While council cogs are starting to turn, more large scale action is required to tackle homelessness at heartFlickr - glasseyes view

The cogs are moving within Cambridge’s complex, often inefficient machinery, making gains for mental health. With an opt-out system for class lists in the works, and the growth of peer-to-peer initiatives such as Student Minds, awareness of mental illness and the support needed is higher than ever. As incidents such as Professor Terentjev’s email to Natural Sciences freshers at Queens’ remind us, however, these cogs need continual oiling. Looking beyond the University however, it is evident that some of the most vulnerable people in Cambridge lack the mental health support they need.

Homeless people face social exclusion and experience a higher level of mental health problems. Even when mental illness is not the original cause of homelessness, it may create the conditions for people to be displaced from their homes. They may often be coping mechanisms for when other things go wrong. In turn, the lack of security and support often experienced by homeless people may lead them to develop mental health problems, or exacerbate existing mental illness, causing a downward spiral. A literature review by the research-based charity Mental Health UK found that 25-30% of homeless people had serious mental health problems, with their depression rate over ten times higher than the general population.

“Navigating the system is like being stuck up the Cam without a paddle – in the cold Cambridge winter”

With Cambridge falling behind on dealing with homelessness, something must be missing. Varsity reprorted reported in 2015 that homelessness had continuously risen for five years, and despite the City Council doubling its spending in that year, the number of rough sleepers has continued to rise. Whilst this can be largely traced to the delayed effects of austerity, failure to effectively deal with the issue is not merely one of resources. In fact, the proposed budget for 2017/2018, the council allocated £719,363 to anti-homelessness organisations alone, more than many other councils around the UK. The issue is also one of priorities. The Council’s main duty is homeless prevention, which it does through a vast array of services: giving advice, the housing benefit, emergency services and even a Single Homelessness Service.

However this almost exclusively focuses on providing a simple, short-term solution to homelessness – providing shelter – with other organisations covering other aspects of the problem. For example, Wintercomfort provides breakfast and lunch, and runs a day centre with a learning programme intended to help people get back into work. They are in good company, with organisations such as Jimmy’s Cambridge and the student-run Cambridge Homelessness Outreach Programme (CHOP) doing their best to distribute food and winter essentials. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this division of labour, as long as no one falls through the gaps.

“The common misconception about substance abuse being the main cause of homelessness certainly creates a stigma”

Unfortunately, a few gaps need to be filled to prevent homeless people with mental health problems being left behind. Navigating the system is like being stuck up the Cam without a paddle – in the cold Cambridge winter. While it is possible to register with a local GP without a fixed address, some sources who wished to remain anonymous reported past difficulties with this. Of course there are difficulties with NHS waiting times, and with people drifting in and out of different shelters, it can be hard to maintain information about the health and progress of individual rough sleepers. Information about mental health provisions may also be hard to find, with websites like the Council’s lacking a clear explanation of different options.

With substance abuse added into the mix, the issue becomes even more complicated. The common misconception about substance abuse being the main cause of homelessness certainly creates a stigma, which may deter rough sleepers from asking for help. At the same time, Cambridgeshire County Council has acknowledged a strong relationship between mental health issues and drug and alcohol misuse. National surveys of 250 homeless accommodation providers revealed about a third of people involved had drug problems and one in four had alcohol problems. In some cases, homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse occur together due to a similar set of causes.

“Aside from collections and fundraising, students are involved on a more systemic level”

However, this is not reflected in responses to homelessness. Local drug and alcohol treatment services, such as Inclusion Cambridge, do not advertise specific provisions for homeless people, and the City Council even reports that “mental health services are often reluctant to assess a client currently engaged in drug and/or alcohol treatment services”, creating barriers to accessing diagnosis or treatment. In this report the Council admits that as a consequence, many clients find themselves “in no man’s land where they feel they are forced to continue to ‘self-medicate’ to be able to function”. Given the complex relationships between these different conditions, it is as important as ever that we respect the dignity and needs of those around us, and it’s heartening to see student involvement increasing in a range of forms.


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The cogs are starting to turn. Cambridge Community Safety Partnership has recently introduced the ‘dual diagnosis’ approach, covering the overlaps between mental illness and drug/alcohol misuse, although this still needs to be fine-tuned and rolled out to more people. Homeless shelters in other countries often have in-house mental health and addiction counsellors, and this could be used to fill present gaps in services. Furthermore, last year’s Homelessness Reduction Act launches a £10 million Social Impact Bond programme to help long-term rough sleepers navigating the housing the system. The Act is designed to address the underlying health issues of homeless people as they wade through paperwork. It’s unclear how much funding will be allocated to Cambridgeshire, but this Act indicates a welcome shift towards more holistic policy-making.

Aside from collections and fundraising, students are involved on a more systemic level. The Wilberforce Society, Cambridge’s student think-tank, is working on a policy paper for local homeless organisations. After assessing the landscape of homeless provisions, the team will recommend changes for local charities and the Council to make their work more effective. The paper’s editor, Cordelia Lam, commented that “it is really imperative for substance abuse and mental health issues to be discussed” as part of this consultation, and she hopes to see more student involvement in building future provisions for mental health and substance abuse. Perhaps with the momentum of student mental health movements, we can help to get this machine moving

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