One thing homelessness isn’t however is simple – yes, there’s a legal framework that defines homelessness for councils and other public bodies but being classed a ‘rough sleeper’ or ‘homeless’ means one thing to the council but can mean something very different to another organisation or the affected person.

As the portfolio holder for housing in Boston, I’m acutely aware that different people and organisations have very different roles and responsibilities, which I respect and very often support; however, when it comes to talking about homelessness, I sometimes feel that the issue is not always clearly understood.

Fact – one night over Christmas last year 14 people spent the night in the local night shelter; I believe these people would otherwise have slept rough - this is a major and upsetting issue for me and I have worked with council officers and our many partner organisations to tackle rough sleeping throughout my term in office as portfolio holder for housing.

The real challenge we face however is fully understanding why those 14 people needed to access the night shelter? Of course we can simply ask them; if only it were that simple!

One of the key reasons why rough sleepers feel safe accessing the night shelter is because the organisation which runs the scheme quite rightly doesn’t challenge the people arriving at the door to see who they are, why they are there and what can be done for them.

Their role is to care for and not drive people away as has happened in the past.

And when the weather is bad this is the last thing that I would want to see happen.

However, unbelievable as it may seem to some readers, some people in Boston today actively choose to live rough.

Another key point that recent coverage of homelessness and rough sleeping hasn’t acknowledged is that in Boston some, and again I say some, people are homeless because they have no recourse to public funds.

So, by definition, they can only receive support from charities and other voluntary organisations.

In Boston there are some migrant workers who have no recourse to public funds because they are ‘not available for work’ and I am also aware of one failed asylum seeker who does not qualify for help – the fact that they have no recourse to public funds is linked to national policy and makes it unlawful for us to spend your money housing them.

We need to accept that some people choose to travel to Boston on the flimsiest ‘promise’ of work and we cannot take all responsibility when this goes wrong for them.

Grown adults have to be expected to take responsibility for their decisions.

Rough sleeping is clearly the extreme outcome of being homeless but despite the statistics and the very general use of the term “homeless”, the council gets very few complaints or referrals from the community or other agencies about rough sleepers, so my plea to residents and organisations alike is to tell us because if we and our partners don’t know who these people are or where they are what can we even attempt to do?

Even though we can’t always do something, there is a network of charities, individuals and organisations supporting homeless people and who are critical to those people and indeed the entire Boston community.

That is why Boston Borough Council supports some of these charities and their work.

I have used my time as portfolio holder to focus on many housing issues in Boston, and, as a consequence of the work that has been done over the past four years, there are more affordable homes available to meet the needs of local people, property conditions in many privately-rented homes have been significantly improved as a consequence of the action taken by the council through our Rogue Landlord strategy, many cases of homelessness have been prevented and many residents have benefited from wide-ranging support that has helped them secure a new home or remain living in their existing home.

Challenges of course remain but it has been important to explain that not all reporting about 
housing issues are as simple and straight forward as they may appear.

○ Coun Gilbert is a cabinet member at Boston Borough Council. He is portfolio holder for housing, community transport, property, homelessness, older people, community development and voluntary sector support.