Social Worker Nick Pannell, explains how Government austerity threatens the future a Devon seaside resort’s cherished homeless hostel

AS a journalist in Torbay in the 1980s I remember covering a death on the street. A drug addict had overdosed and nobody realised the man under the blanket was in a coma until it was too late.

There was begging too and rough sleepers in town centre doorways, which didn’t quite match the image portrayed in the holiday brochures. 

It was the churches who came forward to offer to establish Torbay’s first night shelter in Factory Row, Torquay. Like so many community projects it was spontaneous, driven forward on a tide of conscience and enthusiasm, strong enough to win planning permission in the face of the usual opposition. It was also basic, a single male dormitory with 14 beds, about three feet apart.  

But it was enough, and a strong sense of local ownership ensured a steady stream of giving and expansion. One day a man walked into the office and wrote a cheque for £80,000 to buy an adjoining property for move-on accommodation.  It was a focus for volunteering.  Harvest Festival produce from churches and schools sometimes overwhelmed the storeroom. There were open days and the wider community began to understand the nature of homelessness breaking down some of the prejudice experienced by rough sleepers. The public’s engagement with the project was consistent enough for a Friends of Factory Row to be set up raising money for activities and gifts for residents for Christmas and birthdays.  

Then came Government money , primarily through the Supporting People programme. Now the hostel could provide outreach services to prevent homelessness and support even the most chaotic. Numbers of rough sleepers on the streets of Torbay began to fall.

In 2008, the Langley House Trust, working with the Homes and Community Agency, oversaw a complete re-build of the hostel site creating the Leonard Stocks Centre with 24 en suite rooms where women could be accommodated as well.  A local community working with a national charity and a Government agency had created a flagship hostel in a resort where a few years earlier there had just been a few beds pushed together in an old mortuary. 

Then came austerity. At first managers were salami slicing budgets leading to minor cuts in staffing but then came cleaver blows. This year Torbay Council was asked to cut £10m from its budget and next year a further £14million of savings are needed. The council ‘s financial position has not been helped by the Conservative Mayor’s reluctance to increase council tax.

Torbay is currently going through over 80 per cent cuts to its Supporting People budget. Most services have already closed and only a vocal campaign last winter won the homeless hostel a reprieve. Now the axe hovers again and hostel supporters are fighting what feels like a last ditch battle.

Unless a fundraising appeal for £95,000 is successful, and the council is prepared to match fund the community’s giving, the hostel will close in March, earlier if staff can’t be persuaded to stay.

But the loss is greater than just 24 beds for rough sleepers, it is the breaking of 25 years of church, community and council partnership, the kind of local project which Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society has championed. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of charity giving has been invested. Volunteer time has supplemented paid staff. Torbay has a greater understanding of homelessness and less hostile to rough sleepers because of ties between the neighbourhood and the hostel. The project is no monument to council or Government agencies eager to meet statutory obligations but a town’s own, unique response to a crisis on its streets in the 1980s.

That is why its imminent loss is so sorely felt in Torbay among those who seek social justice close to home.

As Torbay is not the only council going through deep cuts, this situation must be repeated across the country. How many other drop-in centres, night shelters, outreach projects for rough sleepers etc. are being blown away as valuable core funding is lost in the gale of austerity?

The Big Lottery seems unwilling or unable to fill the gap. In the South West there is a reluctance to fund services threatened by a withdrawal of council funding. So does this mean that vital projects collapse while the Big Lottery funds novel, headline grabbing ones?

So hostel supporters are out shaking the collection boxes.  Some people are giving out of genuine concern for South Devon’s rough sleepers, with the imagination to see that “there but by the grace of God go I”. Others give because they don’t want tourist areas disfigured by the destitute. That argument plays well Torbay’s elected Mayor, Conservative Gordon Oliver who has made shoring up the struggling tourist industry his number one priority. He has yet to decide whether to match fund community giving to keep the hostel open.

With its low wages and high unemployment, Torbay has been described as Devon’s inner city and if its hostel closes its social dysfunction will deepen. We brace ourselves for a death on the street.

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