Councillors vote to open empty buildings for homeless shelters

No Caption ABCDE PPP-170501-140943001
No Caption ABCDE PPP-170501-140943001

A plan to use empty council buildings to shelter rough sleepers in winter has been given the go ahead.

Green councillor Tom Druitt put a motion to Full Council last night (January 26), and it was agreed that the next steps would be taken to allow homeless charities to use empty council buildings.

This comes as government figures revealed Brighton and Hove had the second highest number of homeless people in the UK - beaten only by London. The last survey in November last year estimated that there were 144 people living rough on the streets on Brighton and Hove.

Cllr Druitt told his fellow councillors: “This is a very, very upsetting issue for many people in the city and I’ve brought this notice of motion to the city council not to make a political point but simply to respond to a growing humanitarian crisis right here on our pavements.

“144 people are sleeping rough on our streets tonight. The cold weather shelter is not open tonight, and the temperature outside is zero degrees. It’s a crying shame that in one of the wealthiest countries in the world we cannot provide a roof over everyone’s head.”

He said he had spoken to rough sleepers before the meeting, and told the story of a man who had moved to the city ten years ago, studied at City College and Brighton University, leaving with an Art and Design degree. He was unable to get work in his chosen field and worked in kitchens in the city’s hotels. Cllr Druitt said he ‘fell out of work and onto the streets’.

Tom Druitt, Green councillor SUS-160720-115211001

Tom Druitt, Green councillor SUS-160720-115211001

“He is an artist, and he wants to pursue his art, but it’s impossible for him to do so in his current circumstances,” said Cllr Druitt. “He said to me he feels like his life has been taken away from him.”

Asking council members to support his motion, Cllr Druitt said: “This is not asking the council to put huge resources into this project. This is asking the council to make available what it already has and what is not being used. We can’t just open the doors, I accept that, but we can work with the voluntary organisations in the city to make this work.”

Labour’s Cllr Anne Meadows highlighted the Labour administration’s rough sleeping strategy, and blamed the Conservative government and previous Green administration’s inaction on homelessness for the increase in rough sleepers in the city. She was criticised by Conservative and Green councillors for ‘politicising’ the issue.

Cllr Phelim Mac Cafferty, convenor of the Green Group, said: “I believe the problem with the [rough sleeper] strategy is it can’t deliver the results we actually need now.”

Referring to the latest figures on the city’s rough sleepers, Cllr Mac Cafferty said: “We can continue to wear this badge of shame, or we can take action to alleviate the pain.”

Cllr Geoffrey Theobald, leader of the Conservative Group, said: “If there is a strategy, it’s failing abysmally. This strategy is not working.

“We thoroughly welcome what the Greens have put in here, and we thoroughly support it.”

Cllr Clare Moonan, the council’s lead member for rough sleeping, said: “We are willing to listen to any initiative any idea... to address this problem. It won’t be easy. We’re not awash with empty buildings on the council. Any building that is empty we’re immediately putting it to use, were offering it to community groups, we’re either converting it into homes. There will be challenges in terms of the conversion, but let’s have the report and let’s have the debate.

“I do take exception with criticisms of the strategy. That’s the work of some excellent officers that we have within this council doing excellent work around homelessness, and our charity partners and other statutory organisations who came together and have come up with a very practical and effective way forward. It’s only been going for six months. These are difficult problems that have difficult solutions. A lot of initiatives have already started and they will over time start to have an impact. There’s a lot of people working very, very hard to make a difference.”
The motion was approved unanimously, and a report will now be prepared for the policy, growth and resources committee.

Last week Andy Winter, chief executive of the Brighton Housing Trust (BHT), said he welcomed Cllr Druitt’s plan, but said safety measures must be in place.

He said: “I welcome calls for council-owned buildings to be opened to house rough sleepers, but this must be done with proper planning, adequate safety measures in place, and properly trained staff employed.

“If this is to be done, discussions and planning need to start now for next winter. It isn’t a cheap option, but it is one that can save lives and would demonstrate that we are a caring society.

“BHT currently operates an emergency shelter in the event of extreme weather, and the churches run a rolling shelter throughout the winter. BHT used to operate a shelter throughout the winter, in buildings that were adapted for the purpose, and where we were funded to employ staff with the necessary training.

“I would hope that, given the funding restrictions imposed on local councils, the government would create a fund so that such shelters can be planned for and opened next winter.

“If we are to do this, the shelters need to be safe for all who use them, not least homeless women.”