Market Team Push Back Against Hostel Cuts

Market Councillor Tim Bick used October's meeting of Cambridge City Council to call on the County Council to halt the withdrawal of funding from specialist hostels for rough sleepers, with a particular focus on Willow Walk which is located within the Ward. His motion, seconded by fellow Market Councillor Katie Porrer, was passed unanimously by the Council.

Writing in the Cambridge Independent, Cllr Tim Bick explained the situation:

The proposed closure of the Willow Walk hostel and the promised emergence of “housing first” in Cambridge brings into focus different ways of helping rough sleepers off our streets.

The city currently provides a pathway for single homeless people, graduated according to the challenges they face in getting back into mainstream housing. Those with few obstacles receive advice and signposting. Those who have difficulty in immediately holding down an ordinary tenancy - often because of a long period of rough sleeping - are typically referred to a hostel. There they receive support to help them into mainstream housing. There are hostels specialising in different levels and types of need. 

This approach succeeds for many, but a look on the streets in parts of the city at night shows that it doesn’t work for all. Many of those you see are entrenched rough sleepers, who have been in and out of hostels, without it working for them. 

Most entrenched rough sleepers suffer from drug or alcohol addictions or mental illness, or both, and it’s difficult to help with these while a person is sleeping rough. Some prosper through the structure and companionship a hostel provides, but for others the discipline and being at close quarters with others are difficult to bear. People are different!

A new approach, ‘housing first’, enables some people, despite having significant obstacles, to jump over the hostel pathway, and into an ordinary tenancy, where they get the specialist support they need on a visiting basis. The difference between the two approaches is whether the support happens in a hostel prior to getting into mainstream housing, or whether it happens in a mainstream housing setting. 

In other places in the UK ‘housing first’ has already become a very useful complement to other services, helping entrenched rough sleepers with a track record of not succeeding in hostels. In the report I published last year with County Councillor Nichola Harrison, we made it a top recommendation to bring this system to Cambridge. It’s good news that it’s now been promised. 

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. It seems that the county council intends to fund its ‘housing first’ initiative by withdrawing the funding it provides for hostels – in particular the Willow Walk hostel, owned and operated by Riverside Housing. Willow Walk is the only homeless hostel in the city specialised in supporting individuals with the highest level of need. Professionals and Police alike are concerned that this will remove the only suitable accommodation for many individuals.

In Cambridge our problem is too many people sleeping rough, not too much accommodation for them! ‘Housing first’ could fill an important gap, but I’m worried that paying for it by withdrawing existing services will leave some vulnerable individuals worse off. 

Using ‘housing first’ for the wrong individuals could set them up to fail and land up back on the street, or could create problems for their near neighbours. Without high needs hostel accommodation, the city seems likely to see more people, not fewer, on the street.

This is why last week I won the city council’s support to ask their partner in homelessness services, the county council, to withdraw their plan to de-commission Willow Walk. Before contemplating such a move, they must carry out a proper needs analysis and define the new mix of future provision that will meet the full spectrum of needs. 

Without this, we face the absurdity of Riverside Housing having to consider using Willow Walk hostel for homeless people from London, while some of Cambridge’s own most vulnerable citizens are left out in the cold.

Last year Cllr Bick and Cllr Harrison published a report into homelessness in Cambridge, which they updated in 2019.

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