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Homeless in Folkestone: What issues are faced and how is it being tackled?

Homelessness charities have warned that there is not enough affordable housing in Shepway, which risks some of the most vulnerable people in the district being left without a place to live.

The crisis is affecting vulnerable people coming off the streets and families struggling to make ends meet.

Shepway District Council, which is responsible for providing affordable housing, has vowed to address the problem after acknowledging there is a shortage of properties generally.

Folkestone Churches Winter Shelter houses hundreds but cannot provide shelter for all homeless people. Picture courtesy of Folkestone Rainbow Centre
Folkestone Churches Winter Shelter houses hundreds but cannot provide shelter for all homeless people. Picture courtesy of Folkestone Rainbow Centre

When the Winter Shelter in Folkestone launched in 2009, after a homeless person died on the streets in the town, it was a big reaction to a very real problem.

Since then there has been much time, effort and support put in to help people who are threatened with or are currently homeless.

But as the winter months draw on and recent plummeting temperatures, the plight of those who are still on the streets, or facing homelessness and insecurity, is all the more real.

The Winter Shelter continues its tour around Folkestone churches until the end of February and is a lifeline for the people most at risk living on the streets.

Jon and Amanda Wilson prepare for the Big Sleep Out in Folkestone which raises funds for the winter shelter
Jon and Amanda Wilson prepare for the Big Sleep Out in Folkestone which raises funds for the winter shelter

Dozens of volunteers give up their time with families and friends to help the more vulnerable members of the community.

The Winter Shelter provides 13 beds for the single, street homeless and it is not enough for all the people on the streets in Shepway – which the shelter co-ordinators say can sometimes be as high as 20.

In the first week of the shelter alone – which opened on December 5 – there were still six people out on the streets one night in Folkestone.

The Winter Sheter runs in Folkestone during the coldest and worst months of the year with people arriving to have a safe place to sleep at night.

It uses seven churches – one each week – throughout Folkestone with people having to register through the Rainbow Centre in Sandgate Road.

The project involves 200 volunteers who help cook meals, supervise at night and provide breakfast the following morning.

Ali Chambers, Winter Shelter project manager, said: “The idea is that they come in between 7.30pm and 8pm and are given a meal which everyone eats at the table, volunteers and guests.

“They sit and talk until about 10pm when some of the the volunteers leave. Another tranche of volunteers come in the morning, give them breakfast and the whole thing moves on.

“It’s like the Grand Prix, it moves on and on.”

'Support gives them a chance'

KentOnline reporter Matt Leclere joined Porchlight to walk round the town and find out about the issues and meet with people first hand.

One of the most telling things people sleeping rough said was that they had got into a routine on the streets and did not want to engage with the winter shelter.

They knew the support is there and would reassure you they knew where to go if things got worse but often when asked how they were responded by saying 'yeah, fine'.

It was the little things they wanted help with like a new battery for their torch.

James Moorhouse, an outreach worker for Porchlight, said: “People will ask what are you doing. And it’s like, well, nothing. You can’t force them.

“They might have three sleeping bags but they’re wet. It’s not good though.

“It’s checking to see if there’s anyone new and direct them to the Rainbow Centre. The shelter helps to give me time to find them housing – three months should be enough to get somebody in somewhere but it depends what they want.

“For some people it’s not just about getting a house. Support around them at least gives them a chance.”

Poor quality and not enough accommodation

But although the visual issues of tents in parks, sleeping bags in doorways are telling reminders of what’s happening on the streets, it is a fraction of the overall problem.

Statistics show the life expectancy of someone sleeping long term on the streets is only 49-years-old.

Meanwhile, there were 835 people in Shepway who were claimed to have been left homeless this year while two years ago this was up at 1,400.

Both the charity sector and the council have admitted the accommodation that is available is often at the lower end of the market and of poor quality.

In 2015/16 just 101 new affordable properties were made available – 55 for affordable rent and 46 on shared ownership or low-cost home ownership schemes.

That figure fell from 128 affordable properties over the previous 12-month period, council figures have revealed.

Jon Wilson, chief executive of the Rainbow Centre in Folkestone, which provides homeless support services, said: “We’ve noticed changes in the amount of suitable one-bedroom accommodation in Shepway over the last couple of years. There are a lot of complex factors.

“It’s one of the challenges we face with pressure on housing in Shepway. Can we get people into accommodation that isn’t going to cause them to fail or come back on to the streets?”

He added the number of people returning to the town’s winter shelter – which runs until the end of February – year on year is falling.

Mr Wilson’s warning was echoed by the shelter’s project manager, Ali Chambers, who said: “The big thing is personal choice to come off the streets.

“I’m not suggesting it’s a personal choice to be on the streets. But for some people housing might not be the automatic answer. Nobody can be made to do something.

“If somebody wants that, then fantastic.

“Accommodation at the end of it would be fantastic if it’s possible, but there are lots of issues – suitable housing stock or personal choice. So we’re about incremental change.”

James Moorhouse, an outreach worker in Folkestone for homelessness charity Porchlight, said the problem often lies in a lack of quality accommodation, with what is available often at the very bottom of the scale.

He holds drop-in sessions for people to come and see him at the Rainbow Centre and says issues remain about what people can afford.

He said: “Getting a job isn’t that easy. Especially if they’ve got a criminal record.

“The ultimate is getting them permanently housed at the end. A lot of the accommodation isn’t the best.

“The main issue is there isn’t enough affordable housing.”

Shepway District Council says while single street homelessness is important to tackle, it is part of a bigger context of how the council deals with homelessness in general.

As with all local government departments, the housing options team at SDC, face challenges every day in the face of falling budgets and pressure from government to come up with a homelessness prevention strategy.

Not adding up

Due to homeless people struggling to get jobs, many people are on housing benefits, which do not cover the costs of what is available on the private market.

The Local Housing Allowance is based on the lowest 30% of average property rents in the district.

A Shepway council spokesman said the rates, set by the government, have “remained essentially unchanged” for the past two years.

The rates for Dover and Shepway are together with the shared accommodation rate at £59.09 per week and one-bedroom rates at £86.30 per week.

How KentOnline's sister title the Folkestone & Hythe Express first reported the plight of homelessness in Shepway in December
How KentOnline's sister title the Folkestone & Hythe Express first reported the plight of homelessness in Shepway in December

This rises to £115.07 per week for two-bedroom properties and up to £168 per week for a four-bedroom property. But rents for a house share in Folkestone according to estate agent websites start at £74 per week, ranging up to £104 per week.

Studio flats and one-bedroom apartments start at £91 per week to £138 per week.

The lack of affordable housing has a knock-on effect on the council in other areas, forcing them to spend thousands each month for temporary accommodation for people – often in bed and breakfasts.

Last month, the council spent £45,450 on bed and breakfast accommodation, according to expenditure figures.

No boundaries

The reality for many people is that homelessness can hit when they least expect it.

Ali Chambers, Folkestone’s Winter Shelter project manager, added: “It’s a very, very fast process. If you think you miss one month’s rent and two months’ rent goes by and that’s a lot of money and you can see it unravel.”

The Rainbow Centre sees people come through its doors from “all walks of life”, according to chief executive Jon Wilson.

He added: “The main cause has been relationship breakdown and obviously there’s lots of complex issues – mental health, drug and alcohol – but primarily it comes out of a relationship breakdown, either family or partner.

“On any one night in Folkestone you’re likely to see 10 to 20 people. But we’ve had a few people move to Hythe, so for the residents in Hythe it’s now on their doorstep.

“It shows homelessness doesn’t stay still and it could affect us any time and come to our communities. It doesn’t have any boundaries.”

'We need more landlords to help'

Cllr Alan Ewart-James (Con), cabinet member for housing at Shepway council, said: “Our housing team is on the frontline of the housing crisis and knows the impact of the country not building enough homes over the last 30 years.

“I am proud that we are one of only a handful of district councils in the country to be building council homes again, but it will take a long time and many new developments across Shepway to make up the shortfall in affordable housing.

“In the meantime we need more private landlords to come forward to discuss letting their properties through us."

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