Isabel Hardman: Rough sleepers need support more than compassion

Isabel Hardman
Help: Rough sleepers need more than compassion, they need support services to help get them off the streets for good: Getty Images

Theresa May had a pop at Jeremy Corbyn for “mansplaining” International Women’s Day to her yesterday. But, based on his performance at Prime Minister’s Questions, the Labour leader could perhaps do with a few things being explained to him.

He asked a number of questions on rough sleeping, which suggested that he doesn’t fully understand the issue, which makes it rather hard for him to probe the Government.

Rough sleeping has seen a 169 per cent increase since 2010. Corbyn suggested that this may have something to do with cuts of 45 per cent to homelessness services since 2010, which is a fair point.

But he then complained about the number of unoccupied buildings, suggesting that if there were enough homes, there wouldn’t be any rough sleepers.

True, rough sleeping is a form of homelessness, but it has its own complex set of problems. About 77 per cent of rough sleepers have at least one addiction or mental illness, and they can struggle to stay in a home unless those problems are also treated.

Corbyn also mentioned homeless people he has met “who are begging every day just to find enough money to get into a night shelter”.

This might be true for the night shelters that charge a nominal fee — maybe £2 or £5 — but many are free and begging tends to fund an addiction, not a warm bed.

To be clear, if I’d had the sort of crisis that meant I had ended up on the streets, I would be just as likely to self-medicate using drugs or alcohol as the next person.

Rough sleepers are in mental turmoil, and substance misuse can temporarily numb that mental pain.

I saw this first hand when I was working for a city church in Bristol that tried to help a homeless man. It soon became clear that the well-meaning donations from members of the congregation were not the kindness he needed.

That kindness was in fact killing him, as it funded two serious alcohol and cocaine addictions.

It’s not just our compassion that rough sleepers need, but hard cash spent on the support services that will get them off the streets for good.

What they deserve is mental health and addiction treatment, neither of which are easy to come by if you’re in a home and stable job, let alone on the street.

If Corbyn really wants to tackle rough sleeping, he should make far more of a noise about these problems.

Atkins must keep a firm grip on Domestic Violence Bill

Vicky Atkins is definitely one Tory woman to watch. She was the first of her intake of MPs to become a minister, and is very impressive indeed. Just as well, given she’s the junior minister responsible for the new Domestic Violence Bill.

The Home Office finally published its consultation on this legislation today to mark International Women’s Day, and it could change our approach to this all-too-secret and all-too-common crime.

It introduces the first statutory definition of abuse, including non-violent forms such as economic abuse, whereby someone’s partner controls their access to their own money.

But though Atkins, her boss Amber Rudd and their boss Theresa May are all personally very committed to the reforms, a sharp mind is needed for convincing other ministers.

Changes planned by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to the funding model for refuges mean many of them may have to close down.

So while we’re all watching Atkins, let’s hope she keeps a gimlet eye and firm grip on some of her colleagues across government.

Birds of a feather stick to twitching

What are your weekend plans? Can I recommend sitting in a chilly shed with a bunch of older men? I’m researching a book on the great outdoors and mental health, and am taking a look at birdwatching.

Admittedly, I was the only person wearing both binoculars and Mac lipstick in the hide at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes last Saturday, but I found a lovely, gentle companionship.

When a rare winter visitor turned up, I was ushered across the hide “so that the young lady can see her first bittern”.

I’ve since been peering happily at the goldcrests and dunnocks in my own back garden.

Soon I will have to admit this isn’t research any more but a surprisingly satisfying hobby.

A tabloid monster that’s in the mind

It was rather telling that the row over whether millennials think Frankenstein’s monster is a victim only started when The Sun followed up a story in its sister paper, The Times.

One of Mary Shelley’s techniques is to avoid lengthy descriptions of the creature so the reader’s imagination provides the worst possible details.

We create monsters in our mind, and there seems to be a certain section of Twitter that has already imagined what a tabloid newspaper writes, without, I suspect, ever having read one.