Since 2010 the number of people sleeping rough on the streets of the UK has risen sharply, and the effects of homelessness have become even more of a visible issue in our towns and cities. According to the latest figures, collected in the autumn of 2014 and published in February 2015, 2,744 people are estimated to be sleeping rough on any one night: this is up 55% from the estimated number of rough sleepers in 2010. North East England saw the biggest percentage increase in rough sleeping, followed by London and the North West, which saw rough sleeping increases above the national average. Walking through Liverpool city centre it is clear to see how this manifests itself, with more people resorting to using shop doorways and park benches for shelter. Stuart Miles O’Hara takes a closer look at the issue, and focuses on the sterling work of the Whitechapel Centre, Liverpool’s leading homelessness and housing charity.
“They’re a moveable feast,” offers Whitechapel Centre fundraising manager Ruth McCaughley when asked about core beneficiaries of the charity’s work. Speaking with those who work around homelessness brings to light the multiple complexities behind the increasingly common sight of a heap of coats or cardboard in a doorway in the small hours of the morning. “We estimate that 15-20 people sleep rough every night. There are about 800 hostel beds in Liverpool, [but] lots of people still live that street life. We worked with 3,600 people last year, a 40% increase since 2010-11.”
The Whitechapel Centre have three main streams of work. Primarily, there is the outreach team, who operate from the Everton-based centre. “We’re open 365 days a year, 8am to 8pm, providing basic needs, and there’s a 24-hour hotline,” explains McCaughley. “They might get someone a taxi to a shelter or, if the person’s asleep, we won’t wake them up but we’ll bring them here in the morning.” As well as offering shelter, food, showers and clothing, the centre places a strong emphasis on social inclusion, with daily activities including music, IT, football, gardening, yoga and poetry on offer to “help break whatever routine people are in”. As McCaughley explains: “We used to be a place where people could crash out. Now we’re a place of change, getting people into new routines or habits, but it’s also about self-esteem. If people want lunch, they have to take part in an activity.” The third arm of the charity is managing hostel accommodation like the Belvidere Family Centre, a 16-flat hostel providing emergency accommodation for homeless families.
The Whitechapel is comprised of 80 staff plus volunteers, the latter of whom are around 50% ex-service users, with McCaughley explaining that “people who have been there and done that are often the best to dole out advice”. New arrivals go on a database that the centre, Liverpool City Council, and hostels can access. “It’s how we track where people are – first question is ‘Where did you sleep last night?’”
The organisation gets hundreds of calls per year to their 24-hour phone line No Second Night Out, which is something that McCaughley is keen to spread the word about. “If you see anyone sleeping rough in Liverpool, give us a call. Even 10 phone calls about the same person, who may be an entrenched rough sleeper, still help because we want to know their location as they move around the city.” Entrenched rough sleepers are those who’ve slept rough repeatedly over three months. It’s difficult to get them off the streets by that point. “The point of No Second Night Out is to prevent another generation of entrenched sleepers. We won’t turf out a first-timer at 8pm, we put them into a communal room, then back here at half 8 in the morning, when we start again trying to get them somewhere to stay.”
This is not the kind of work that ever switches off: offering round the clock help, the centre require volunteers, funding and awareness to be able to function, as McCaughley explains. “Any regular donation is good. If a thousand people donated £5 a month, that’d be fantastic because it’s guaranteed income. Money gives us flexibility to spend it in different ways – on a rent deposit, say, or support staff salaries. We get bread from bakeries, chicken from Nando’s, deliveries from local supermarkets. We’re always grateful for it and we always get through it. Meals are cooked by volunteers, and people donating their time is a massive help.”
But awareness counts too: homelessness and its visibility have risen in Liverpool and so has the need for the centre’s work. “Let people know that we’re here, even if it’s someone who comes in and keeps busy for one day,” McCaughley insists. “Our support team has spent so long building relationships with people, and we never give up; it’s our mission to get people off the streets, however long it takes.”
There is a strange relationship between invisibility and hypervisibility that trickles through the way the general public view those people on the streets. Homelessness is ever-visible and there, quite literally on our doorsteps, but our interaction is strange; the cardboard and blankets that people crowd round for warmth cast the human figure invisible, and this obscuring can be used as an excuse to ignore homelessness. They’re the ghosts of the street, and heartlessly we remove ourselves from the immediacy of the problem.
Liverpool, however, is a city renowned for its warmth, and the music community here clearly has a conscience, although it would be difficult to ignore the increasing occurrences of encountering rough sleepers as we walk past city-centre venues on any night of the week. It’s telling that there are established links between the creative community and the centre, as McCaughley explains: “We already benefit from the arts: HopeFest and We Shall Overcome are regulars, and we’ve had one-off gigs and benefactors. We can always use more! A lot of our supporters are younger people, who relate well to charity work. They’re out and about at two in the morning in town and are best placed to call us.”
The work that HopeFest has done in the past two years is remarkable, though it’s somewhat bittersweet that the homeless situation in Liverpool has become so prevalent that musicians have felt the need to intervene. HopeFest majordomo and singer-songwriter Anna Grace Henney tells us how it came about: “I was volunteering with a homeless organisation, and I thought ‘There must be some way of tying these two things together’. A lot of time they fell short of food and clothes to hand out, so I decided to try one event and see if I could get donations from it.”
The first HopeFest, in March 2014, was supposed to be a one-off but the organisers realised the good they could do and chose to continue with their work: “This year we had 15 venues and 200 bands [including The Sundowners, Alias Kid and Tommy Scott from Space] playing over three days in September. The entrance fee was stuff that can go to the homeless, like clothes, food, things like that, collected into 600 ‘Hope Packs’. HopeFests Manchester and Berlin are coming up too.”
As well as providing Hope Packs to local shelters, including the Whitechapel Centre, the September edition of HopeFest raised £1,300 which was supplemented by a £5,000 donation from the mayor. The £5,000 is being invested in HopeFest Academy, a branch of the organisation which will train homeless people in film production and stage management, with the aim of the festival eventually being entirely run by people with some experience of homelessness.
Henney is forthright on the causes of the rise in rough sleeping that caused her to want to help tackle the problem in Liverpool. “I think it’s the government cuts, personally.” It’s telling that, since the Tory-led coalition was in power (2010-2015), the number of rough sleepers in the UK rose steeply. The work that the Whitechapel Centre or HopeFest does is invaluable, but really it should only be a supplement to state-provided care and shelter, not a lifeline or last point of call for the homeless and those failed by the housing system. Politics aside, what crops up regularly is the way homelessness hides in plain sight, and is a risk to everybody, not just the obviously vulnerable. McCaughley elaborates that the Whitechapel Centre “try to fundraise in a positive way, but there is no reason why you or your neighbour won’t end up needing our help.” Adam Baird, a writer who runs a series of workshops at the Whitechapel Centre, reinforces this point: “If you want to understand how it happens to someone else, understand how it could happen to you.”
Baird is working on a play to raise awareness of homelessness and the centre, Seven Nights In Oblivion, which has already had a run at the Unity Theatre and draws on his experiences working with the homeless.
“I am trying to write that ‘Where else do I go?’ feeling. You go the library all day for somewhere to sit; when it shuts, there’s literally nowhere else for you to be, so you enter this otherworld, where nothing – anything – can happen. There are stock characters – one is ex-military… To homeless people with a background of domestic abuse, a home might be where awful things happen and you don’t want to be in that environment. It isn’t that there aren’t enough homes for everyone; homelessness is a societal thing.”
Liverpool is fortunate to be a socially aware city with a close-knit yet diverse community with ideas and the work ethic to realise them. This can yield great results on the relatively small-scale level of running a music publication or putting on a gig, but it could also effect changes of a higher order, as Henney and countless musicians, promoters, artists, fans, and punters on Merseyside repeatedly prove: “Almost all the major venues in the city centre hosted HopeFest. Music brings people who go to those venues together and unites them in the cause.”
If current trends continue, homelessness is not going to disappear any time soon, and it needs round-the-clock attention like the kind offered by the Whitechapel Centre. If we need songs written by committee and publicised by celebrities to raise awareness à la Band Aid, that’s a sorry comment on public engagement with social ill. However, in Liverpool, we don’t need that. We’ve already got the tunes and we already know about the problems. What we can do is remind those who haven’t noticed that homelessness is a nightly concern, and to give what they can, little and often. It adds up. We can point them in the direction of those best placed to collect donations. As individuals, we can’t effect those changes like a government can, but a musical community can galvanise people, and raise awareness, funds and solutions, until the collective voice is loud enough to be heard in the corridors of power, and provincial efforts are recognised in national response.
With the Palace of Westminster in need of renovations that will likely force Parliament’s temporary eviction in the foreseeable future, perhaps it’s time to say to the Cabinet in terms they can understand: “Now imagine you had nowhere to go. Where would you sleep tonight?”
Throughout December and January we will be running a fundraising campaign in conjunction with Liverpool’s independent venues and promoters which aims to raise a substantial amount of money for the Whitechapel Centre, to help them carry out the vital work they do in helping the city’s homeless community.
The Bido #GuestlistGiving Campaign will run from Thursday 26th November to Thursday 28th January, and will raise money by asking anyone who is on the guest list at any affiliated gig or show during this period to make a small donation to the charity. Bido Lito! Editor, Christopher Torpey, explains the reasons behind setting up the campaign.
“Christmas is always a time when we feel the pinch of homelessness more keenly, where you’re more aware of those people who, through varying degrees of misfortune, have to sleep rough when most other people are inside celebrating with their families. There’s a saying that you’re only ever two wage packets away from being on the streets yourself – I think there are a lot of people in our city’s music community that would empathise with that. There but for the grace of God go all of us.
“With this campaign we not only wanted to raise awareness of the issue and highlight ways in which we can help, but also back it up with a sizeable chunk of money that will help the Whitechapel Centre keep up and expand their work during this period.
“When we’re queuing outside Arts Club or walking along Bold Street to get to a show, it’s inevitable that we’ll encounter some people who have had to resort to sleeping rough on the cold, harsh streets. Perhaps we’ll see some of these people more than once on our regular trips. It will take little effort to put a few quid in one of our collection boxes – whether you’re on the guest list or not – and the effects will be felt by those who need it most. Thank you.”
If you see anyone sleeping rough on the streets of Liverpool, call the Whitechapel Centre’s No Second Night Out hotline on 0300 123 2041. If you’d like to volunteer with the Whitechapel Centre, or find out more about what the charity does, head to whitechapelcentre.co.uk.