It seems every time I venture out into Torquay town I hear sighs of pity and see facial expressions change from content to uncomfortable and uneasy- this is of course when people are confronted with the homeless population on the streets. It certainly appears to be a contentious issue. I have seen reactions on a hugely varying spectrum- from empathy and concern to scorn and disgust. However, two main questions are consistently asked- why are there so many and what can be done?
Tackling the question of why there are so many homeless individuals in Torquay took a while due to the many varying possibilities as to why this is such a prevalent issue. However I might suggest that perhaps we don’t actually host that many homeless people, especially in the context of the country, seeing as the national average is 0.59 per 1,000 households; comparing that with Torbay’s 0.30 per 1000 households it doesn’t appear overwhelming, but then again with our small population of around 134,000 (as of last year) it begins to add up. I would suggest the reason why we believe there are so many homeless is that the individuals are in plain sight in the main town centres and our regular access to them makes us believe they are numerous, when instead they are merely in open view.
A reason which is indeed plausible as to why there is a homeless population is lack of funding and professional care for them. Torbay Council does offer many services to homeless people, but all largely through one medium- The Leonard Stocks Centre. This would all be fine unless Torbay Council was nearly forced to close down this centre in 2014, which prompted a sombre warning from the chairman of the centre Nick Pannell: ‘”People could die if they are on the street for one night too many. Living on the street is the riskiest place for rough sleepers to be and there is no plan B for Torbay if we have to close.’ Nick Pannell is spot on. While The Leonard Stocks Centre clearly does a fantastic job at giving healthcare, support, key workers, moving-on accommodation and the means to survive without sleeping on the streets; it does make you wonder how hard it must be for one service to take the brunt of this issue. Maybe Torbay Council should review the issue in light of recent developments, as homelessness would perhaps be more of a priority now- if funding would allow. You cannot deny though, that this problem was almost increased to dramatic proportions with the threat of the closure of Torbay’s homeless shelter- prevented largely as a result of public fundraisers-signalling homelessness has not always been a main concern for some. Torbay Council has certainly made a well-informed decision in keeping the Leonard Stocks Centre.
Another, more inflammatory reason, could be that not all people that beg on the streets are homeless. Many a kind-hearted person has given street-sleepers time, money, food- amongst many other services and goods; however Superintendent Glen Mayhew, South Devon Policing Commander, has stated ‘”But there are a number of people begging in Torbay who we know have accommodation. Those people who are not homeless are in some cases using the income from begging to fund drug and alcohol addictions.”’. This is perhaps where the scorn and contempt comes from in people- the mistrust and doubt of the authenticity of the troubles faced by the individuals. Maybe to combat homelessness we need to distinguish between beggars and those who have no choice but to sleep rough and live their lives on the streets. The Police have said that they will deal with people who take advantage of civilian generosity accordingly.
It could be argued unemployment is to blame- Torbay has a below average rate of unemployment in terms of the county as a whole, but still a high one in relation to most of the country and definitely our surrounding area; in the South West the average is 5.4%, and in Torbay our rate of unemployment is 6.8% with 4,182,087 people without work. Though it has been suggested that unemployment is a symptom of being homeless, not a cause. This point of view would be backed up by the fact Torbay Mayor, Gordon Oliver, has secured approximately £320 million worth of investments in Torquay, engaged with projects that will create 800 jobs and worked to save and make jobs- which is at the core of his policy.
Then there is the issue of the homeless not wanting to be helped- sometimes when offered help rough-sleepers reject it- this could be do to a variety of reasons such as fear or mistrust of organisations and local authority, ties to drugs, alcohol or other rough sleepers or mental illness. This does seem a likely idea, as people in Torbay have collected tents left behind at Glastonbury for the homeless and the Parrot and Apple has given out hog-roast rolls in the recent past to the street-sleepers – this, to me, suggests that people are trying to improve the individual’s situation as it is clear some won’t accept a permanent solution. In addition to this Torbay has a higher rate of mental illness than the national average, along with the amount of stays in hospital for alcohol related injury.
So, rather than dwelling on the negative, the concept of how to solve this issue should now be explored. On an individual level you can donate to local homeless charities and services such as The Haven (which needs £1,200 per month to stay open and is a drop-in for advice and refreshments) and The Leonard Stocks Centre. Perhaps, contacting the local MP or council to express your concern- they have a responsibility to listen to the needs of the public and widespread communication should inspire action; these people and organisations are best equipped to decide the best way forward so we help our homeless, without attracting more.