Life on the streets of Dartford and Gravesham
PUBLISHED: 08:54 28 December 2012
The number of rough sleepers across the UK is on the rise, and Dartford and Gravesham are no exception.
There is perhaps no other time of year when the reality of homelessness is more stark than over the Christmas period.
By day the high streets are swarmed with shoppers buying presents but by night those shop fronts become a shelter for the homeless.
In Dartford and Gravesham, the number of rough sleepers is on the rise and the threat of being homeless hangs over the heads of an astonishing number of people.
Figures recently released by homeless charity Shelter show that Dartford and Gravesham are among the 50 top eviction hotspots out of 324 local authorities in England.
In Dartford, one in every 87 homes is at risk of repossession or eviction, while in Gravesham one in 82 homes is at risk.
Porchlight, the Kent-based homeless charity, works with 14 rough sleepers in Dartford and Gravesham, with 11 on the waiting list.
It has received 144 applications for rough sleeper support in the last six months from the two boroughs, and gets more than 1,300 calls a month to its 24-hour helpline.
Barry Clark, 49, is an outreach worker for Porchlight and regular heads out early in the morning or late at night to search for rough sleepers.
He has seen an increase in homelessness, and says it is not reserved for any age or background.
“We find the same people and new people every day. They may have very small belongings with them, maybe just a sleeping bag, or some people don’t have that and use cardboard.
“They aren’t of any particular age group. There are sometimes issues with drugs and alcohol, as there is a tendency to relieve the pressure of being on the streets,” he says.
Once a rough sleeper is found they will be invited to a local day centre where their needs are assessed and accommodation is located.
But this first contact can often take time, especially with long-term rough sleepers who have become entrenched in that lifestyle.
“I’m just any other stranger walking up to them so it can be difficult for people to engage with us,” says Barry.
“If they don’t meet with us we will try again and build that confidence. We never give up on anyone.”
Barry knows first-hand the struggles faced as he was once homeless on the streets of Gravesend.
“In my circumstances, I had to hit rock bottom to realise I needed to address my situation, and being on the streets gave me that. I contacted Porchlight and they helped me find accommodation. I needed some time to sort myself out but then I started volunteering and then got a full-time paid job. It gave me an insight into what people really need,” he says.
And what they need is accommodation, but there is a lack of it, which has been sorely felt by Dartford council’s budget – this year will see an overspend of £350,000 on temporary accommodation and B&Bs for homeless clients, and in the most desperate times hotel rooms have even had to be used when nothing else was available.
Cllr Pat Coleman, the portfolio holder for housing, says resources have had to be diverted to procure more accommodation and prevent homelessness in the first case.
“Levels of homelessness have increased in recent years due to the financial climate and pressure from surrounding areas,” he said.
“Naturally, the council does not like to see anyone homeless, and does its level best to deal with the most serious of issues arising from its local population.”
Back at Porchlight, they deal with as many reported rough sleepers as they can, and rely on the support from the public to find them.
Their new campaign “Don’t Just Walk Past” encourages people to call a 24-hour helpline and give information so the person can be located and helped.
Chris Coffey, who heads up the charity’s rough sleeper team, said: “The team has a huge geographical area to cover, much of which is rural. That is why information provided by the public is vital to making the service a success.”
To report a rough sleeper call Porchlight’s helpline on 0800 567 76 99 or complete a form online at www.porchlight.org.uk/tellus.