'I may drink myself to death': Fears over cuts to homeless services as rough sleeping rises

ITV News' Investigations Editor Dan Hewitt reports at a time when new official figures show rough sleeping in England has risen by 27% in the last year

In England’s sleeping cities, illuminated only by night buses and bin lorries, a growing number of people live in the shadows - the streets their home.

At six o’clock in the morning, I meet AJ and Ben at the foot of the Greys Monument which towers above Newcastle City Centre. It is their job to count the homeless, to check they have survived another harsh winter’s night.

This particular February morning is wet, and cold, and we find very few sleeping rough out in the open. In conditions like this, AJ and Ben know where to look. They search the city’s multi-storey car parks, under bridges and back alleys, and the bus station.

There are “regulars” they are looking for - people entrenched in homelessness perhaps for many months, sometimes years - and there are people they have never seen before.

For the regulars, it is a case of making sure they are alive and not in need of any medical help. For new rough sleepers, AJ and Ben offer them the support of Changing Lives, the homelessness charity they work for which provides support and shelter to Newcastle’s homeless, should they want it.

Very few people are doing this work. For rough sleepers in Newcastle, Changing Lives are their chance of getting off the streets and gaining access to the support they need to deal with the causes of what led them there in the first place, whether it be addiction, abuse, crime or a combination of all of these and more.

Their work is predominantly funded by Newcastle City Council, but like every council in England in harsh economic times they are looking to make cuts to balance their books, and they are looking at the money they give homelessness prevention services.

In November, it proposed halving the funding they give to services like Changing Lives from £3.2 million to £1.6 million, as it clambers to slash £60 million from it’s budget in the next three years.

It’s a decision that puts at risk half of the city’s 734 bed spaces for homeless people like Gino.

I met him at Bentinck Terrace, a hostel funded by the council and run by Changing Lives. It provides 36 individual apartments for rough sleepers.

Gino Robb said he would be "dead or in jail" if it weren't for homelessness services. Credit: ITV News

Gino shows me one of the chalets he has been staying in. He was sleeping rough for several months, but since arriving here he is getting his life back in order.

I ask him where he would be if it wasn’t for Bentinck Terrace. “I would be dead or in jail," he tells me.

"Seriously, if I didn't have support from these types of places and didn't get housed I would be in jail, committing crimes then feeding myself, looking after myself, or just bed dead."

These services are at risk, at a time when new official figures show rough sleeping in England has risen by 27% in the last year, to 3,898 people on any one given night.

In the North East it has increased by 46%. Yorkshire and the Humber seen the biggest increase at 59%.

In 2019, the government promised to eradicate rough sleeping by the next general election.

Exclusive research by Homeless Link given to ITV News show 1,150 bed spaces for homeless people funded by county councils are at risk of being lost in the latest round of budget cuts.

“This appalling spike in rough sleeping points to a situation that is out of control and demands emergency action”, says Fiona Colley, Director of Social Change at Homeless Link.

She said sleeping rough is a "deeply traumatic experience that severely impacts people’s mental and physical health".

Ms Colley added that if the statistics reflect how a healthy society judges its most vulnerable citizens then the data is "truly shameful".

"Long-term inflation and cash-strapped councils have left homeless services severely underfunded, meaning many are closing their doors.

“We cannot allow this lifeline to continue to contract when it is needed more than ever to keep people off the streets."

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Cash-strapped councils are facing unprecedented financial pressure and many are looking to save money on services they are not legally obliged to provide.

“There is no doubt that we would see an increase in rough sleeping,” said Neil Baird from Changing Lives in Newcastle.

“We would see an increase in the number of people dying within homeless services, but we also see significant increase in the pressures on other services.”

We spent a day at the Falcon Centre in Loughborough, a centre that provides 30 beds for rough sleepers as well as others support services such as treatment for addiction, food or a haircut.

It says it is the only hostel in the town providing beds for rough sleepers, and it has just lost all of it’s £300,000 of funding from Leicestershire County Council.

From the end of the March, they will have to rely solely on donations. The Chief Executive Marie Davis told me the cuts are a false economy.

“This service is a safety net,” she said, “it is here to help all of those people who nobody has a statutory duty to help. The thresholds for the other statutory services have risen so high, it is so hard to get the other services to engage with the people we work with.

"They are in need, they are in crisis. They have experienced trauma, the trauma of homelessness is enough by itself, but the other things they’ve been through, we are here to pick them back up again. No one else is going to do it.”

The Falcon has been a lifeline for Latoya. She shows me the small bedroom she was given three weeks ago when she arrived on a Monday morning at the lowest point in her life.

I ask her what will happen to her if the Falcon Centre closes.

Latoya Taylor said she fears she would drink herself to death if she remained on the streets. Credit: ITV News

“I fear I may have to drink myself to death. I could possibly have a seizure if I was still out on the streets on my own and no one to find me or call an ambulance.

“(This place) has meant between life and death. I find it as a way of me trying to rebuild my life. It’s giving me the support I think I needed, and slowly I am getting there.”

Louise Richardson, Leicestershire County Council's cabinet member for health and wellbeing, said it recognises the importance of funding for homelessness support but blames budget pressures for failings in services.

In a response to ITV News, Newcastle City Council said it is "incredibly proud" of its homelessness provisions.

But a spokesperson added: "We are aware that much of the money being spent in this area was being spent to tackle the symptom of a wider problem, rather than the root cause."

They said a review will be carried out to improve services.

New official figures show rough sleeping in England has risen by 27% in the last year. Credit: ITV News

The government says it is spending £2.4 billion to help people at risk of homelessness and support rough sleepers, including £220 million announced just earlier this week.

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson added: “Whilst we have made good progress and rough sleeping remains below pre-pandemic levels, there is more work to be done to meet our ambition to end it entirely and we will continue to work with local authorities to help people off the streets for good.”

At the Falcon Centre in Loughborough, there is a notice board full of ‘Thank You’ cards. Some are from people they have helped, others are from mothers and fathers of sons and daughters they have supported. One reads: "Thank you for saving my life."

For the staff here, and at other homelessness services across the country, they fear for those who will not get that chance.

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