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Letter to Home Secretary

Dear Mrs Braverman

As Exeter’s local homelessness charity we have taken this unprecedented step to write to a Secretary of State as we were surprised and disappointed to read your statement at the weekend, proposing to make it a civil offence for charities such as ours to give tents to rough sleepers.

Our mobile rough sleeper team walks around eight miles a day delivering cooked breakfasts and lunches to rough sleepers and those who are vulnerably housed. We also provide showers, survival gear and clothes, as well as laundry, mobile phone charging and emotional support for the people who need us.

As an independent charity, we don’t receive statutory funding and rely on our generous local community for the vast majority of our income.

In Exeter we’re experiencing the highest ever level of rough sleeping in the city, following the numbers of people in this position doubling last year. Today we know of at least 29 people who will be sleeping rough in the city tonight.

Many of those who seek out our services are often desperate, frightened and traumatised from childhood abuse or neglect.  A large number of our clients have grown up in the care system without being properly prepared to cope as adults in a complicated world. Others will be suffering mental illness or addictions for which they cannot get appropriate help. All experience abuse and often violence on streets, as well as being exposed to the elements and the very real risk of death from hypothermia as we enter the winter months.

As your learned Conservative colleagues Bob Blackman MP and Richard Bacon MP, Chair and Vice Chair respectively of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness have made clear, the idea that rough sleeping is some kind of lifestyle choice is woefully inaccurate and misleading. It is also dangerously inflammatory and certainly no basis for introduction of new legislation to outlaw using a tent for shelter or providing tents as shelters for rough sleepers.

Instead, those who find themselves forced to sleep rough in our cities and towns are in desperate need of extra help and support both to address the complex issues that have resulted in them becoming homeless in the first place, and to enable them to find and maintain settled accommodation.

Rather than subjecting people experiencing homelessness to further trauma and abuse by removing what little shelter they have, here are some suggestions for key policies to achieve your stated objective of ending rough sleeping in our cities:

  • Increase Housing Benefit to reflect the current rental market. Housing Benefit has not kept pace with the rental market for years due to Government’s decision to repeatedly freeze it despite soaring rent levels. As in many other cities, there is no accommodation available in Exeter that is affordable by those reliant on housing benefit
  • Reinvest in the support and accommodation services for people at risk of homelessness that have been systematically stripped away over the past 15 years. The money that has been “saved” by cutting these services is now being spent instead on Council Temporary Accommodation where little, if any, support is provided.
  • Abandon your Department’s proposal to reduce accommodation for those granted leave to remain in the UK, a proposal which will push yet more traumatised people onto the streets.

Only then, will there be a reduction in tents seen on the streets of our cities.

Homelessness is a political choice, not a personal one, as the “Everyone In” campaign at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic proved. As the holder of one of the great Offices of State, you have the influence to bring lasting change by campaigning for the policy changes outlined above.

In the meantime, for some people a tent is the only protection from the elements that stands between a homeless person and death. That shelter provided by that flimsy layer of nylon can mean the difference between someone living or dying from hypothermia. We beg you not to criminalise provision of, or use of, such basic shelter.

Yours sincerely

Peter Stephenson