The opening up of the old Stock Exchange in Manchester by two ex-football stars and the following pledge by Manchester Council to provide space in their empty buildings for rough sleepers to spend the winter months have received a great deal of press and public support recently. Some in Cardiff are calling on the Council to do the same in order to protect the growing number of rough sleepers on the streets of the City from having to spend winter outside.
Make no mistake, sleeping rough, especially during the coldest months, is extremely hazardous. The cold weather exacerbates health conditions and even the fittest rough sleepers are at danger of becoming seriously ill due to exposure to the cold weather. So surely anything that gets people off the streets and into the warm and dry is a good idea? Sadly homelessness, especially rough sleeping, isn’t as simple as that.
People sleeping rough regularly have complex issues such as mental illness and substance or alcohol misuse problems. These issues must be addressed at the same time as providing rough sleepers with the immediate support of accommodation and food. Psychoactive substances such as `Spice’ are tearing through the rough sleeping population and users of these drugs require specialist support while using or detoxing to prevent them relapsing or harming themselves or others. Support like this may not exist in empty buildings simply opened up by Cardiff Council to the same level as is offered in currently planned temporary winter accommodation.
Rough sleepers housed in empty buildings may be vulnerable to having drugs pushed upon them, violence and abuse without the support structures that exist in more permanent homelessness services. Without this support many may just end up back on the street in spring, potentially with a new drug addiction. If empty buildings are to be used to temporarily house rough sleepers then every effort should be made to provide support for the health and social care needs of people during their stay.
We urge Cardiff Council, and councils across Wales, to expand their existing winter provision and to work with charities to provide the specialist support that rough sleepers need while in temporary shelters. Opening up empty buildings for rough sleepers to occupy should be seen as a last resort and as much support as possible should be offered to the occupants during their stay to support their needs.