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Seeking Shelter: Tackling Bath’s Homelessness Crisis

In a small yet antiquated west-country city it seems somewhat counterintuitive that such a high number of individuals are condemned to sleep on the streets of Bath – a city that, by all accounts, should be capable of preventing or at least responding to said crisis. How have so many individuals become homeless within such a prosperous and charming city?

When people think about homelessness they generally picture those who are sleeping rough, something which a lot of us have witnessed across the UK. However, it is important to recognise that this is not the only side of homelessness, and that the majority of the problem goes unseen. This has been referred to as ‘hidden homelessness’, which includes those who are living in insecure accommodation, like sofa-surfing and living in squats. Shelter, a UK charity which supports those who suffer from bad housing, predicts that there are 320,000 people experiencing homelessness in the UK. Shelter state that the authorities underestimate their figures due to this problem. Nonetheless, what has been widely recognised is that the number of those affected by homelessness is rising, and that it is rising at an increasing rate. Crisis, a charity supporting people experiencing homelessness, have forecasted that homelessness will double in the next 25 years. The increasing scale of the issue has recently drawn significant attention to the problem, with homelessness resurfacing on the Conservative Party’s agenda and May vowing to eliminate rough sleeping by 2027.

Main Causes
In order to better understand how these issues became prevalent, we must understand some of the main causes. Bath Time spoke to Genesis Trust, a Bath-based charity devoted to helping the hungry, homeless and vulnerable. They assert there is no single cause or solution to the ever-worsening situation in the Bath & North East Somerset area. Rising food prices, rising house prices and stagnating wage growth, amongst other factors, have certainly all compounded together – in 2016, there 25 rough sleepers locally. Alarmingly, all those tasked with counting and measuring the amount of people living on the street admit that these are mere estimates – underestimations, if anything.

Other key influences include failings in reintegrating individuals into society when leaving institutional care or armed service, as well as the lasting effects of government policies from the end of the last century, including those surrounding social housing and mental health care. To find out more, we spoke to Julian House, a Bath based charity that provides a range of support services to those experiencing homelessness. Many of those receiving support from Julian House have previously received institutionalised care; be it from the youth care system, medical care, prison, or armed service. In the 1970s, psychiatric institutions housed over 100,000 patients nationally and many of them had severe issues with the treatment of their patients – as such, the government promoted a policy of ‘care in the community’, which saw the gradual closing of these institutions and release of their patients into wider society. Although a positive step in many respects, this saw many people suffering from severe mental health issues struggle to integrate with society and receive minimal follow-up support. Cecil, a staff member at Julian House, tells us that as this policy persisted and mental health issues increased, homelessness and rough sleeping continued to spread. An interesting aspect that is specific to Bath is the amount of ex-servicemen and women who sleep rough. With his Julian House experience, and being an ex-serviceman himself, Cecil was able to shine a light on these issues. The army provides an all-encompassing community and support system for a group made up mostly of working-class men and Cecil argues that many have difficult reintegrating once leaving. With many being recruited at a young age, sometimes these individuals struggle to look after themselves without the service’s provisions. On top of this, Cecil discussed the “black humour” present in army culture, which prompts colleagues to laugh off alcoholism and other psychological effects caused by the harrowing things one can witness as part of their work. Cecil told us the story of a Julian House client who was on a ship as it sank in the Falklands War, an event that had a severe and lasting effect on their mental health. These effects were not recognised and not treated, so when this individual left the services, he faced an employment crisis, a crisis which left him sleeping on the streets. At the beginning of his experience of homelessness, he had trouble sleeping, something those surrounding him didn’t struggle with as much. Cecil informs us that the individual soon discovered that others were able to sleep due to heroin intake, prompting his introduction to drug use and subsequent battle with addiction. Although this is an individual case, it is a well-trodden path that leads many to rough sleeping and consequent addictions.

One of the most obvious pressures causing homelessness is house prices. Bath’s Conservative council member for Housing has blamed both students and tourists for amplifying house prices, whilst LibDem MP, Wera Hobhouse, attributes responsibility to white collar Londoners, fleeing to Bath for the peace provided by the South West. It’s worth noting that house prices are almost double that of the national average, while wage rates stand 20% higher than the rest of the UK. Alongside this, the number of council homes has been in constant decline since Right to Buy policies were made widespread in the 1970s. Such policies were held in high regard across all political parties at the time of implementation, however, Cecil argues that they were carried on for “too long”. The money earned from the sale of government-owned homes was not to be reinvested in social housing leading to a “desperately short” supply of affordable and government subsidised properties, pushing many more towards rough sleeping. Cecil argues the effect of this is furthered in Bath by high student populations and demand for cheaper properties to be converted into Homes of Multiple Occupancy (HMOs). Landlords gain much more by renting out properties to students, which puts pressure on the rest of the market and hinders Julian House’s ability to rent properties for their supported housing schemes, a vital step in helping those suffering from homelessness to reintegrate into society.

Bath Time also spoke to Ed Kirwan, a community worker from Oxford. As a teacher, he used to run assemblies on humanising the homeless, but when he decided they weren’t doing enough, he set up his own business. While evaluating the charity sector in the South West and London, he saw a fragmented group of organisations who essentially want the same thing but could function a lot better if they were to combine efforts instead of working alongside each other. Ed’s ideal solution, and what he works towards, is forming relations between various homeless charities and organisations so that their resources are spread efficiently and the homeless are catered for properly all year round. An example he gave was introducing a representative from a charity that allows people to donate online to provide people experiencing homelessness in London with sleeping bags, to representative from a different charity that accommodates rough sleepers in Victoria Station, who, coincidentally, needed sleeping bags. This was one of the many examples he mentioned where the people behind these organisations mean well but are seemingly unaware of similar companies doing a similar or complementary job.
“Often, even positive news stories spin into ‘us’ and

Working to a Solution

What more can be done? Ed believes that the universities play a fundamental role in handling this issue, saying they “have a duty to be part of their society because students make up a huge population of Bath’s residents.” With regard to events that are already in action, he suggests incorporating all Bath charities in the RAG Sleep Out, for example. It does seem like events are the way forward: the University’s best turnouts have been during the SleepOut and the Charity Cycle Race. Looking to the future, the educator believes that in order to reduce homelessness, local charities should be more open to working with students – “we have great architects, graphic designers, language students and tapping into that would be a huge help to these organisations”. Our SU already works with the Big Issue, as you’ll notice with the regular presence of vendors outside the SU. Debbie Thornton, the SU’s Volunteer Support Coordinator, tells us that “the University of Bath are one of the few campus universities to host a Big Issue Vendor. All the Vendors that have come up on campus over the years, most with a variety of complex needs, have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of chatting to students/staff and do have regulars who buy the magazine.”

Also, while in conversation with some student volunteers at Bath, it was revealed that institutions like Julian House can’t always provide the support they need. Due to the prevalence of addiction in homeless communities, some will not accept help from the likes of Julian House, as it will reduce their access to substances. Additionally, under rare circumstances Julian House does ban some individuals from their shelters in an aim to protect everyone else, however they operate looser policies in the additional shelters they provide in the colder winter months.

Homelessness is a problem with a variety of solutions, but looking at Bath specifically shows us that our town has a unique relationship with the issue. As students, topics like housing prices or charity sector management are hard to tackle and solve. However, small-scale actions like volunteering for our local charities, supporting the Big Issue and ensuring our University is actively engaged with the communities experiencing homelessness are all vital steps to seeing the end of homelessness in Bath. With over 17,000 students studying at the University, collectively, surely we can help be part of the solution. This is something two BBA students, George and Tom, caught onto when planning a social enterprise for their course. Their research found that students were on average willing to donate £1 per week, and volunteer more than two hours of their time. Donating this amount of money, although self-reported, would be more than enough to feed all of those experiencing homelessness in Bath consistently, so how can we make this happen?

Julian House are continuously running fundraising events – next month they are hosting their Big Bath Sleep-Out in Alice Park, where volunteers will be sleeping under the stars and raising sponsorship to support the charity, more details can be found on page 10. We can also donate directly to them through their JustGiving page, under the same name. Alternatively, we can get involved in RAG events, like their Charity Cycle to Paris on Valentine’s Day or their Charity Skydive at the end of March. To find out more about they’re up to, be sure to follow them on Facebook @bathunirag. Volunteering hours can often be more helpful than cash donations. Student Volunteering Week is just around the corner (11th February), so do make sure to look for opportunities to support those more vulnerable there. Julian House consistently have opportunities available, which can include supporting them cook in the hostel kitchens at the weekend or supporting their charity shops. To find out more about these opportunities visit the Julian House website. Opportunities to support Genesis trust, be it by volunteering or way of donation can also be found on
their website.

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