Wycombe Homeless Connection’s CEO James Boultbee writes the first in a series of blogs for you. He begins by reflecting on 2020 so far and the obstacles we have faced and the opportunities for real change in the lives of people who are homeless.  

On one hand I can’t believe it’s already May, on the other it seems like spring has gone on forever with every week feeling like a month and more happening in the world of housing and homelessness in a few weeks than would happen in an ordinary year!

Rough sleeping in the UK had reached crisis proportions by 2018 but that was the year where we finally saw major action being taken by the UK government. During that summer, they announced a plan to end rough sleeping by 2027. At the end of 2019 this was brought forward to 2024, a bold move considering progress was already stalling.

And when the coronavirus pandemic took hold, on Thursday 26th March 2020 councils were told to end rough sleeping by the weekend!

Here in the south of Buckinghamshire we were fortunate. Most people who were rough sleeping had been housed and off the streets since late November 2019. In January, we reported that for the first time in many years we believed no one was regularly sleeping rough in Wycombe.

This had been achieved by a combination of running Wycombe Homeless Connection’s winter night shelter as well as having worked with other local organisations to ensure people were given places in B&B and hotel rooms around town.

In early March, as the seriousness of the pandemic became clear, we took the decision to move everyone from our dormitory-style night shelter into the hotel accommodation where they could self-isolate.

And since then, we have continued to move anyone else found to be sleeping rough locally into hotel accommodation too. This was a major risk for a small charity like us because at the time we knew we couldn’t extend an invite to provide hotel rooms for everyone sleeping rough indefinitely – we simply couldn’t have afforded to do that! But we took this life-saving move in the hope the government would step in!

By late March they had done so and we settled into a way of keeping our clients safe which is still running today:

Anyone who is found to be sleeping rough is moved as soon as possible into B+B accommodation. We deliver food, volunteers call our clients regularly to check how they’re getting on and linking them to any other help they might need. Those who do not have a GP are registered with one and we are working with a group of other agencies to find people longer term accommodation so they can move on from the hotels.

And importantly, this extended period of stability for our guests has proved to be life-changing for some.

We’ve kept people safe, firstly from freezing temperatures and more recently from a deadly virus.

This week, we helped one man, a former rough sleeper who had lived on the streets of Wycombe for many years, to find a permanent home and he is not the only one who has decided he doesn’t want to return to the streets.

While devastating in so many ways, the coronavirus pandemic has given us a chance to do things differently.

We’ve shown that getting everyone who is sleeping rough off the street can be done; that it’s not necessarily prohibitively expensive to do so; that, on the whole, the offer has not been abused and that people are being supported to do things they never believed were possible for them like moving back into a permanent home, taking their place back amongst the community and leaving homelessness behind.  

So while we hope and pray for a swift end to the pandemic, my hope for the future is that this new way of working doesn’t stop.

During the winter and now during the pandemic we’ve essentially moved towards zero tolerance of leaving people outside to live on the street on humanitarian grounds.

What we hoped for, for so long is happening. While a person’s needs for shelter and food are being met, they’re able to think beyond surviving from one day to the next and are making changes for the better.

So what next for Wycombe Homeless Connection? Like so many other organisations around the country we’ll be cautiously looking to be able to provide in-person support for some of our clients again when it is safe to do so. We’ll be playing a major role in finding permanent homes for those who have been temporarily housed.

And we’re going to be putting a big emphasis on preventing homelessness, especially amongst those people who will be finding themselves at risk of eviction due to the pandemic – an issue the entire country will be grappling with later this year. I’ll be talking more about that in my next blog!