The head of a local homeless charity has warned that “there will be more deaths on the streets” due to council cuts to homeless services.
Oxford County Council has proposed a 38% cut to the Housing Related Support budget.
Lesley Dewhurst, head of Oxford Homeless Pathways, made the prediction at a meeting to combat the cuts this week.
She warned that “a 38% cut means that one of our shelters may actually have to close.”
The council announced its proposal to cut Housing Related support by £1.5m as part of a wider strategy to save £64m in spending over the next four years. While most services can expect cuts of between 5% and 10%, the 38% cut to Housing Related Support services is unrivalled in scale.
Dewhurst argued that now is not the right time to reduce funding for the homeless. “The number of homeless people is already rising. They’re being hit from all corners… not only by the effects of the recession but the housing market is getting increasingly difficult to access”.
The announcement of the cuts comes at a time when services for the homeless are already struggling.
Sheltering from the rain in a toilet beside O’Hanlon House night accommodation, Mark Hankinson, a recovering addict who has been homeless for twenty two years said: “The services here are doing the best they can. They provide food, a safe place to sleep and support to get you back on your feet. But they’re full, they turn people away every night.”
Around the hostel, three or four tents had been pitched on a small plot of land. “They’ve been here for three months now, they can’t get accommodation in there and its safe for them beside the hostel” Hankinson explained.
Three weeks ago Hankinson was let out of hospital after a blood transfusion. He told me that without his doctor’s efforts to get him into O’Hanlon House he would have been on the streets and probably wouldn’t have survived.
“Last winter I couldn’t get accommodation at the night shelter. So I slept out in the underground parking at Gloucester Green, it was minus six.”
Amy Painter, Mark’s partner of three years who is also resident at O’Hanlon House, told me about the dangers of sleeping rough. “Most people try to sleep on a street with security cameras. But even then they’re not safe. Last week my friend was raped outside O’Hanlon House. There are cameras there so there’s been a conviction, but these sorts of dangers face us all the time”.
Charities have also emphasised the increased burden a rise in homelessness could place on public services. A recent report by the “Homeless Link” organisation, stressed the important role played by homeless agencies in generating financial savings to local authorities, health, police and other statutory services.
Figures released by O’Hanlon House show that 75% of rough sleepers at their shelter have a substance misuse problem, while 65% have mental health issues. Rough sleepers are also five times more likely to visit A and E.
Dewhurst stressed the importance of homeless agencies in preventing rough sleepers from using up resources at other services, “one night in an acute mental health institution costs £500, while the same sum provides services at O’Hanlon House for one week.”
She added that “there is also an enormous cost to the community here.”
Towns where homeless services have already been reduced report a 33% increase in crime, 41% increase in street drinking and a 48% increase in anti-social behaviour.
That feeling was echoed by Amy. “If you put more people out onto the streets then there’s going to be more crime, without a doubt”.
There are currently three night shelters in Oxford, each providing sixty beds. In addition, the Julian Housing “next step” accommodation provides beds for 150 people as they prepare to move into independent housing.
As Dewhurst explained in an address to the Council “we want to work to make savings and will willingly enter into a dialogue to do this. But we simply cannot sustain indiscriminate cuts of this scale”.
Petitions to prevent the passing of the budget, which is set to come into force in 2015, must be made by the third of January.
Oxford County Council could not be reached for comment.