Helping homeless Wiganers can be very complicated

Rough sleeping in Wigan town centre
Rough sleeping in Wigan town centre
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Wigan authorities trying to tackle rough sleeping in the borough have revealed the tough reality behind getting people off the streets

Homelessness has dominated headlines in recent years and Wigan, like many other places, has seen a spike in the numbers of individuals without a roof over their heads.

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The sight of sleeping bags and piles of cardboard in town centre doorways has generated plenty of public opinion, with a number of concerned comments recently appearing from Wiganers on Facebook.

However, the charities and council say they are doing everything they can to encourage people to leave a life on the streets behind and move onto a better future.

Indeed, a huge amount of work is now going on thanks to extra impetus at regional level, where Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has pledged to eradicate rough sleeping by 2020, and in Westminster.

To that end Wigan Council has officially teamed up with The Brick and previously-independent groups such as Helping the Homeless Wigan to provide a more co-ordinated response to the problem.

While they are enjoying some successes, everyone involved is under no illusions of the size of the task helping someone who has become entrenched in a life without a permanent address.

Coun Terry Halliwell, cabinet member for housing, welfare and homelessness at Wigan Council, said: “There are some challenges with rough sleepers but we have a number of initiatives to engage with them and help them on a road to recovery.

“Rather than waiting for them to become entrenched we are proactive going out to them and trying to get them into a rehab programme.

“Each individual case is very complex. Some people decide, rightly or wrongly, that they don’t want help. Quite often they engage a bit but then stop and we have to encourage them to start again.

“There is the visible side of rough sleeping, with people actually out in the town centres, but we are also trying to prevent it happening in the first place.

“We’re trying to stop people falling on hard times, using integrated drug and alcohol services and providing supported accommodation for people aged 18 to 25 years old.

“We’ve also got two approaches to tackling homelessness side by side. We’ve been running a pilot called Housing First, which uses a Scandinavian approach where you provide the house first and then support them with their other needs. Having a roof over their heads increases the likelihood of them staying engaged.

“We’ve also got the Social Impact Bond run through The Brick and Greater Manchester, which provides support first and then gets them the home.

“In the future we’re looking at these two coming together but we have to remember there is no silver bullet to tackling the problem.”

Virtually all parties involved agree that mental illnesses and drug and alcohol addictions are the biggest barriers to people on the streets moving forward.

However, sitting in plain sight relying on the goodwill of passers-by for money can also be surprisingly lucrative, making it harder for charities to convince them engagement with the system will improve their situation.

Louise Green, operations director at The Brick, said: “Rough sleepers often don’t want to leave their places because when they do they are not getting paid.

“Spending time away from the streets is difficult and that hampers them again.

“I remember I was on my lunch break one day and I was talking to someone on the streets and while I was stood there a woman just walked up and gave him £10. I’ve nothing to offer to compare with that.

“At the end of the day only they can make the positive change and seek help. We can’t force people to engage with these services. The answer is ongoing, repetitive visits.”

Dawn French from Helping the Homeless Wigan, which has become renowned in the borough for its outreach work connecting with rough sleepers, said: “Everyone gets the same offer of help. It’s then down to them.

“Sometimes people are just not ready. It is frustrating when they don’t take offers of help straight away but they have their own reasons for that.”

Coun Halliwell said some rough sleepers can be extremely vulnerable, with women fleeing domestic abuse and young people escaping from difficult home situations among those who can sometimes end up on the streets.

However, one of the biggest problems the teams face, and the reason why work on the streets is quite slow and labour-intensive, is working out who genuinely has nowhere else to go and who is indulging in street begging.

The authorities are determined to distinguish between the two so the former can receive the help they need and the latter can have their activities curtailed.

As well as the outreach and support work already going on the council is preparing to unveil a lavish new one-stop shop in Leigh, which crucially will provide somewhere homeless people can go during the day and while there speak to professionals and experts in rehabilitation.

The search for a suitable building to create a similar venue in Wigan is also well under way.

Coun Halliwell cited figures showing the complexity of the front-line work.

Currently the system in Wigan involves 10 people being supported by the Social Impact Bond, four receiving other help, eight have accommodation offers pending, three are staying with friends, six are refusing any kind of assistance, three have left the borough and two are working with the complex dependency team.

Of the recent 25 closed cases in Wigan 14 people were successfully re-housed, two are staying with friends, seven have left the borough and a further two have refused support and simply vanished from the authorities’ radar without telling anyone where they are going.

Despite these efforts, it is clear in some quarters patience is wearing thin.

Social media posts showing people in the doorway of the Halifax building society and a warning sign that there were drug needles requiring clearing up near the Grand Arcade gained a lot of traction as people worried about what was happening.

One message to Wigan Today read: “Needles and users are taking drugs in broad daylight. I feel sorry for the staff who work in these places and have to walk through it to get into work.

“I know homeless people have been visited by various teams as a joint initiative and support packages put forward but this type of behaviour appears to be increasing not decreasing.”

Ms Green fully admits these scenes can make it appear the authorities are not doing anything but insisted the new joined-up approach in the borough is bearing fruit.

She said: “It looks bad on The Brick if people are rough sleeping because it seems we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do, yet we rehoused more than 200 people last year which is a lot. We work really hard on intervention. For the first time in a very long time I think Wigan feels extremely organised in its partnership approach. We’re starting to come together and that is really helping.”

Those working on the front line with rough sleepers also had strong words for the minority of Wiganers who have responded in a hostile or aggressive manner on the internet.

Ms French said: “Wigan is actually a very lucky town. I speak to charities elsewhere and they don’t have anything like what we’ve got here.

“I know there has been some negativity around what’s going on in the town centre but I think the public is too quick to judge and things get blown out of proportion.

“Maybe we need to look at the positive things happening because there are a lot of those. Everyone is working together a lot more now and we’ve recognised we all have a role to play.”

Coun Halliwell said: “We are engaged with quite a few of the people in the town centre at the moment.

“We’re all just a couple of salaries away from being in debt and the start of the spiral that leads to. We don’t want to see people on the streets. Our aim is to stop rough sleeping and give them opportunities and put them on the road to recovery.”