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The Hidden Problem of Homelessness in the North East

Currently, 1 in every 200 people in England is homeless. The figure of 1 in every 1100 people in the North East may seem comparatively low, but, locally, homelessness remains a huge and devastating issue. At least two families become homeless every day in the North East of England.

Figures revealed late last year by Shelter estimate that 143 children in the North East woke up homeless or in temporary accommodation on Christmas Day. The same study showed 2017 to have witnessed the highest number of homeless children in a decade. Of course, it is extremely difficult to know or even accurately estimate how many people are experiencing homelessness, and so these figures could be much higher in reality.

The issue of homelessness becomes evident when a walk through the centre of Durham means you will see at least one person sleeping rough. Unfortunately, as a passer-by it is often difficult to know what to do, or how to help. This creates a life of isolation for the homeless, who are often disregarded and, sadly, seen as a problem easier to ignore. Despite an increasing awareness of homelessness, many people (perhaps not openly) still blame drug or alcohol abuse as the root cause.  It becomes easy to see the issue as so far removed from the reality of your own life that it can be difficult to imagine how someone could actually end up having nowhere to live. And yet is anyone immune to being homeless themselves due to a few bad decisions or a series of unfortunate circumstances?

Last summer, I came across an exhibition in Manchester’s Northern Quarter displaying a street poem. It contained the details of individuals who had become homeless, how this had come about, and their daily struggles and experiences within a society that renders them invisible. These people were so ordinary, and it really struck me how it seemed that many of them had simply been unlucky. Their situations became increasingly desperate as, once becoming homeless, they struggled to find a job to better their situation. It felt very obvious that their futures were completely dependent upon the help of others, emphasising for me the urgency for the general population to act rather than ignore.

Youth Homelessness North East (YHNE) reported that 41% of the people in North East who approached the local authorities about being homeless over a month-long period were under the age of 25. As privileged young people and students, we take for granted the fact that most of us rely entirely on our parents for shelter. Yet there are so many young people locally with nowhere to live simply because a parent, caregiver or other relative was no longer able or willing to accommodate them. According to YHNE, this is the leading factor for homelessness in young people – so it simply is not a case of poor life choices or putting blame on the individual. No longer able to access housing benefits as of last year, young people now have very few options to prevent homelessness once it becomes foreseeable.

Many of the people experiencing homelessness in the North East are young, but regardless of age they all remain extremely vulnerable. Homeless people have an average life expectancy of only 47 compared to 77 for the general population.  Furthermore, youths between the ages of 16 and 24 are at least twice as likely to die as those of the same age who are not homeless. In the North East, a large number of these deaths are alcohol or drug related, but 11% can be linked to suicide in a report undergone by the national charity Crisis. These statistics would be recognised much more on a national level if they concerned any other section of society. And so why are these people who are so vulnerable and so in need of help seemingly ignored by the government?

The Homelessness Reduction Act is due to come into effect in April of this year, requiring local authorities to provide information and advice about homelessness free of charge, as well as taking ‘reasonable steps’ to secure accommodation for those who are homeless. The Act seems somewhat vague, and leaves local councils to develop their own homelessness strategies, which are not then monitored by the government. There is still, therefore, a huge reliance on local charities to provide meals, clothing, sleeping bags and accommodation for those in need.

Food Cycle Durham serves hot food to those in need every Wednesday evening at Sanctuary 21. They rely on donations of surplus ingredients from local businesses, including Durham Indoor Market and Flat White café, and volunteers (both locals and students). A hot meal, space to socialise and opportunity to form friendships can make such a huge difference to vulnerable or isolated members of society. Food Cycle is one of the charities DUCK is supporting this year, but you can also volunteer or donate via their website.

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