Monday, June 20, 2011

An Introduction to Homelessness in London

Homelessness is a sector of its own in London. With a population of over 7 million in 32 boroughs, it is the largest and most densely populated ciy in Europe. London is full of life and culture, it is a world of its own and as such, draws people in from all over the world. People seeking new opportunities, but may be who have not yet realized how competitive and expensive city life can be. There's no surprise then, homelessness is an issue.

Each borough in London has a strategy for how to tackle homelessness within its borders. There are services offered from hostels and supported housing assistance and employment workshops to advice and support services. I am working in Tower Hamlets with the outreach team at Thames Reach, who focus specifically on those that are rough sleeping. Rough sleeping is exactly what many think of when they think of homelessness, it describes those sleeping rough on the streets. Others may be sleeping in squats (spots like abandoned buildings and warehouses, which are extremely dangerous and provide little protection and do not qualify as an address, let alone a home).

In the last few days, I have learned so much about homelessness in London. It's fascinating how multifaceted this issue is, and the partnerships that exist to help someone out of rough sleeping. I have no knowledge of how homelessness is tackled in Toronto, but the strategies and process in London is nothing short of impressive and intricate.

Rough sleepers can be referred by anyone from the public or those working within the field to be met by the outreach team. In addition, the London Street Rescue team is out every night to meet with those that are homeless. Rough sleepers are helped out by the workers assigned to their borough, and must have a connection to the borough to receive services. If they are sleeping somewhere where they do not have a connection, they can be referred back to their hometown. Workers develop relationships with rough sleepers, who sometimes can be reluctant to accept help. It may seem ridiculous, but imagine how isolated someone must be to sleep on the streets night after night - I'm sure they sometimes feel let down and fearful of trusting others.

Rough sleeping in London is sometimes deeply connected to alcohol and drug misuse and mental health issues. I cannot say I am surprised, I assume a lot of it is a coping mechanism as well as an addiction. Destitution, of course can lead to deviant behaviours. The help clients are offered depends on their situation, their willingness to accept it and the availability of resources. Outreach workers work with individuals to get them the services they need, and if not, to keep track and develop a relationship. Clients are treated as individuals to be respected, and outreach workers know the names and stories of those they work with.

There is a database where all the information of individuals helped by homeless organizations is recorded. I find this amazing, it demonstrates the extensive work with the homeless done in London. Updates are recorded about their whereabouts. Non-national homelessness has a separate strategy, often dealing with "reconnection." (I will write a separate post about this, as I will be doing some work with this team as well!)

Day centres provide opportunities to wash up, shave, get something to eat, use a computer, etc. for those that are rough sleeping. Homelessness in London seems to be an issue that is taken seriously, and organizations like the one I am working for are developing strategies towards creating a lasting change. I have so much more to learn this summer and I can only imagine how much my views will change as I gain exposure to clients and their stories, and more about the governing systems in place to deal with homelessness.

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