What's happening about rough sleeping in Watford?
Presentation by Head of Housing and Housing Strategy Officer
The Head of Housing and Housing Strategy Officer gave a presentation about rough sleeper numbers in Watford and how the housing service was trying to resolve the issue with its partners. They were accompanied by Steve Devine, the Rough Sleepers Prevention Services Manager from New Hope.
The presentation included a comparison of the rough sleeper count in Watford over the last five years and how this compared with the other Hertfordshire local authorities. It was noted that the actual number of rough sleepers was usually three or four times higher than the count. This was due to the strict rules that applied to the count. Even those known to be rough sleepers could not be counted unless they were asleep or just about to settle down for the night. The actual number of known and verified rough sleepers in November 2018 was 46.
The Housing Strategy Officer explained about the funding that had been acquired from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and how it had been used to support the rough sleeper service work. The council also provided some funding that went towards the outreach work. She referred to the winter night shelter that had provided accommodation for over 100 users during the coldest nights of the winter.
The Housing Strategy Officer then informed the scrutiny committee about the ‘Complex Needs Housing Project’ and the ‘Rough Sleeper Pathway’. The council had published best practice guidelines for those people and organisations who wanted to work with rough sleepers.
Steve Devine was invited to speak about New Hope and its services in Watford. He informed the scrutiny committee about the helpline, the Outreach and Intervention Team services and Rough Sleeping Prevention Service (RSPS) at Haven Support Centre, the Sanctuary and the emergency and winter night shelters. The RSPS was able to signpost people to appropriate organisations to help with their needs. It was possible for New Hope to get information through StreetLink, which was a mobile app enabling people to report a rough sleeper, who could then be helped by local organisations, including New Hope. He emphasised to the councillors that not all people begging were rough sleepers. Rough sleepers did not require any funds to be able to stay in a night shelter initially, as this could be covered by New Hope. He also mentioned the Sanctuary which provided assessment and emergency beds. Finally, he referred to SWEP (Severe Weather Emergency Plan) which was available when the temperature dropped to 0 degrees and below.
The Head of Housing informed the scrutiny committee that the funding was disproportionate for the size of the town. This was a national problem and not just in Watford. Previously the service had been reactionary but with the extra funding it now allowed the council and its partners to be proactive. He asked Steve Devine to explain how the temperature was not only a problem when it was cold.
Steve Devine stated that New Hope had given out a lot of bottles of water during the current hot period. A new appeal had gone out on social media for sun block to be donated to the organisation so that it could distribute it to rough sleepers. He needed to discuss with officers the potential of needing to open SWEP during these next few days. There was a leeway within the strategy as it referred to extreme weather, for example heavy rain fall would also be covered. The rough sleepers in Watford mainly had a connection to the town. If someone was found to be from outside the area they would be encouraged to go back to their original home town, as they would be able to get more support. However, no one was rejected if they did not have a Watford connection.
Steve Devine informed the scrutiny committee that New Hope tried to interact with rough sleepers as soon as they became aware of them. All the accommodation available, beside the Sanctuary, was ‘dry’ and often the person needed to have been dry for 30 days. At the recovery house people have to be prepared to go into recovery. However some people did not want this. The service tried but was very much dependent on space.
In response to a question about the number of spaces available, Steve Devine said there were approximately 60 places across the different accommodation. The Head of Housing added that there were further places available at the GROW and YMCA. Some people approached the council for housing assistance. The pressure was in getting individuals through the different stages to where they could be more independent. The Move on project could potentially provide 45 extra places. Following a question, he advised that until the funding had been secured for the project, sites had not been identified. Once the funding was available officers would work with a housing association to acquire the property.
In response to a question about future funding, the Head of Housing said that if the funding from the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government was not available, as previously, and it would be very difficult. The possibility had been discussed with the various partners. He referred to comments by Theresa May, when as Prime Minister had given the commitment to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eradicate it by 2027. He felt this would be a big challenge. He was aware that funding availability could not be announced until the new Prime Minister was in post and Brexit had been resolved.
Following a question about the ‘Move on’ plans, Steve Devine explained that if someone went straight into temporary accommodation there would little or no support. New Hope tried to work with as many individuals as possible and was able to provide support as they moved into normal tenancies. The Housing Strategy Officer added that as those with complex needs moved through the types of accommodation, the available support became less as they were able to control their own lives and stop them going back. The Head of Housing commented that New Hope was able to gather information about the individuals which enabled the partners to help these people.
The Portfolio Holder, Councillor Johnson, said that he was proud of the work carried out by Watford Borough Council. The complex needs unit would provide for 18 adults which had not been available previously. He reminded councillors that this was actually the County Council’s responsibility, but Watford Borough Council did the work as it was ‘the right thing to do’. The number of people within temporary accommodation had significantly reduced due to the work carried out by the council’s Housing Property team. This had given the council the opportunity to look at the complex needs unit.
A question was raised about New Hope and how it advertised its services. Steve Devine responded that literature was circulated as widely as possible. There were posters within the town. Following a question about food, he advised that New Hope received help from Costco, local churches and faith groups. A vending machine company provided items that could not be placed in their machines due to time limits but were still in date. New Hope received frozen chickens from Nandos, which enabled them to create evening meals for people. He said that following a request about approaching KPMG, he had forwarded the information to the Finance and Communications team. Watford was a generous town.
The Chair thanked the council’s Housing team, the Portfolio Holder and New Hope for their tireless work.