Homelessness in Northumberland: A look behind the numbers as figures reveal 1,000 homeless in the North East

The number of people recorded as homeless in the North East has reached 1,061, new figures from Shelter revealed this week.

Sunday, 22nd December 2019, 8:00 am
Updated Sunday, 22nd December 2019, 9:33 am
George Dickson during his stay with Les Stephenson and Bridie Sawyer. Picture by Ben O’Connell

The charity’s extensive analysis of official rough-sleeping and temporary accommodation figures shows the number of homeless people in the region has increased by 4% since 2016 when the charity first published its annual report.

For the first time, the charity’s review of government data has also exposed that close to 12,500 people in the North East were threatened with homelessness in the last year.

Despite being the most comprehensive overview of homelessness in the country, it’s widely known that much of it goes undocumented, including sofa surfing and some rough sleeping, which means that the true level will be even higher than in this count.

George Dickson during his stay with Les Stephenson and Bridie Sawyer. Picture by Ben O’Connell

Shelter is warning that unless the new Government ‘takes urgent action to address the dire lack of social homes at the crux of this emergency, the situation is likely to get worse’.

The charity’s report, This is England: a picture of homelessness in 2019, identifies the areas where homelessness is most acute in the North East; Middlesbrough topped the list, followed by Gateshead and Durham. Stockton, Hartlepool and South Tyneside had the lowest figures.

In Northumberland, it is estimated that 33 people were homeless on a given night during 2019 – a rate of one in every 9,705 people. It means the county is towards the bottom of all local authorities in England – 298th out of around 350.

Newcastle, the nearest urban centre, was one place above Northumberland in the North East (they were seventh and eighth out of 12), with a total of 65 people homeless on a given night during the past year – a rate of one in every 4,618 people.

Homeless man’s story sparks compassion

One of those people who experienced homelessness and rough sleeping in both areas earlier in 2019 is 67-year-old George Dickson, whose plight sparked a very compassionate response from residents in the Northumberland town where he ended up after leaving Newcastle.

George left his accommodation as he felt unsafe sharing a building with much younger people, many with substance abuse problems.

Coming to Northumberland, in October he was taken in by Les Stephenson and Bridie Sawyer, who also helped him to get the benefits and support he was entitled to and he has since been housed in the county.

The couple also set up a fund-raising page online, which really caught the imagination of the local community, raising more than £2,600 in the end, despite a target of only £800. This was used to buy household items for George’s new home, on top of what had been donated by people.

At the time, Les said: “I get a lot of pleasure and satisfaction out of helping George.

“The other day, George said to me something which was quite touching, he said, ‘I don’t think I can ever repay you’, but it’s not about repaying. It’s about people helping each other.

“People get hardened in society. Society is making us blind to these people, they haven’t got a voice.”

And while George was helped through his problems, there will be plenty of others who aren’t, including those of a similar age to George, and that’s why he was happy to speak out.

“They don’t have a voice, it’s the people in high places who have a voice,” he said.

His tale had a happy ending, largely due to the generosity of others, but his experiences raised a number of questions about the support available for older homeless people, the availability and provision of appropriate accommodation for older people and issues of homelessness across local-authority borders.

Referring to George’s situation in Newcastle, Les said: “If you ran a dog day-care centre, you wouldn’t put put poodles in with Rottweilers.”

And Charles Sellers, another who took up George’s cause, added: “There’s a lot of volunteer organisations out there trying to help, but what is the system doing, what works and what doesn’t work?

“We keep doing the same things year in, year out, but we keep having the same issues.”

Support for people like George

The Local Democracy Reporting Service has looked into what the system – in the form of Newcastle and Northumberland councils – is doing to support people in George’s situation.

Both authorities said that they do not specifically have different provision or make separate arrangements to support older people who are homeless.

A Northumberland County Council spokeswoman said: “There is no specific temporary or emergency accommodation for older people; a risk assessment is completed for all people placed in temporary accommodation to ensure that it is appropriate to meet their needs, while also ensuring that, should they be placed in shared accommodation, there is no additional risk to or from them from or to the people already placed.

“The temporary accommodation offer may be different for each person depending upon their specific needs.”

A Newcastle City Council spokeswoman said: “We have recently commissioned new homelessness prevention and relief contracts that started on October 1, 2019. These contracts don’t include commissioning separate accommodation or support provision specifically for older people as our services must respond to a range of ages and needs.”

However, notwithtanding this, there is provision available for older people in the city: 12 units of supported accommodation delivered by St Vincent DePaul on New Bridge Street – this is for those aged 25 and over, but historically older people have been accommodated there and this is likely to continue, the spokeswoman explained – and 18 units of supported accommodation delivered by Changing Lives at Abbott House, providing specialist provision for men over 50.

More generally across Newcastle, Cherry Tree View is the council’s statutory temporary accommodation service, providing 45 self-contained units for families and vulnerable people.

“This is a short-term placement and people will receive support to enable them to move on into alternative affordable, suitable and sustainable accommodation,” the spokeswoman said.

Your Homes Newcastle (YHN) provides supported accommodation for young people aged 16-21, which includes the Stepping Stones service in Gosforth and a core and cluster-supported accommodation service in North Kenton, with visiting support.

Commissioned services include a range of different types of supported accommodation (single-site hostels, single self-contained units, shared houses with individual bedrooms but communal kitchens and bathrooms) through a number of third-party providers, including Home Group and Karbon, and partners, including Shelter and DePaul, with all contracts featuring a performance framework, checked through quarterly meetings, and an annual monitoring process that includes site visits.

In Northumberland, the county council owns and manages four temporary accommodation units – in East Cramlington, Ashington, Berwick and Hexham.

The authority also commissions temporary accommodation from two providers, one for clients with low-level support needs and one for clients with higher, complex needs, with the council responsible for referrals to these services and for monitoring the contract and performance.

Both councils believe that there is an adequate supply of housing for older people, while trying to do more to increase this provision.

The Northumberland spokeswoman said: “There is a broad range of general-needs housing which is accessible for older people across the county, provided by the council, registered providers and private landlords.

“There are always opportunities for increasing supplies of bungalows and other types of housing to meet the aspirational need of older people for longer-term independent living and this is acknowledged within the recent Housing Strategy for Northumberland 2019-2022.”

The Newcastle response stated: “The council’s vision is for people to have access to a range of housing options and support to help them remain independent for as long as possible in a home of their choice.

“We are currently investing in our supply of affordable rented housing for older people and have a total of 90 bungalows, Tyneside flats and sheltered apartments due to be completed in 2020 and a further 199 new homes in the pipeline that will be available to let in 2021-22, in addition to our existing social-rented stock across the city.

“We have also been through a programme of remodelling some of the council’s existing sheltered accommodation, with major investment to date in schemes in Ouseburn, Throckley, Walker, Walkergate, Westerhope, Wingrove, Fawdon and Heaton.

“These properties offer high-quality apartment living, with brand-new kitchens and level-access shower rooms, and each development has a large communal lounge and landscaped gardens for residents to enjoy.

“Your Homes Newcastle manages around 1,000 sheltered properties within 22 developments across Newcastle, including the award-winning Tree Top Village in Walker.”

On concerns about the activities of private landlords, the Newcastle spokeswoman said: “Under the Housing Benefit Regulations 2006, there are circumstances where a private landlord can claim for housing benefit to be paid directly where certain criteria are met.

“The regulations are intended to safeguard the tenant by reducing the risk of eviction due to rent arrears or other breaches of tenancy.

“Where Newcastle Council pay housing benefit and local housing allowance directly to landlords, we do not carry out checks on the landlords or the property as, if the criteria are met, the payment must go to the landlord.

“Newcastle Council believes everyone should live in a safe and well-managed home regardless of tenure and we work with private landlords across the city through a variety of measures including accreditation, licensing and, where necessary, enforcement.”

Northumberland’s response simply stated: “We would only visit if we had concerns regarding occupancy or, in the instances of supported housing schemes, whether certain services that are part of the rent charge weren’t being provided.”

In relation to homeless people moving from one local-authority area to another, the Northumberland spokeswoman added: “Anyone presenting as homeless will have their situation assessed in line with the Homelessness Reduction Act requirements.

“Where they require support to reconnect to their originating area, the homelessness and housing options team will assist where possible and for people not requiring reconnection, they will be offered advice to help relieve their homelessness.”

Responding to the latest homelessness statistics, the Local Government Association’s housing spokesman, Coun David Renard, said: “Behind every instance of homelessness lies an individual tragedy and councils want to work with the new Government to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place and support those affected.

“The new Government can help to address this by adapting welfare reforms to protect families at risk of becoming homeless, by restoring local housing allowance rates to cover at least the lowest third of market rents when the current freeze ends in 2020.

“It should also give councils the powers and funding to build desperately-needed new affordable homes. This should include urgent reform to the Right to Buy scheme, which enables councils to keep all sales receipts and set discounts locally.”