Cambridge has been particularly hard hit by a recent surge in homelessnessDani Ismailov

“Hi mate, could you – ”

“Sorry, I don’t have any change”, I mutter, lowering my head and shuffling quickly past. I feel guilty at the barefaced lie I’ve just told, but the feeling swiftly fades as I reassure myself that I’ve done the right thing. It would only be spent on drugs and alcohol after all.

During my first year in Cambridge I had many experiences like this and each time I believed the reassurances I gave myself less and less. Eventually I became uncomfortable with my ignorance and decided to get a better understanding of homelessness in order to challenge the preconceptions I had.

The topic of homelessness had often come up in conversation: “why are there so many homeless people in Cambridge?” The same ‘intuitive’ explanations were always given: “Cambridge’s affluence and student population must attract them, surely addiction in the end leads to the streets.” A 2014 social attitude survey exploring the attitudes of residents in Cambridge towards homeless people confirms what I’ve noticed anecdotally.

As I began to learn more about the issue and talked to charities, politicians and other students, I realised how wrong some of these misconceptions were. Even our understanding of what it takes to be homeless falls short. We tend to conflate homelessness with the people we see ‘sleeping rough’ on the streets. The reality is that the homeless population is far bigger than what is visible to us on a given day in the city centre. Hidden homelessness has many forms, from sofa surfing to staying in impermanent accommodation such as B&Bs. Cambridge City Council data shows that in 2015-16, while there were 152 individuals sleeping rough, 418 households presented as homeless. This is particularly shocking as a household could be anything from a single individual to a family of five.

Unfortunately what is not a misconception is the scale of homelessness in Cambridge. The numbers of homeless people and those sleeping rough have exploded over the past five years. Since 2011-12 there has been a 190 per cent increase in households presenting to be homeless and a 145 per cent increase in people sleeping rough from June 2015.

In order to understand the causes of this rapid growth, I went to speak to Community Engagement Officer Barry Griffiths from Jimmy’s, a local charity that has been at the forefront of working with homeless people in Cambridge for over 20 years. Standing in the reception area, it feels far more like a hotel lobby than the stark picture of a homeless shelter I had in mind. Indeed, the people who stay here are called guests; they’re not nameless faces here for one night and gone the next. Small choices of vocabulary like this play a big part in removing the stigma that people in this situation face and restoring the self-confidence that is lost with your home and livelihood. Through glass doors I peer into the lounge; one guest is scrolling through Facebook while others sit on the sofas watching the news. The clean and airy space is a haven of normality, a much-needed refuge for people whose lives can be so transient and unstable.

When it comes to the causes of homelessness, there is normally no single reason, but a combination of manyDani Ismailov

Talking to Barry made me realize both the variety and complexity of the causes of homelessness. There is normally no single reason, but a combination of many. These include relationship breakdown, lack of support after leaving a care home or the army, domestic violence and previous sexual or physical abuse. Alcohol and substance addiction do play a part as causes, but they are more often turned to as a coping mechanism when things have already gone wrong. None of these, however, explain the recent spike in the numbers of homeless people.

Nor can the rise be explained by our intuition that people must come from outside of Cambridge; 90 per cent of people who come into Jimmy’s are locals. Instead we must look at the wider social and economic circumstances in which this increase has taken place. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the rise in homelessness has converged with the implementation of austerity. Over his time working at Jimmy’s, Barry has observed that “homelessness is a social barometer for the wider problems facing our society. It takes three or four years after major policy change before we start to see the impact”. This would explain why the effect of cuts to welfare and housing benefit that began in 2010 can now be starkly seen in the statistics.

There are two areas that are particularly relevant to homelessness: housing and mental health. The former is in crisis and the latter still stigmatised and underfunded. Barry notes, “the problem is not that it’s hard for a homeless person to get a house or to receive mental health care. The problem is that it’s hard for anyone to get a house or receive mental health care”. Jimmy’s does a fantastic job of alleviating the homelessness that already exists; but the more systemic causes can only be solved at the level of local and national policy.

I met with Executive Councillor for Housing, Kevin Price, to discuss what Cambridge City Council is doing to counter homelessness. Recently the Council has focused on preventing homelessness, mainly through the provision of debt and benefit advice. In September a grant allocating over £700,000 to local anti-homelessness charities was also approved. This strategy has meant “787 cases of homelessness have been relieved”.

The Labour councillor cited the shortage of social housing in Cambridge as one of the main causes of homelessness. He argued that Conservative policies such as Right to Buy had compounded the housing shortage, halving the number of the city’s council houses from “14,000 in 1980 to 7,000 in 2016”. He believed the situation is equally bad in Cambridge’s “overheated housing market” where house prices have risen faster than any other town or city in England since 2010. This means that the Local Housing Allowance, which is used to calculate housing benefits when renting from private landlords, does not even cover the lowest rents in Cambridge.

Other barriers we discussed include the idiosyncrasies of statutory homelessness – the category you must fall into in order to be housed by the Council. The vague criteria requiring you to be local, ‘unintentionally homeless’ and in ‘priority need’ has some absurd consequences. For example, if you are served notice by your landlord and leave willingly then you are intentionally homeless, only if you stay and are forcibly removed would you qualify as statutorily homeless.

Ultimately the national government is responsible for providing a coherent policy agenda in order to reverse the recent trends. I spoke to Cambridge Labour MP Daniel Zeichner about what he thinks needs to be done in Westminster to make a difference in Cambridge. He argued that while “the previous Labour government made huge progress, overseeing a 70 per cent fall in homelessness”, austerity has meant “resources have been cut and cut and cut”. Instead of preventing people from becoming homeless, “now we have to deal with them after the event”.

Austerity cuts under the Conservative government mean more and more people are being forced into homelessnessDani Ismailov

He was adamant that the “first thing we need to do is change the government”, followed by focusing on “early intervention and investing in social housing”. Liberal Democrat and former MP for Cambridge Julian Huppert emphasised the importance of addressing mental health in order to tackle homelessness. According to Homeless Link, 45 per cent of homeless people have been diagnosed with a mental health problem and yet “we’re still in the dark ages” when it comes to treating them.

It is unlikely that a radical change in policy will occur very soon, but luckily there are lots of fantastic charities and student organisations working hard to help homeless people in Cambridge. Wintercomfort stands alongside Jimmy’s as one of the first ports of calls for homeless people in Cambridge. As a day centre running seven days a week they provide a welfare service of breakfast and lunch provision and also an impressive learning and development program. This includes being the local coordinator for the Big Issue Foundation and running two social enterprises, Overstream Clean and Food4Food, that give people the work experience and self-confidence to return to employment.

Student run project Streetbite has been running since 1999 and aims to do something practical to help homeless people in Cambridge. They have over 80 volunteers who distribute food,, tea and coffee to homeless people around Cambridge and most importantly just have a chat with anyone they meet. Volunteer Jake Leighton said his “perception of homeless people has dramatically changed” during his time with Streetbite and made him realise the importance of remembering: “there is a real person who you are walking past”.

Cambridge Homeless Outreach Programme (CHOP) works to provide students with opportunities to serve the homeless community in Cambridge. Past projects have included the ‘Hope & Home’ campaign, painting shelter rooms and various fundraisers. Raising and Giving (RAG) is supporting Jimmy’s this year as well as running a homeless appeal to aid Wintercomfort’s drive for essentials running up to Christmas.

Homelessness is a devastating and complex problem, but it is not intractable. Many of the volunteers at the charities I visited, such as Solly from Wintercomfort, had been homeless, but with help from others and perseverance they’d turned their lives around. Speaking to people sleeping rough you get a sense of their personalities and the solidarity of the homeless community; conversations have ranged from their favorite punk rock songs to being invited to a Halloween party. There is much we can do as students, but more than anything we need to lift our head outside the bubble that we create for ourselves and take the time to engage with the people we share this city with.

If you would like to get involved with helping the homeless in Cambridge get in contact with Streetbite, CHOP or RAG via email or on Facebook. Jimmy’s and Wintercomfort are also always looking for volunteers and any donations are always gratefully received