Wednesday, 22 November 2006

At the very edge of the city centre

The poor at the gate
Over the past year, if not longer, I've found myself listening to different people expressing concerns about the relatively small number of people, a couple of dozen or so, who live wild in the city centre. It's a bit of an embarrassment to the city's image stylists, but in a way, I'm susprised at how readily it's overlooked. There's a mix of men and women, many of them youngish, hanging around Central Station and the multi-storey car parks, either on drugs or very heavy drinkers, equally dependent on emergency handouts from social services and free food dished out by either volunteers doing soup runs, or the Barclays Bank sponsored / Social Services / Volunteer partnership which runs the excellent Night Bus - a dark blue double decker dispensing food, health care and information on emergency shelter for anyone who needs it. In fact, Cardiff City Centre Social Services has a good record of getting people off the streets and into accommodation within 48 hours, a 98% success rate. This is good news for the vulnerable - runaways, people in crisis, or new arrivals in the city finding their promised job or the offer of a floor to sleep on has fallen through.

The chronic core
That leaves the hardened survivors - people who've been sleeping rough for years, surviving with mental health problems and/or addiction. They can find it difficult if not impossible to adjust to accommodation in hostel for long enough to break the cycle. Sleeping outside means they don't get bothered as much, when all they seem to want to live for is to get stoned, immunise themselves against harassment and hide from everyday life. One of the consequences of this is the poisonous litter of used needles, and excrement, both human and animals, in obscure doorways, and planter pots in quieter corners of town. So far, no incident hazardous to health has been reported as a result, but given the current risk-averse obsession with health and safety, it's an extraordinary oversight on the part of politicians and senior city bosses, and much to the credit of those who work on the streets to make the city enjoyably habitable, that they are concerned. Some of the most vulnerable sufferers take refuge on the streets rather than stay in a hostel, afraid because of their experience therein of aggressive behaviour, noise, crime - be it mugging or drugs trading which occasionally succeeds in overcoming all attempts by hostel workers to suppress it.

The vicious cycle
For social service street outreach workers, constant vigilance is necessary to identify and help them, Also they need to be vigilant against the temptation to write off the really needy who seem to be beyond help apart from the money they need for their next fix or bottle of Thunderbird liquor. Most of the beggars who appear near cash machines, or in strategically visible places on the street (like the alley outside St John's Church) aren't begging for food and shelter. They want money to feed a drug habit. Probably the majority of those who are generous to them are unaware that they are able to find free meals twice a day, that they are contributing to the vicious cycle that enslaves them. The police arrest them under vagrancy bye-laws. They get a night in a cell off the streets, a court appearance that seldom leads to suitable remedial action, then as soon as possible they are begging somewhere again. It's not an overwhelmingly huge problem on the scale of possible human problems to solve, but for those with eyes to see, it's a nagging concern that here's a group of people it seems impossible to rehabilitate. Now and again, one of them disappears, or is found dead. There's no outcry, little by way of public embarrassment, but among those who care, there's a sense of frustration and failure at the waste of lives through booze or heroin. How to break the vicious cycle?

Diverted giving
Steve, a member of the city centre management team had the idea of establishing secure collection boxes at strategic points, and running a publicity campaign to draw attention to the fact that giving to beggars here changes nothing for the better. The collecting boxes are intended to raise funds for voluntary rehabilitation work. Suitably secure boxes, to be set in a ground mounted pillar were acquired. Permission has been granted, so far, only to install them in NCP car parks near the pay machines, a favourite site for beggars. Heaven knows what the banks would think of having boxes near cashpoints, as they seem reluctant to do anything about the sad characters who regularly squat near them at night importuning, sometimes even intimidating customers. Steve's hard hitting publicity poster awareness campaign promoting 'diverted giving' has been watered down with help from anxious local authority lawyers. All is now set to run, with a bit of extra enforcement help from the police.

Will this shake up the routine of the hardened addicted rough sleepers? Will the extra hassle nudge them in the direction of compromising their anti social demands and accepting the professional help that's there waiting for them? We wait and see - in my case, watch and pray. The start of recent police crackdowns on vagrants in the centre co-incided with a series of purse thefts from volunteers looking after the 'Cards for Good Causes' shop and the South Wales Arts Exhibition in church. These incidents may be unrelated, but it has church workers all a bit edgy at the moment.

Unconsidered impact
The other worrying factor in attempts to address the homelessness problem has been the impact of the volunteer soup run on the area in which it is located. A couple of times it has moved in the past year. Crowds of meal seekers gather, drug dealers seek them out. Sometimes there are fights. Sometimes shoppers passing by are intimidated. There's always discarded remains of food and containers strewn about the street adding to the burden of night cleaners and neighbouring shop workers. Children who are not homeless or runaway gather to be fed, sent by parents unwilling or unable to make them a meal at home. These can be vulnerable in the presence of unstable people, and vulnerable to predators who target children for their own reasons. Some experienced volunteers are aware and concerned about the problems caused. There's no doubt about the keenness and sincerity of all the volunteers, but for the most part they little or no training, and are unable to handle problems which arise. The danger is they become part of the overall problem. In some British cities, and also in the US, street based feeding stations have been banned because of the public nuisance factor.

A middle way?
Informal discussions about these concerns in Cardiff, between city centre social workers, city centre management, retailers, politicians, police and clergy colleagues which I've been privileged to share conclude that the volunteer contribution (over a hundred people, mostly from suburban churches) should not be banished or punished, but supported and encouraged to work with the professionals and the authorities, offered suitable training to make them more effective as 'street carers' - nice new piece of civic jargon. Everyone argues about the hows and wherefores, and the pastoral methods to be applied, but the bottom line is that everyone's desires and aims for rehabilitation. Without it the problem persists. Many religious believers may hope for conversions, morally reformed characters etc., but it's healing at every level that's most needed, setting sufferers free to live full lives, no longer defined merely as a victim or a micro contributor to international organised crime and the Afghan economy.

Progress in setting up a scheme to empower street carers is a painstaking task, requiring political and diplomatic persuasiveness to keep everyone on-side. It's a complex, many layered project that needs trust and good-will all round. Better that it happens in a low key way, than being driven by the media which can quickly raise a storm of attention, and equally quickly pass on to the next minor sensation, having provoked over-reaction in every direction. It doesn't matter if any of this effort ever makes a decent headline. What matters is people working together to bring such suffering to an end.