HOMELESSNESS is often in the public eye at this time of year, but what goes on behind the scenes to minimise it gets less attention.
One rough sleeper’s testimony will linger longer in the mind than a report about the efforts of council officers and volunteers who try to keep a roof over people’s heads.
Councils in Wales have far more responsibility to resolve and prevent homelessness than they used to, following the introduction of a new housing act.
The act has expanded the definition of homelessness and made local authorities help people who are at risk at an earlier stage.
“The truth is that having one person on the streets is one too many,” said councillor Linda Evans, Carmarthenshire’s executive board member for housing.
A rough sleeper count in November this year found no-one living on the streets of Llanelli, Carmarthen and Ammanford.
That is not to say there are no rough sleepers in Carmarthenshire — Cllr Evans and colleagues are aware of a European couple who sleep on the streets of Carmarthen — but it is much less of an issue compared to cities like Cardiff.
However, Carmarthenshire officers still opened 1,749 homeless cases last financial year where homelessness was judged a threat.
The main causes are relationship breakdowns and loss of private rented accommodation.
Of the 1,749 cases, 162 involved people needed emergency temporary accommodation.
Housing advice lead officer Rachael Parkinson said getting to the root cause of the problem quickly was key.
“Then you know what service that person needs,” she said.
For example, on occupational therapist is best for someone who can’t manage in their home for health reasons, while a mediation service provided by the charity The Wallich can resolve tenant-landlord problems.
The Wallich and housing charity Shelter have a presence at the council’s housing service at Eastgate, Llanelli.
People needing help are allocated a case worker, and a housing needs assessment and personal housing plan are drawn up.
This housing plan sets out what the council can do to help and what the individual can do — including what they can realistically afford — and it gets reviewed as the process continues.
Paul Sheridan, of The Wallich, said: “The personal housing plan is a huge step. Everyone knows what the other is doing.”
Miss Parkinson said of the new approach: “It’s about sitting down with a person in far more detail. With the old (housing) act, you could walk in and walk out in a day.
“Now you get an understanding of someone’s needs, and look for solutions.
“It’s not just the housing — there are usually other things going on in that person’s life.”
Asked if this process was time-consuming, she replied: “Yes, but it stops people coming back round again.”
The council can also provide financial assistance to help people becoming homeless.
Asked how much money can be offered, Jonathan Morgan, the council’s acting head of homes and safer communities, said: “That depends on the circumstances. It’s a case by case basis.”
He added: “Our first thought is prevention. Then, can we sustain that person’s accommodation? Then, can we provide them with any alternatives?
“There are various stages we get to before we trigger an emergency response.”
On the supply side the of the equation, the council is delivering affordable homes by bringing empty properties back into use, managing private rental homes for landlords and also building them through an arm’s length company called Cartrefi Croeso.
Many of those in need of housing in the county are single people, and needs can be complex.
“It’s not just about housing, it’s about the choice of housing,” said Mr Sheridan.
The council is keen to expand its Simple Lettings — or Gosod Syml — venture, which has nearly 200 properties on its books.
Private landlords who commit to the scheme can benefit from guaranteed rent, free gas safety checks and free tenancy agreements — depending on the level of service they sign up to — while tenants helped by the council are assured of good quality accommodation.
The council even offers tenancy training to ensure people they find accommodation for understand what their responsibilities are.
“People used to be put in bed and breakfasts,” said Cllr Evans. “The (housing) conditions are better now.”
She is keen to recruit more landlords to Simple Lettings, including families who may have inherited a property but are not sure what to do with it.
Most of the council’s temporary accommodation stock is in Llanelli, which generates the highest homelessness demand in Carmarthenshire.
At the sharp end of this demand are volunteers like Gary Glenister, who runs soup kitchen in the town called Sosban Soup, on Old Castle Road.
The Sunday evening service at Y Lle has been running for two-and-a-half years and attracts, on average 15 to 20 people each week.
Mr Glenister, who is a Welcome Christian Fellowship pastor, said: “Even though there are not that many people on the streets in Llanelli, scratch the surface and you see more of an ‘invisible’ homeless problem — people who are vulnerable, and have intertwining issues like mental health, addictions and poverty.”
Mr Glenister said the council should take credit for its focus on prevention, but he said that sometimes people did not cope in the accommodation provided.
“That’s not a criticism — it’s just the system,” he said.
“The council’s homelessness strategy is trying to sort people’s problems out rather than just their short-term needs, so hopefully they will get more appropriate accommodation.”
And Mr Glenister said of the once-a-year rough sleeper count: “If you don’t see anybody on the streets that night, then statistically they don’t exist.”
Cllr Evans recalled a long conversation with a homeless man on a wet night in Llanelli during a previous rough sleeper count.
She said the man was aged 35 to 40, originally from the Swansea area and had lived rough for 11 years.
“It was from choice,” she said. “He knew every housing officer’s name, and every service.
“He said, ‘This is how I want to live’. He moved around to different places. He promised me he knew where to go.”
For those trying to limit such situations, the reward is helping to give people a fresh lease of life.
Miss Parkinson said: “It’s about finding a solution, the smile on someone’s face, and the thanks you get for giving them someone to talk to.”
Mr Glenister said showing people love and respect was his motivation.
“No matter what your background, people can come here and have something to eat,” he said. “We don’t judge them.”
For Mr Sheridan, Carmarthenshire project manager for The Wallich, the best thing was seeing people become increasingly independent.
“Maybe next time they can sort these issues out themselves,” he said.
UNDER the Housing (Wales) Act, a person is homeless:
- If they have no accommodation in the UK or elsewhere which they have a legal right to occupy
- If they have accommodation but cannot secure entry to it
- A person won’t be treated as having accommodation unless it would be reasonable for that person to continue to occupy it
- A person is threatened with homelessness if it is likely they will become homeless within 56 days
- Where a person lacks accommodation or their tenure is not secure, and this can include moving frequently between relatives and friends, living somewhere overcrowded, leaving hospital, the Armed Forces or prison without somewhere to go, living in night shelters, and sleeping rough