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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Homeless bed cuts could leave people for dead on Newcastle streets, former rough sleepers fear

Slashing the number of beds available for Newcastle’s homeless will leave more people fearing for their lives on the city’s streets, former rough sleepers have warned.

It emerged in November that Newcastle City Council is proposing to halve the amount of money it spends on accommodation and support services for homeless people, under the latest round of civic centre budget cuts.

The move has sparked deep fears among North East housing providers over potentially fatal consequences for some of Newcastle’s most vulnerable, in a city that has long prided itself on its internationally acclaimed response to homelessness.

Two men who were both homeless before having their lives turned around through the help of charity Changing Lives, which provides 219 of the total 734 beds currently commissioned by the council, have now told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) how they worry that others could be left for dead.

The council has insisted that its plans are intended to overhaul the city’s homelessness service to move people into permanent accommodation more quickly, meaning fewer emergency beds would be needed.

Speaking at Changing Lives’ Bentinck Terrace base in Newcastle’s West End on Thursday, former rough sleeper Alan Conway said that its staff had given him life-altering help with education, mental health, medical appointments, and benefits – without which he may not have survived.

The 39-year-old told the LDRS: “Without Changing Lives, I would probably be in the hospital or dead. People’s lives are going to be at risk because of this [budget cut].

“With what has happened with Covid and the gas and electric bills at the moment, people have got no money to feed themselves. They are really going to struggle.”

The West End native was in the care system from an early age and describes himself as a “problem child”, using drugs and alcohol before he was even a teenager.

He got his own flat at 16 but was unable to manage it and soon found himself homeless, he was also later jailed in 2019.

But Mr Conway says he is now in a “much better place” and is taking courses in woodwork and tiling as he aims to get his life on track.

Outlining the terror of life as a rough sleeper, he added: “You fear for your life when you are on the street. If someone is a rough sleeper, there are always drunks coming past and kicking you in the head because they think it’s funny. I was in my 20s when something awful happened to a bloke who was murdered on the streets [Trevor Yallop, who was punched and kicked to death in Newcastle city centre in 2005]. Other people do drugs and take their own life away.”

While the council has not specified how many beds it plans to axe, its proposal would see the annual spend on homelessness prevention contracts reduced from £3.3m to £1.6m from October this year.

Jacqui Cox, housing and homelessness lead for Changing Lives, said that the result of that would be more than 300 beds being lost and staff having to be cut.

She told the LDRS that the proposal was a “bolt from the blue” in November, with the charity only discovering the plans through reading about it in the news, and comes at a time when every bed in the city is consistently full.

Ms Cox said that the prospect of more people on Newcastle’s streets would mean “more aggressive begging, more people taking drugs, becoming involved in county lines, being sexually exploited” – warning that the consequences could be more financially costly to the council in the long run.

Paul Riley, from Cowgate, has been getting help from Changing Lives on and off for seven years after first being referred to them via a homeless shelter.

The 33-year-old, who is now living on his own property, said: “There were years when they were trying to help me and I was chucking it back in their faces and leaving myself homeless. Then the reality finally hit me and I have come on massively since then. If Changing Lives had not been there for me then I would still be in the same situation I was before.

“I was taking drugs, I was homeless, I was bringing problems on myself. But they gave me a chance and from that things have changed for the better.”

Asked about the budget cut plans, which could be signed off in March, he added: “It is going to lead to massive problems for the city and for the people who are on the streets. If they cut the budget then they are doing wrong because there are a lot of people out there who need help like I did.”

Questioned at a civic centre scrutiny meeting on Thursday over how the homelessness prevention budget cut fit with the council’s strategy to combat poverty in Newcastle, deputy council leader Karen Kilgour said: “If you have a number of people stuck in a temporary accommodation bed for up to two years, and we have seen cases longer than that, then that system is not working as well as it can do.

“If we are able to move people through the system so that when they go into that temporary accommodation we can provide them the support services they need to move them out of it and into permanent accommodation — their own tenancy or whatever is best for them and their circumstances — then we won’t need as many beds because we will be moving people through the system faster.

“It is not about saying we are going to cut something in half, it is about reviewing the whole system to make it work better.”

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