Homelessness and Mental Health

With Stephen Joyce, (Cabinet Member for Housing) and Charlie Arratoon (Director of Open House) marking World Homeless Day

As the range of ways in which we communicate and get our news grow in number, advocacy groups are being forced to work increasingly hard to gain our attention. So, it’s little wonder that a new ‘day’, ‘week’, ‘month’ or even ‘year’ is being announced almost every hour, from ‘Living Wage Week’ to ‘International Day of Friendship’.

There are four ‘days’ today to my knowledge, although no doubt many more of which I am unaware: World Porridge Day–which cooled off on Twitter after breakfast, Ada Lovelace Day–recalling the Nineteenth Century mother of computing whose daughter lived just outside of Crawley, World Homeless Day and World Mental Heath Day. No doubt all of those topics have solid grounds for being a ‘day’…well maybe not the porridge thing, but as a local authority leader both homelessness and mental health provision are two causes very close to my heart.

Crawley Borough Council is the Housing Authority for the local area, meaning that we have a responsibility to deal with homelessness within our patch. Homelessness takes many forms, from people temporary staying with a friend until we can help them to access more permanent accommodation following an eviction to rough sleepers, it also has various causes and consequently a range of different interventions are required.

One obvious cause of homelessness is the housing shortage, following the UK’s forty year break from serious house building. Since Labour regained control of Crawley, we’ve worked hard to get developers building, on top of which we’re generating around 250 new affordable units per year. This hasn’t been easy and the numbers are still too low, but while we can meet the needs of many who are ‘homeless’ by just providing somewhere to live, that simply isn’t the case for most of those you find sleeping in local doorways.

Street homelessness cases tend involve complex needs which we have to address before they can sustain a tenancy. There is a very high incidence of mental illness amongst rough sleepers, often coupled with substance abuse as a form of self-medication. To tackle the substance abuse issues we need to resolve the mental health difficulties and yet all-too-often mental health services won’t get involved while substance abuse is taking place. As a council, we’re working with great charities, such as Open House, to try to cut through and provide the support that’s needed to get people back on their feet, but it’s tough.

Even without helping those with quite such complex needs, mental health services simply cannot cope and remain underfunded compared to other health services, despite both public recognition and the NHS Constitution stating that mental and physical illnesses should have equal status and entitlement to treatment. We live lives which are increasingly out of touch with the things which promote good mental health, where workplace stress grows with the constant drive to do more for less and advertising reinforces the belief that we’re never truly good enough.

This comes at an increasing cost to the state as people move across the line from ‘just coping’ to ‘unable to cope’ and require more costly interventions, the impact upon scarce Police resources alone in addressing the consequences of untreated mental illness doesn’t bear thinking about. Yet, infinitely worse is the social cost, of lives ruined because as a society we are constructing a way of living where people simply cannot cope and then failing to provide the support they need to get back on their feet. It’s morally wrong, but change won’t come easily, it requires us to not only re-evaluate our public spending priorities but the very notions upon which our economy is built.

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