By Beatrice Orchard, Policy, Public Affairs and Research Manager, St Mungo’s
In February St Mungo’s launched a campaign to stop the scandal of people with mental health problems left sleeping rough.
St Mungo’s works with thousands of people sleeping rough every year, but recently our street outreach teams have become increasingly concerned about the challenges faced by their clients with mental health problems.
We investigated further and the evidence available shows four in ten rough sleepers have a mental health problem. A person’s mental health can deteriorate rapidly when they have nowhere safe to sleep and yet our research found that those poor mental health are likely to be stuck sleeping rough for longer.
Rough sleeping makes it much harder to access mental health services. Reasons include difficulties getting an assessment or referral to secondary care without being registered with a GP, problems making and keeping appointments while sleeping on the street, stigma and services commonly excluding people who are using drugs and alcohol.
Only 26 per cent of homelessness professionals think that people sleeping rough are able to access the mental health services that they need. Specialist homelessness mental health teams make an excellent contribution where they exist, but too many have been subject to major funding cuts or have disappeared entirely.
Often such teams were established during the 1990s as part of the Homeless Mentally Ill Initiative. They are generally comprised of specialist doctors, nurses and social workers and provide mental health assessments and support to people sleeping rough, sometimes on the street if necessary.
As a result of financial pressures across the health and social care system these teams have been cut and there are now more areas, including areas with a high number of people sleeping rough, which are not covered by a specialist homelessness mental health team.
There is also a shortage of suitable accommodation available for people to move into off the streets. Homelessness professionals overwhelmingly report a lack of supported housing for people with mental health problems.
Despite the existing shortage of safe and appropriate accommodation for people sleeping rough to move into, recent government decisions mean the future for supported housing is even more uncertain.
The government has thankfully put on hold plans to reduce social housing rents and to cap housing benefit for supported housing tenants at the Local Housing Allowance rate used in the private rented sector. However, the government now needs to work closely with supported housing providers to ensure the long term viability of this specialist type of housing.
I hope supporters of the Labour Campaign to End Homelessness will sign our open letter to the Prime Minister calling for a new strategy to end rough sleeping backed by investment in specialist mental health support for people stuck sleeping rough.
Any government which wants to make a real attempt at ending rough sleeping must ensure there are mental health services that will reach out to people stuck sleeping rough and will not give up until they have helped someone into safe and stable accommodation. Not only this, but they must also ensure there are sufficient supported housing places to aid recovery.
Find out more: www.mungos.org/stopthescandal