Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Ministerial pow-wow marred

May 20 2009
Thames Reach spokesperson denies meeting was a PR opportunity Thames Reach has defended itself from accusations that a meeting between rough sleepers and a member of parliament last month was little more than a publicity stunt. A group of nine participants met Hilary Armstrong, MP for Social Exclusion, in Whitehall on 9th January, in an initiative organised by the charity. But this meeting has come under fire for failing to deal with issues of long-term homelessness. One source, who spoke to The Pavement having attended the meeting, said: "Had the meeting been about rough sleepers as it was supposed to be, more time would have been spent discussing the street issues, but too much time was spent on non-street issues." The objective of the meeting was to get to grips with the issues around the use of outreach services or Building Based Services and how to improve their suitability. But the choice of participants - five hostel residents, two of whom were squatting, and two long-term rough sleepers - has been questioned as representative. "This meeting was supposed to be about those rough sleepers who would not engage with the outreach service and why they would not. The five who were in hostels had obviously already engaged with the outreach service, and by that fact alone were not authentic participants. They were no longer rough sleepers, and should not have been there." said our source. But Mike Nicholas, communications manager for Thames Reach, defended the meeting, saying the purpose of the visit was to enable direct dialogue with those in authority, so that people could raise any concerns they had. "Our outreach workers were talking to people who were sleeping rough. They were asked what they wanted to do in terms of having their voice heard. The rough sleepers said they wanted to speak to people in government. We contacted the government and Ms Armstrong agreed to meet them," said Mr Nicholas. "There was a discussion about bureaucracy that hinders people's journey off the streets and into accommodation and it was described by one participant as 'hurdle, hurdle, brick wall'", said Mr Nicholas. Outreach service manager Petra Salva, who co-organised and attended the meeting, said: "There were people there who find services very supportive, others who do not, and others still who sleep on the streets of London and are unhappy about it. "The meeting was a good opportunity to crystallize issues, but it would be dangerous to say the attendees were representative of the homeless community in London. We tried to have people with different experiences to cover a wider range of issues," she said. Ms Salva said although the initial goal had been to reach the Prime Minister, the fact that Hilary Armstrong accepted was a success. Kellie Manchip, who spent six years on the street before finally moving to a Thames Reach hostel one month ago said she thought the meeting had been worthwhile. "I felt like people paid attention to me at the meeting and I'd love the chance to go back to the Cabinet Office in the future to see if the government has not only listened, but acted upon the issues we spoke about," she said. The group discussed the possibility of providing a helpline for those facing eviction, dealing with a specific individual's needs, and the advantage building communities of those who shared the experience of sleeping rough to prevent isolation. Small-scale hostels with a personal feel were discussed, alongside a recommendation that hospitals provide specialist help at point of discharge. The participants also requested that the homelessness sector and government do more to reduce the barriers that prevent people from getting into accommodation. A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "Hilary Armstrong does visits and outreach on a regular basis, and said during the meeting how valuable it was to get the sort of direct feedback the guests were giving. There was a free and open discussion." The spokesperson added: "One of things we want to both emphasise and learn about is how people can be enabled to turn around their lives. To have people who are no longer rough sleeping in attendance is crucial to getting that understanding."