Wednesday, 17 December 2014

StreetLink celebrates its second anniversary

Many happy returns, StreetLink
Prior to joining DrugScope in 2012, much of my working life had been spent in homelessness services of one sort or another. Between the mid-90s and 2010, I worked in hostels, supported housing, outreach and floating support, before spending two years at Homeless Link, the membership organisation for the sector.

Despite getting to know the homelessness sector pretty well during that time, I was sometimes perplexed when faced with rough sleeper outside of work. Identifying the relevant outreach team (having first established that there was an outreach team – many areas don’t have one), finding a contact number or email address and then actually getting through (outreach teams generally work highly unsocial hours) could be time consuming and complex. If I was away from my adopted home turf of London, these difficulties were compounded. I thought at the time that if it was a difficult and time consuming process for me, for someone unfamiliar with the way the system works, what services work with whom, what they might be called and so on, it would be even more daunting, if not impossible.

In December 2012, life was made considerably easier for anyone worried about someone sleeping rough, including rough sleepers themselves. Building on the work of the No Second Night Out London hotline, StreetLink was rolled out across England. Developed and run by Homeless Link and Broadway (now St Mungo’s Broadway) and funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), StreetLink provides a single portal for rough sleepers themselves, members of the public, and members of emergency, health and support services to get connected to outreach teams.

What StreetLink does is in some respects quite simple – it takes referrals (and self-referrals) from anywhere in England and passes that information on to the relevant outreach team or local authority. Instead of having to go through the process of researching provision in any particular locality, StreetLink provides a single phone number, mobile app and website and even offers to let people know – in a general sense – what happened to their referral. In contemporary terms, it ‘hides the wiring’ of what remains a complex patchwork of services and provision spanning around 150 local authorities.

About rough sleeping and homelessness
The relevance for drug and alcohol services is in the number of people they support who have housing problems of one sort or another. Around 10% of people starting new drug treatment journeys in 2013-14 had no fixed abode, with a further 14% having other housing problems. The corresponding figures for those starting new alcohol treatment journeys are 4% and 10% respectively.

As those figures have been pretty constant for some years, it seems plausible that over 10,000 people in contact with drug and alcohol services are actually homeless, with around 40,000 having some other sort of housing problem. Looking at it from the other side, we also know that ‘tri-morbidity’ is commonplace – rough sleepers often have coexisting poor physical health, poor mental health and problems involving substance misuse.

Nationally, over 2,400 people sleep rough on a typical night. This number is based on the street counts conducted in winter and reported by DCLG and represents a continuation of an upward trend visible since 2010, when the street count guidance was changed. In London, the CHAIN database used by all the main outreach teams suggests a corresponding significant increase, with new contacts increasing from 1672 in 2007-08 to 4363 in 2013-14.

These numbers are substantial. Figures recently released by StreetLink show that in the two years it has been operating, almost 9,000 people have used the service and been connected with support, just over a quarter of them self referrals from rough sleepers themselves. Of these, almost 1,700 have been supported into accommodation.

There is a discrepancy between those numbers. Of course, some of the referrals may have been inappropriate for StreetLink; for example, people who are street active (begging or drinking on the street, say) rather than rough sleeping, or people who are already known to services.  Some referrals may have been impossible to find, or may have been reluctant to accept the service offered.

Simply being referred to StreetLink doesn’t itself bring any additional entitlement to accommodation. The ‘priority need’ criteria still apply (everywhere apart from Scotland, although the London Assembly has called for it to be abolished in London too) and the rules around benefits and public funds (subject to frequent toughening and revision where non-UK citizens are concerned) can often serve as barriers to services. With UK nationals making up just under half of the rough sleepers in London, that means that many people find their options very limited.

For many foreign nationals, this might mean access to a reconnection service like the one run by homelessness charity Thames Reach, but little more. For the rest, StreetLink faces challenges in both supply and capacity; Homeless Link suggests that while the number of rough sleepers steadily increases, the services that can support and accommodate them are facing tremendous financial challenges as are the local authorities who play such a crucial role.

How you can help
By way of disclosure, I volunteer for StreetLink and from my experience, many (but by no means all) of the people who make referrals themselves in one way or another work with adults with complex needs – treatment providers, off-duty housing and homelessness workers, members of the emergency services and so on. You may be one of those who have made a referral, but if not, please have a look at StreetLink’s website and save the phone number 0300 500 0914 – the phones are staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

If you have a smartphone, you can also download the StreetLink app which makes reporting easier and quicker and also contains links to information, statistics and other sources of help. It’s available for Android and iPhone. If you’re working with someone from central or Eastern Europe who might benefit from reconnection, the information on Thames Reach’s Routes Home pages might be of interest, although if they're rough sleeping, StreetLink would be the best first point of contact.

Finally, while StreetLink has a small, dedicated team of paid staff, it also relies heavily on a pool of volunteers. If this might be of interest – and please note that while rewarding, StreetLink is closer to call centre work than the coal face of rough sleeping – you can contact the team at the following address: 

By Paul Anders, Senior Policy Officer, DrugScope.

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