Homelessness is back in the news this week after a group of homeless people broke into the upper floors of Hamilton House and began to squat there.
Hamilton House, tucked in behind Watergate Street and the Forum shopping centre, is a former council building that has been empty for some time. Yet a few months ago the ground floor was reopened to provide emergency beds and support services for the homeless in Chester.
It is easy to make judgements about the homeless: that they are all drug addicts; that they don’t want to be helped, that they just come to Chester to beg.
I confess there are times in the past when I have judged, but the truth is we don’t know the events that led to someone become addicted or homeless, or both.
Being abused as a child; family break down; the loss of a job. Untreated mental health problems. Even having a genetic predisposition to alcoholism.
One thing I am sure of: nobody ever left primary school and thought to themselves, “when I grow up, I want to be a homeless drug addict.”
Since 2010, so many of the support services to prevent people succumbing to addiction and homelessness have dwindled. Drug and alcohol addiction treatment services have suffered funding cuts. It can take many months to get a first appointment for mental health support.
And of course, we don’t have enough affordable housing, especially one-bedroom flats for single adults, who are forced into unaffordable private rented properties or on to the streets.
In Chester, the council has teamed up with local charities such as Chester Aid for the Homeless, and Share. And of course, local church and faith groups are involved, including the clergy at the Cathedral. This coordinated approach has paid dividends.
But the sheer numbers of homeless people, and the severity of their problems, is sometimes hard to manage, especially when faced with the level of cuts that our council has been given by central government: £330 million lost in funding since 2010.
Sadly, the squatting in Hamilton House will place more strain on an already over-stretched council where councillors and officers are already doing their best to provide support.
Homelessness is a national crisis and a national scandal. It has doubled since 2010 and almost trebled in the north west. We will need a national response to address that crisis, that brings together all the services to support people in the most desperate of circumstances and help them get their lives back on track.