As part of Commonweal Housing’s 10th Anniversary celebration this year – we launched a new competition Starter for 10 with the prize being £10,000 to fund research or a feasibility study in to new and under-reported areas of social injustice. We wanted to help organisations explore new problems and new injustices that they believe are emerging but where more information was needed to understand the causes but importantly what the solution might be.
We were seeking a winner where an injustice is clearly identified – as you read about it you start doing the ‘Commonweal nod’ of saying “oh yes, I hadn’t really thought of that before, what a nonsense…something should be done about it….” And ultimately a proposal that sparks your imagination making you go “…that’s really interesting, I’d like to know more about that….”
The response was fantastic, with a broad range of organisations covering a wide range of housing related injustices. However, in the end the Judging Panel and the Commonweal Board of Trustees chose a project from Thames Reach looking at how best to tackle the growing phenomenon of tented encampments often but not exclusively of Roma economic migrants.
In the outer London boroughs Thames Reach have identified a group of individuals who do not fit into the traditional rough sleeper cohort; EU nationals discharging their treaty rights to live and work in the UK, but having no recourse to public funds. This group does not have significant support needs; are not interested in reconnection; and are choosing to sleep rough in groups. The majority of them are male aged between eighteen and fifty and appear to be working cash in hand and sending their pay back home.
Local authorities’ attempts to close encampments often simply displace the migrants without resolving this issue. No current housing solutions or specialist support services exist for this client group that could help with literacy or accessing legal work where they are less likely to be exploited.
With overwhelming evidence that rough sleeping is bad for health and that the likelihood of developing (more) support needs increases the longer someone stays out, the personal risk to individuals living in encampments is significant. In addition there are public and environmental health risks attached to such lifestyles. The injustice is not just about this ‘unattractive’ and exploited client group but also about local communities and people unable to enjoy their local parks or public spaces.
Up until now there hasn’t appeared to be a housing solution that works for this client group, with its particular complexities, the very nature of the group is transient which makes traditional outreach responses more difficult working across boroughs.
This issue throws up all sorts of uncomfortable topics around, migration, illegal working, exploitation, the black market economy, public health and perceived public safety. But also about individuals wanting to work hard, not begging or ‘scrounging benefits’ to use the tabloid cliché but individuals wanting to maximise the money they can send home to families where they fully expect to return in the not too distant future ……if they don’t get trapped in a black hole of rough sleeping.
Who knows what a solution looks like at this stage, however it should be clear to all that there is a very real issue here that needs to be better understood. Therefore I am delighted that Commonweal has selected this as its Starter for 10 winner – we will ensure that the findings of the study, expected next year, are shared so that lessons can be learnt.
Ashley Horsey is Chief Executive of the housing based action learning charity Commonweal Housing