Down and Out in the South East
Image courtesy of Flickr
When people think of Kent they think of many things; the White Cliffs of Dover, rolling hills and fields, the ‘Garden of England’. Dover is the gateway to England from Europe. It boasts an extremely active shipping and passenger port, a historic castle, and a dying high street where people sleeping in the doorways of closed-down shops is an all too common sight. This has been a fixture for as long as I can remember, with no obvious assistance being provided by local authorities. Where local councils seem to be absent, smaller charities try to fill that void. I managed to get in touch with Christians Together in Dover, a new, church-based umbrella organisation, unifying multiple smaller organisations, allowing them to pool resources and collaborate. Christians Together operate the local food bank, winter night shelters and a soup kitchen that I had the good fortune to attend. There I spoke to Judith Shilling, executive of Christians Together in Dover and a seasoned veteran of local relief efforts, having been involved with the soup kitchen for the last twelve years. She informed me that the soup kitchen has existed in some form for around 30 years. For many of these years, it was done informally with no set location out of the back of cars or makeshift huts. That was until a local church, St Mary’s, offered up their hall as a venue. The kitchen operates every night of the week with a large alternating roster of volunteers staffing it. She estimated they feed anywhere from 15 to 35 people every night, many of whom are regulars who depend on the charity of the soup kitchen to get food. Many of them struggle with issues well known to be linked to homelessness, alcoholism, mental health issues, and drug addiction. Shilling told me they can feed these people, but with a lack of support in dealing with these underlying causes, many are caught in a “vicious cycle”. Almost all of them are unemployed, with many dependent on Universal Credit, the failures of which are many-fold and well known. More shockingly, Judith estimated only “30 to 40%” of the people they feed are actually homeless, at least in the ‘rough sleeping’ sense, the majority are either in insecure housing or simply cannot afford to feed themselves. All the food the kitchen has is donated by Tesco and individual volunteers.
When I asked the gathered volunteers about the local council’s efforts to help, I was met with wry chuckles. “They don’t really care” and “they haven’t been helpful” I was told. “A caring society shouldn’t let people sleep on the streets,” Shilling said. The volunteers explained that before they had a stable venue in the church hall, the council was one of the biggest obstacles to the soup kitchen, with the council routinely ordering them to pack up and go elsewhere. They did, however, note that the council had recently donated £10,000 to the winter night shelter. Yet, this shelter only operates occasionally in the winter and the plight of the homeless lasts for more than three months a year. This donation, while generous, is by no means a cure-all. Shilling told me that when the council does seek to help the homeless, the tone is one of wanting to “tidy up” the town. She suspects their motive is that they perceive the homeless as an eyesore, rather than a genuine desire to help them. This is a large reason why many homeless people retreat to the hills and abandoned forts surrounding the town. Despite the obvious homelessness in the town centre, there are likely many more rough sleepers who steer clear of the town. Homelessness is an issue that knows few geographical boundaries. I contacted Porchlight, the largest homelessness charity working in Kent and the South East. Their spokesperson, Chris Thomas, informed me that Porchlight has existed in various forms for about 45 years. He described their main work as trying to prevent homelessness before it happens. They do this by working with those who are vulnerable, providing support for people currently homeless, getting temporary accommodation where possible, and trying to challenge the stigma around homelessness with the public. Thomas told me that last year they assisted around 7,000 people, only a minority of which were homeless at the time. His account of factors contributing to homelessness echoed what I heard at the soup kitchen; drug addiction, alcoholism, poor mental health, and poverty. Many, he said, are “struggling to pay the rent”, owing to an increase in zero-hour contracts, and other forms of unstable unemployment. His comment on benefits also sounded familiar: “The benefits that are there to assist the most vulnerable don’t cover the cost of living.” Most shockingly, I was told: “We do support people who are working but who do not have a home.” This is horrifying, but unsurprising in the wake of a United Nations report which determined 14 million people live in poverty in the UK, many of whom are still in employment. Porchlight works closely with local councils out of necessity, however, in the midst of a near-decade-long austerity project, Thomas told me: “Everyone is in a position where we’re having to do more with less.” Thomas made it clear that it is easy to blame local councils for their inaction, but the heart of the problem lies further upstream. “The actual source of the problem is central government and the lack of money coming from there.” Given that council budgets have been cut by nearly 50% since 2010, and councils are facing increasing demand pressure, this claim is a difficult one to refute. Thomas made it clear to me that fixing the issue of homelessness starts long before people end up on the street: “What is really needed is more investment in tackling the causes of homelessness.” Support networks are needed for those struggling with issues linked to homelessness, yet sadly “austerity has led to a lot of these services disappearing”. Last year, I approached Charlie Elphicke, ex-Member of Parliament for Dover and Deal, about the matter. He told me: “It is vitally important that the most vulnerable people in society, including homeless people and rough sleepers, are helped to get their lives back on track.” After informing him of what Chris Thomas had told me about a dire need for affordable social housing, Elphicke told me: “The Conservative-controlled district council is putting almost 200 ex-council houses or new builds back into their stock. That is being done with record levels of investment, including a new shopping and cinema complex and a new cinema, and the lowest council tax in east Kent.” He did not explain whether these 200 repurposed houses will be affordable as starter homes, or whether the council will implement any measures to ensure this. Leaving house prices to the whim of market forces is part of the reason the UK is embroiled in a housing crisis, with the average price of a house now at £224,144. Although more housing is beneficial, if those who find themselves trapped beneath the first rung of the property ladder cannot actually afford them, they are not solving the problem at hand. Local council budget cuts are a serious obstacle to helping the poor and homeless. After a quick look at Mr Elphicke’s voting record, it showed that he consistently voted in favour of lowering the number of funding councils receive from central government. When asking Mr Elphicke with this information, he told me: “The Conservatives inherited this country’s highest levels of debt since the Second World War. Yet, I have continued to press ministers for dedicated funding for homelessness. After a meeting with the Secretary of State earlier this year, Dover District Council got an extra £175,000, which came after the annual central government grant increased 15.1% on the previous year.” Despite Elphicke’s true statement, it misses the bigger picture. When asked how he can actively support policy, which is obviously damaging to the most vulnerable people in his constituency, he repeats the government line justifying austerity. The extra £175,000 given to the district council will surely not go amiss, but given that their 2017-18 statement of accounts recorded a budget deficit of £745,000 in relation to the increased cost of emergency housing for the homeless, and the total budget for the council that year was £15.02 million. This is a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed. After asking Mr Elphicke about Porchlight’s statement that benefit cuts are directly impacting the homeless, and the fact that he has consistently voted to lower benefits of various kinds, even voting against raising them in line with prices, he told me: “The Conservative Government promised to deliver a welfare system that ensured it pays to work. We now have the lowest levels of unemployment for decades – and wages are rising well above inflation.” It is true that we have record employment, even when discounting the rising number of people on zero-hours or other forms of precarious employment. But employment in and of itself is not a victory if said employment is precarious or does. not actually cover the cost of living. Wages are rising above inflation, however, in real terms (meaning the relationship between the money in your pocket and the cost of things you need to buy), average wages have fallen significantly in the last 10 years, particularly in London and the South East. Although, it is great that wages are rising above inflation, if you still cannot afford three square meals a day, this distinction may seem a rather academic one.
Regardless of your political orientation, any honest look at the situation shows that something seriously needs to change. And while members of government repeat niceties about falling debt and better wages relative to inflation, the people affected most by their policy lie in their sleeping bags, cold, hungry, and waiting for something to be done, sooner rather than later. If you are concerned about someone who is homeless, call Porchlight's free helpline: 0800 567 786 99. Find out more about Porchlight's work and how you can be a part of it: porchlight.org.uk