Nowhere else to go - Out on the winter streets with Blackpool’s homeless
This year’s annual rough sleeper count found 15 people sleeping on the streets of Blackpool - an increase from 12 last year.
The count, which does not include all homeless people, such as those in hostels or sofa surfing, provides a valuable snapshot for services and volunteers trying to help anyone without a permanent roof over their heads.
Reporter Shalegh Parkinson joined housing officers and volunteers for this year’s count.
It’s just before midnight on a November Tuesday night and there is hardly a soul around as I drive into Blackpool town centre.
But look a little closer and enfolded into the nooks and crannies of the high street are those who have hit the lowest point in their lives.
Over the next two-and-a-half hours I will walk these streets alongside Chris and Matt from Blackpool Council’s Housing Options Team.
We will be checking back alleys, shop doorways, darkened market stalls and the concrete enclaves of the old police station for rough sleepers.
Each year every council in the country must carry out a rough sleeper count in order to get a snapshot of homelessness levels in their area.
The final figure is then passed onto the Government to track trends in rough sleeping numbers.
It does not include all the homeless people in the town - many people without their own home will have found a bed in a hostel or be sleeping temporarily on a friend’s sofa.
Counts must be done when there are no events being hosted in the borough which may skew the figures, hence in Blackpool it is done after the Illuminations have been switched off.
Around 14 people have gathered in the Angels Rest Cafe in Cookson Street, a mixture of council housing staff and volunteers, for a briefing before heading out in five groups.
Teams are sent out across the town centre, North and South Shore, and Stanley Park with one group handed the task of checking all the public toilets.
The list includes Blackpool Victoria Hospital grounds, the piers and even Layton Cemetery.
Matt Dougall, housing support access team leader, said: “The count is intelligence led so all the areas we visit are places where we believe there to be rough sleepers.
“The purpose of this specific visit is to document numbers but we do check they are ok.
“If they are asleep we just leave them to it, but we will offer advice and help to those who are awake and who we speak to.
“It’s rare to find rough sleepers on the seafront as it’s difficult to find shelter. Mostly they choose quieter places but that can make them more vulnerable.
“Following the count, we disclose the number to central government and aim to be as transparent as possible about the process.“We work with other services to organise the count, as well as with partners from the voluntary sector, with everyone contributing their part.
We head off on a circuit which will take us through streets I am more familiar with when busy with shoppers. office workers and visitors.
Now in the early hours of the morning Coronation Street, Victoria Street, Bank Hey Street etc are all deserted.
But bedded down in sleeping bags in the doorway of an empty shop are a young couple.
They say a flat they were promised has fallen through leaving them with nowhere to go.
They are waiting for their next benefits before they can find somewhere else to stay.
Matt arranges for bottles of water to be brought out to them and asks them to contact the Housing Options team for help finding a new flat.
I ask him why they are in such dire straits if they receive benefits, the answer is inevitably that sometimes the rent money goes on feeding a substance abuse.
Next we are weaving our way through the darkness of Bonny Street market, eerily silent, torch beams lighting up desolate corners I could never imagine having to sleep in.
There is no-one here, but near the courts and site of the former police station, three people are camped out at the top of a stairway.
They have left a flat in Preston and previously stayed three nights in a Blackpool B&B - although they wearily tell me “it was colder in there than outside”.
There are signs of heroin use, which I’m told is not unusual among some rough sleepers.
Checking toilets is not on our roster but it’s a sign of the times that the toilet block on Central Car Park looks like a fortress, with steel fencing and a special entrance.
Action was taken after visitors arriving on coaches each morning had to dodge used needles when they tried to use the cubicles.
Further along our route Matt and Chris check back yards crammed with old sofas and rubbish and recall how in the past they have even found rough sleepers in bins.
Another couple asleep in a doorway don’t want disturbing, but the next person we come across is a young man, clearly distressed, outside the Streetlife hostel in St John’s Square whose door is by now firmly shut for the night.
He is known to the Housing Options team and they spend some time with him ensuring he is ok before we move on.
We head back to Angels Rest to meet up with the rest of the counters.
It’s been a mild moonlit night but as we warm up with a cup of tea, it’s a sobering thought to think every night of the year there is likely to be a handful of people sleeping rough on the streets of our town.
The count took place on the night of November 12th/13th with 12 people found sleeping outside.
Intelligence from other partners revealed another three people who had also been sleeping rough that night, bringing the total to 15.
This has been verified by Homeless Link and passed to Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) which will use it to track homeless trends.
Blackpool has a number of volunteer groups which help the homeless.
Street Angels, Path2Progress and the Hare Krishna Community in Blackpool are among them, with volunteers helping with the count.
Gavin Hendry, from the Hare Krishna Community, said: “We were running meditation and holistic wellbeing groups in the town centre and saw so many kids on the streets and wanted to do something.
“We started cooking up soup and taking it out to them two or three times a week.
“A lot of people have complex needs such as drug and drink habits and late at night there are people who are genuinely struggling for a bed for the night.”
The council’s Housing Options Team is due to move to a new base at The Foyer on Chapel Street, where there will also be eight emergency beds for homeless people.
The council has also successfully bid for £255,000 of funding to help rough sleepers.
This will finance the emergency beds and pay for a specialist mental health worker and drug and alcohol worker.
Help will include tenancy support for people in their accommodation, and improved access to private rented accommodation.