Who Will Be Lonely This Christmas?
How Retailers Can Help Themselves to Tackle the Issue of Rough Sleeping
Birmingham, Britain’s “second city”, will experience more than its fair share of first and third world problems during this time of giving, but its spirited approach to tackling the problems of homelessness and rough sleeping presents the greatest gift of all.
Millions of pounds will flow through the tills of its bustling Bullring shopping centre and wider retail environs, as the lights of New Street stretch down to meet the smells and sounds of Victoria Square’s Frankfurt Market, the largest authentic gathering of German arts, crafts, strudels, sauerkraut, and schnitzels outside of Europe.
But this ubiquitous and magical image of Christmas—which attracts 5.5 million visitors every year—sits incongruously and uncomfortably cheek-by-jowl with the city’s socio-economic problems in terms of homelessness and those rough sleepers attracted to beg on the streets close to these traditional retail honey and money pots.
The “second city” has made great leaps forward with projects such as Change into Action—an alternative giving scheme backed by Birmingham City Council, the Mayor of the West Midlands, and the West Midlands Combined Authority—aimed at addressing rough sleeping by supporting specialist charities and street teams working to change their circumstances.
But there remains a very real as well as perceived challenge around homelessness and rough sleeping.
For example, in terms of the retail community, homelessness presents additional challenges during a period when store colleagues are feeling increasingly vulnerable to violence and aggression, with 2023 figures from the BRC showing a rise of 850 incidents each day.
Despite widespread sympathy from retail staff towards those on the street, shorter days and darker evenings coupled with the fear of aggressive begging and rough sleepers using store doorways, shopping centre entrances and staff exits as sanctuaries, adds to that heightened sense of general anxiety about going to work.
In addition to personal safety worries for those opening and closing stores, the detritus left behind for retailers to clean up—litter, cardboard, sleeping bags, discarded needles, and even human waste—presents additional burden on pressured staff as well as health and safety concerns.
A report from Birmingham City University (BCU) found that the city’s housing emergency is robbing children of a secure childhood, with some coerced into prostitution by sex traffickers, forced to shoplift, and preyed on by criminal gangs seeking to exploit crippling drug addictions.
First-hand experiences of rough sleepers living on the city’s streets laid bare the vicious cycle of victimisation and vulnerability. Kurt—not his real name—spoke of stealing and acting as a drug runner to feed his habit.
“The first [homeless] guy that I met in Birmingham used to make me shoplift,” he said. His partner, Jesse—also not her real name—was led into prostitution by a street sex trafficker who also exploited her drug addiction.
Homeless women are even more likely to experience violence and victimisation, the BCU research found. At one point as Jesse was rough sleeping and engaging in sex work, the only person she could rely on to sustain her was her abuser, and so she was mired in a “reproductive circle of suffering”.
Kurt helped Jesse to overcome her addiction and she is now off the streets. Research authors found “particularly strong” bonds were often formed among rough sleepers due to their shared history and experiences—some of which could include drug and alcohol abuse.
“This can create a mutual dependency but can also lead to exploitation from criminal gangs preying on the vulnerable and even among the homeless themselves,” the researchers said.
Dr Mohammed Rahman, a senior lecturer in criminology at BCU, led the research alongside colleague Maram Abdulkader. A total of five rough sleepers—three males and two females—agreed to be interviewed for the study.
Negative attitudes towards rough sleepers sparked by their appearance, behaviour, reputation or simply their street presence were also highlighted in the newly published paper. These responses from members of the public often left rough sleepers feeling “unaccepted and rejected”.
This in turn “eroded their trust” in the general public and the state, including care services and law enforcement. One of the contributors, named Mull, added: “The police will treat you more like an offender than a victim because of your past—they’ll look at you and be like “well you’re the cause of the problem, jog on,” they said.
These feelings of marginalisation and mistrust also led rough sleepers to turn to each other for comfort and security, forming relationships to cope with life on the streets, the research suggested. “The homeless have a very strong communal bond with each other. It’s because the homeless can only support other homeless people,” explained Kurt.
These friendships made it easier and more desirable for them to continue sleeping rough instead of seeking housing, despite the associated discomfort, risks of violence and other forms of exploitation, which all participants were aware of and had experienced to varying degrees. “We witness [harm], every type, every day,” Kurt continued.
All five of those interviewed were aged eighteen to thirty and had been on the streets for a period ranging from one and a half to six years. All were white, which at 84 per cent according to national data, is the most common ethnicity of rough sleepers in the UK.
Researcher Maram Abdulkader added: “What we have gleaned from our conversations with rough sleepers is that they are often caught in a vicious cycle of vulnerability and victimisation. Their exclusion from mainstream society contributes to a lack of trust in officialdom, leading them to develop a new sense of belonging among their own community.”
“But this can also limit their mobility and even perpetuate their exploitation. What’s more, feelings of isolation, mistrust of authority and lack of faith in society and its rules results in the homeless often not reporting crimes against them. This is something we have to address,” she said.
Although remaining the same in Birmingham, the number of rough sleepers across England had risen for the first time since 2017, despite a government manifesto promise to end rough sleeping by 2024.
The 2022 figures suggest that 3,069 people were estimated to be sleeping rough in England last year—a 26 per cent rise on the 2,443 rough sleepers in 2021.
In September, Birmingham City Council—Britain’s largest local authority—declared itself bankrupt after issuing a section 114 notice, signalling that it does not have the resources to balance its budget.
The notice, preventing all-but-essential spending to protect core services, came as a result of a £760m bill for equal pay claims, problems installing a new IT system, and £1bn in government cuts over the past decade.
Fortunately, its services to those vulnerable citizens with or without roofs over their heads, will not see cuts to budgets of services to provide support for the city’s outreach project involving collaborative hubs, dedicated outreach workers and charities, as well as detox and dependency experts, working together as joined-up teams to provide around-the-clock essential services—from rehousing to rehab and recovery.
“Rough sleepers don’t fit into a neat nine-to-five box, which is why we offer twenty-four-hour, 365 days a year outreach work,” said Deborah Northcott of CGL (Change Grow Live)—the biggest drug and alcohol service in Europe—that works with other organisations to deliver services to vulnerable people across the city, including collaborative working with retail businesses to help identify rough sleepers and signpost them towards the right kind of help.
This could be medical or mental health provision or detox and rehabilitation. Retailers, on the receiving end of shoplifting incidents to feed addiction, anti-social behaviour or aggressive begging can also financially contribute to support services that can identify rough sleepers and get them the right kind of help away from the streets.”
“There is not necessarily increased rough sleeping at Christmas, but with more people shopping and coming to the German market, there is definitely more begging,” added Deborah.
“Despite the financial challenges to the city, they can’t cut back on services to the vulnerable, so there will be no impact on what we can provide,” she added.
Vanessa Newey, an outreach team leader with homeless charity St Basils, which was highly commended at the Homeless Link’s National Excellence Awards 2023 for its work helping young people, said: “Our main role is to try and find accommodation for sixteen-to-twenty-five-year-olds, or support for people with addictions as well as benefits.”
“We navigate them to relevant services whether they require benefits or support with their mental health or substance misuse, involving the relevant statutory services where required.”
“But we recognise from our work going out and engaging with rough sleepers daily that people gravitate to the streets because they are lonely or unhappy. Our job is to link them up with services close to their local area or community.”
“We have a strong collaborative approach between enforcement and support working with the police, business improvement districts (BIDs) and retail businesses, all of whom recognise that at the end of the day they are dealing with vulnerable people—it is good partnership working,” she added.
The National Picture
According to figures from 2022, homelessness charity Crisis estimated that around 227,000 people were sleeping rough, staying in vans and sheds, or sleeping in B&Bs across England, Scotland, and Wales.
This chimes with similar research findings from Shelter who also highlighted that those recorded as homeless in England also included 123,000 children.
Shelter’s detailed analysis of official homelessness figures at the end of last year along with responses to a Freedom of Information request shows that one in 208 people in England are without a home. Of these, 2,400 people are sleeping rough on any given night, while 15,000 people are in hostels or supported accommodation. In addition, almost 250,000 are living in temporary accommodation—most of whom are families.
The number of people living in temporary accommodation has risen by an alarming 74 per cent in the last ten years—something the charity argues is driven by the chronic shortage of social homes, and an over-reliance on grossly expensive and unstable private renting.
More than two-thirds of families (68 per cent) living in temporary accommodation have been there for over a year, showing this type of accommodation is becoming less and less “temporary” as families cannot escape homelessness due to the severe lack of affordable homes. This is a situation made even worse by the government’s three-year freeze on housing benefit, and cost-of-living crisis.
As well as calculating the total number of homeless people, Shelter has undertaken the largest ever survey of homeless households living in temporary accommodation. The ground-breaking research found that living in temporary accommodation has a hugely detrimental impact on people’s health. It revealed:
Almost two-thirds of people (63 per cent) say that living in temporary accommodation has had a negative impact on their mental health.
Half (51 per cent) say that it has had a negative impact on their physical health.
Two in five people (39 per cent) say that living in temporary accommodation has made it harder to access healthcare appointments.
Shelter is issuing an urgent appeal for public support as it braces for a sharp rise in homelessness throughout 2023. An average of 1,000 calls per day are made to the charity’s emergency helpline, of which almost eight in ten (78 per cent) callers are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless—a figure which has increased by 8 per cent since last year.
At the launch of the report last year, Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “The new year should be a time of hope, but this isn’t the case for the 271,000 homeless people who are facing a truly bleak 2023. A cold doorway or a grotty hostel room is not a home, but this is reality for too many people today.”
“Our frontline advisers are working tirelessly to help people who are desperate to escape homelessness—from the parents doing all they can to provide some shred of a normal family life while stuck in an emergency B&B, to the person terrified of another night sleeping rough.”
“With private rents and living costs continuing to soar, thousands of people are not just facing a winter of worry, they are at risk of losing the roof over their head. At Shelter, we are bracing ourselves for a sharp rise in homelessness in 2023. More than ever, we will be relying on the public’s generosity to help us support and campaign for all those fighting for a safe home,” she continued.
The charity’s report make for grim reading and an even more compelling reason for why national service StreetLink was re-launched in October 2023 by Home Connections as a public service and a vital cog in the wheel to end rough sleeping across England and Wales.
StreetLink, a unique service specifically tailored to assist rough sleepers over the age of eighteen and funded by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), is designed to raise public awareness about rough sleeping and empower individuals to make a meaningful impact.
Previously run by another provider with access to an app to report rough sleepers, the DLUHC incurred the wrath of London Mayor Sadiq Khan when the app, which had generated almost twelve-thousand referrals to support services, was switched off.
In a press release in October, the Mayor’s Office said he was “deeply concerned” that StreetLink’s app ceased working from 29 September 2023.
“It beggars’ belief that the government is removing this support for rough sleepers at a time when the number of people on our country’s streets is rising, with the number up three quarters in England since 2010,” he said.
The Mayor’s comments crossed over with the re-launch of the service which explained why the app was removed in order to make it easier and more efficient for people to be able to report rough sleeping.
According to an independent report carried out in March 2019 by Inquire Works, downloading the app was considered “an obstacle” to people reporting on the street. The report advised to “make a responsive web service the only digital route into the service”.
Thus, at the heart of this re-launch initiative is a new user-friendly website—thestreetlink.org.uk—which anyone in England and Wales can access to provide a vital link between the public’s response and local authority outreach teams and charitable organisations dedicated to addressing rough sleeping.
The web-first approach taken not only ensures broader accessibility for everyone but also allows Home Connections and DLUHC to focus its resources on making one platform as effective as possible. This strategy, especially at a time when rough sleeping numbers are alarming, is designed to ensure everyone—regardless of their technological ability—can play their role in helping to end rough sleeping.
The transition was not about discontinuation but evolution, ensuring that every possible person can follow the process in the quickest and simplest way: locate, describe, and submit. From start to finish, submitting an alert takes just a few minutes to complete.
Ninesh Muthiah, CEO of Home Connections, said: “It is vital that the public embrace this unique service. Help really is in the hands of anyone with access to a mobile phone or computer. The website is not only simple to use, but it also tracks the outcome of any alert raised, so we can measure the impact the public is having on ending rough sleeping.”
Minister for Housing and Homelessness, Felicity Buchan said: “Everyone deserves a safe place to call home and it is right that we continue to support the most vulnerable in our society.”
“We are pleased to have funded StreetLink’s new website to make it even easier to report rough sleeping and make connections with local services, helping people off the streets more quickly,” she continued.
“In addition, we are investing £530m through the Rough Sleeping Initiative to tackle rough sleeping in the areas where it is needed most. This is on top of providing 6,000 homes for rough sleepers through the Rough Sleeping Accommodation Programme—the biggest ever investment in this type of accommodation.”
From Birmingham to Bradford to Brighton, rough sleeping on the UK’s streets is a daily reality which is particularly stark at this time of year, not because it’s Christmas but because of the additional vulnerability of those involved facing darker and colder nights, not to mention the clutches of those who would exploit their vulnerability.
Retailers, business crime reduction partnerships (BCRPs), BIDs and law enforcement are all impacted by their plight, but also a sense of powerlessness in the face of a growing tide of displaced people taking to the streets and too often taking from other people and businesses through begging and shoplifting in order to try and support themselves or their dependencies.
A Christmas story in its own right, there is always a shard of light in the form of those charities and outreach services that can signpost help and hope. Below are listed some of the support services available to businesses wanting to signpost help for the homeless:
Change into Action is an alternative giving scheme supporting specialist charities and street teams working to change the circumstances of rough sleepers. Change into Action is a partnership between Birmingham City Council, the Mayor of the West Midlands, and the West Midlands Combined Authority aimed at addressing rough sleeping. changeintoaction.org.uk
Street Support Network’s mission is to make it easier for anyone experiencing homelessness to get the help they need. It connects organisations that provide services with individuals and businesses that want to do something to help. streetsupport.net
Designing Out Homelessness: Practical Steps for Business is a toolkit for employers on how to prevent, offer help, and create pathways out of homelessness. bitc.org.uk/toolkit/designing-out-homelessness-practical-steps-for-business.