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In from the cold

November 01 2010
Stubbs: We will be meeting to try and organise something. © 2010 Bob Henry Stubbs: We will be meeting to try and organise something. © 2010 Bob Henry
We look at winter provision in the West Midlands

As the days begin to grow shorter and colder, single men and women who don't have access to council accommodation will rely on other forms of shelter to survive. But whilst organisations such as the Salvation Army and St Basil's can offer beds to rough sleepers who are receiving state benefits, many homeless Eastern Europeans and asylum seekers without refugee status will have no access to mainstream homeless provision such as hostels, women's refuges and night shelters.

One West Midlands project that can help destitute asylum seekers is Hope, a charity whose projects include the Hope Destitution Fund and Hope Housing. Geoff Wilkins, its development manager, said: "We take only people referred by the Council, the Red Cross and other local agencies that work with destitute asylum seekers. This enables us to liaise with experienced case-workers who have referred these people to us and provide the appropriate care."

Sam Bailey, a service manager for Wolverhampton homeless charity P3, emphasised the lack of services in the West Midlands for people in need of emergency accommodation because they can only turn to agencies that are not reliant on public funds.

"Many asylum seekers have no recourse to benefits, so they suffer more than most," she said. "In the last month, we have had 15-20 asylum seekers looking for accommodation, which is more than last year. Our bed spaces are always overbooked; and as soon as an emergency bed becomes available, it is taken... If anyone comes to our door this winter, freezing and looking for shelter, we will endeavour to find them floor space, no matter who they are, but it is not an ideal situation."

This problem is not unique to the West Midlands. However, in London, churches in each borough organise a rota during the winter months to place camp beds on their church hall floors, thus offering very basic free accommodation to people who would otherwise have to sleep rough. There is nothing of a similar scale in Birmingham, though, according to Revd Neil Johnson, chair of the Birmingham Christian Homeless Forum, a group of city centre churches organised a winter project for rough sleepers a few years ago. He said: "We have a committed band of people and are doing all we can to address emergency accommodation for rough sleepers, which is a mounting problem in Birmingham. The Forum has no funding and together with other local organisations, it shares information and tries to pull in resources. There have been several conversations with city centre churches who haven't yet found an easy solution to this situation."

As the weather gets colder, this lack of emergency beds looks set to become a major issue, especially if this winter is as cold as the last.

Alastair Murray, deputy director of Housing Justice, said: "We have funding from the Urban Church Fund and are setting up a host shelter forum in the Birmingham area for local churches to come together and set up services to offer advice and assistance to service users. We support the idea of churches taking practical action on housing and homelessness."

While nothing is certain, Dr Graham Stubbs, from St Martin's in the Bullring, confirmed that "As the weather gets colder, we will be meeting to try and organise something because ultimately, these shelters save lives."