‘If you can’t give us anything please just acknowledge us’ – former rough sleeper in Norwich’s plea
PUBLISHED: 06:30 21 February 2020 | UPDATED: 11:58 21 February 2020
“Even if you can’t give us things, please just acknowledge us.”
That was the plea from one man who has experience of sleeping rough in Norwich.
The man, named Joe, was speaking at a ThinkIn on Wednesday, February 19 at the Eastern Daily Press and Norwich Evening News newsroom at Prospect House, on Rouen Road, which was hosted by slow journalism venture Tortoise to discuss homelessness in the city.
Many of those in attendance have experience of working with homelessness or personal experience of sleeping rough themselves, including Joe, who travelled to Norwich from Ipswich after a drug habit saw him living on the streets.
In the city, he was able to find the help and support he needed through St Martins, and is now volunteering for the charity with the hope of becoming a paid member of staff next year.
He said: "It's a lot different here - I got woken up one morning on a doorstep, and you don't get that anywhere else. I was told where to go. Even though I was on the street they signed me up for shelter, and that gave me a chance.
"A belief in humanity came back, and I've come a long way since then."
A broad range of topics relating to homelessness was discussed, including public perception of those sleeping on the streets and how to treat them.
"Acknowledge us," said Joe. "You see people looking away when normally they would look where you're sat.
"It's not a nice place to be - it's an embarrassing place to be."
Also high on the agenda at the talk was the issue of funding cuts, which Labour county councillor for Town Close Emma Corlett said have "had a huge impact".
She said: "Anyone can look online at the county council budget and see how many hundreds of millions of pounds have been taken out."
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Dave Popkin, who has worked for Shelter for 15 years, also spoke of the problems presented to him and his colleagues by a lack of provision and funding.
He said: "One of the only effective ways that we can try to deal with the cases that we have is instructing psychiatrists - paid for privately, funded by legal aid - to cover the shortfalls in mental health provision and access."
He said the situation was "disgraceful" and added: "The elephant in the room is funding - it is an inevitable consequence of austerity and cutting services at local authorities."
It was not all doom and gloom, though, as figures provided by St Martins Housing chief executive Dr Jan Sheldon showed a near-50pc reduction in the number of people who are homeless in Norwich since 2016.
It shows progress being made in the charity's aim for the number of homeless people in the city to be in single figures by 2021.
She said: "It bucks the trend a little bit, nationally but also in terms of Norfolk.
"What we saw last year was a 30pc decrease in Norwich against a 2pc national decrease and 10pc in the east of England, but in Norfolk it went up by 8pc.
"Yes the numbers are down a bit, but that's still circa 20 people too many."
Tortoise editor David Taylor, who chaired the ThinkIn, said that he was pleased with how the event had gone, and that he hoped those who took part "would feel a bit more supported".
He said: "I felt that the first conversation about it was really optimistic - you had this great story of Joe, who was telling us how he had gone from addiction to having his own place, and then Jan saying how the numbers in the centre of Norwich seem to be going down.
"But then it didn't take long for people to start talking about horrifying cuts or ridiculous workloads and you realise that, although there is a system of support, there are a lot of stop-gap measures from voluntary groups. We're seeing that, as a consequence of that, early warning signs for vulnerable people are being missed and some are in crisis before anyone gets near them.
"From newspapers to councillors and people who provide services, there's a call of action there for everyone to get involved and not just assume there is help coming over the hill."