Fears that rough sleeping in Norwich could increase

More people could end up sleeping rough on Norwich's streets as cuts to public services take their toll, council leaders warned today.

If budgets which enable vulnerable people to find temporary or supported accommodation for people sleeping on the streets are slashed that could lead to an increase in rough sleepers, it is feared.

And changes to housing benefits and council tenancy terms could lead to more people finding themselves without a home, according to Brenda Arthur, right, Norwich City Council cabinet member for housing.

To combat the problem and prevent people's lives from spiralling into a situation where they are sleeping rough, the city council is working with Broadland and South Norfolk councils, along with other agencies, to draw up the first ever Greater Norwich Rough Sleeper Strategy.

Developed by experts in the field and informed by in-depth interviews with 24 former and current rough sleepers, the strategy aims to guide the work the councils and organisations such as St Martins Housing Trust, the YMCA, the Big Issue, the Salvation Army and the Pottergate Advice and Refreshment Centre (ARC) do to help rough sleepers.

Mrs Arthur, Norwich City Council cabinet member for housing and chairman of the Greater Norwich Housing Partnership, said: 'I am really worried, with the cuts, that the supporting people's budget is one which could take a hit and that will impact on the resources which are available to us.

'That will have an impact on the numbers of people sleeping rough in the future if we cannot pull together. The size of the cuts is going to be very damaging.

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'That's why it is so important we have got a strategy to work through and that we know what we want to do.'

The council says its last official count, at the start on November showed there were four people in the city sleeping rough - which is defined differently from homelessness.

It means people sleeping, about to bed down or bedding down in the open air, such as on the streets, in tents, doorways, parks and bus shelters. It also applies to people sleeping in buildings or other places not meant for habitation such as in stairwells, car parks, sheds, cars and stations.

The figure of four was down on the eight at the last count the previous May - which was the second highest tally in the Eastern region - but it is estimated that in total 110 people slept rough on the city's streets last year.

The hope is that the new strategy would help reduce the number of people sleeping rough to as close to zero as possible. Ermir Prendi, Greater Norwich rough sleeper co-ordinator, said the perception that people sleeping rough on the streets were all people with substance abuse problems was wrong. He said: 'Some of the people I have come across and been able to help are people who you would consider as living 'normal' lives.

'They lost employment, relationships broke down and they ended up sleeping rough. What makes it really difficult for them is admitting to their friends and associates that they are homeless.

'One of them was sleeping in their car for three or four months until we found him and offered him support and help. He's an example of the sort of person you don't see sleeping in a doorway.' Mrs Arthur said: 'It shows how fragile the line is. It shows how it can change so quickly and there but for the grace of God go we.

'When people come to us, there is often more to our responsibility than just funding them a home. 'They are sometimes in need of support to help them get out of a situation many have described as a feeling of being 'chronically excluded from society'.

'There is lots of excellent work that agencies are doing, but sometimes the biggest challenge is making people in real need aware this help exists.

'By working with partner agencies and listening to what people who have experienced the issues tell us, we are able to provide a full package of support and get it to those in need.'

Council officers say early intervention is key, with more than half of rough sleepers taking to the streets before seeking help.

One of the plans for the new year is for the to launch a befriending scheme, similar to those which already run for elderly people, where volunteers will come forward to help rough sleepers.

It is hoped those people will give rough sleepers the confidence they need to seek help and advice to get them back on the way to getting their own housing.

Because temperatures have dipped to below zero for three consecutive nights, services such as Bishopbridge House and the Pottergate Arc are currently extending their opening hours so homeless and rough sleepers have somewhere to go in the cold weather. Derek Blake, South Norfolk cabinet member for planning, housing and the built environment, said: 'Rough sleeping is a matter of great concern, but it would be a very much bigger problem were it not for the commitment of our councils working with organisations like St Martins.

'That work, especially on early intervention, is getting the right help to the right people at the right time, saving many more from ending up on the streets.'

Are you or have you been homeless? Tell your story to reporter Dan Grimmer by phoning 01603 772375 or email dan.grimmer@archant.co.uk