A Chat With Cardiff University’s Help 4 Homeless Society…

Interview by: Rhianna Hurren-Myers

In this article, Quench Features caught up with Cardiff University’s Help for Homeless Society, discussing the ways in which students can help the homeless community across the city.

What is homelessness?

There isn’t one strict definition of homelessness – it comes in many forms. To be homeless means to be without a home. A home is a place that provides security, privacy, and links to a community and support networks. Rough sleeping is the most visible form of homelessness, but other situations include statutory and hidden homelessness, as well as those who reside in temporary accommodation.

Under legal definition, a person is considered homeless if they have no home in the UK or anywhere else in the world available to occupy. This includes people facing eviction, those living in temporary accommodation, squatters, rough sleepers, people at risk of violence.

In England, not all people who meet the legal definition of homelessness will be provided with housing. Under the 1996 Housing Act, local authorities have a statutory duty to find accommodation for households deemed to be homeless, eligible and in ‘priority need’. Most commonly, ‘priority need’ applies to adults with dependent children and/or households with a vulnerable member. Many non-statutory households are single homeless people. Homelessness can lead to mental, physical, and behavioural issues that last a lifetime.

Why do people become homeless? 

I think a better phrasing to this question is ‘what puts people most at risk of experiencing homelessness’ as a multitude of individual factors contribute and every rough sleeper has a different story. It is completely true that it could just take one misstep to lose your home and lifestyle in the same way that some people experience longer lasting conditions leading to life on the streets or temporary accommodation. Furthermore, many people don’t know where to go or how to access support when they have housing problems due to lack of knowledge.

Although the reasons for becoming homeless differ between each person, there are common factors. Some factors are related to aspects of family, community and individual, while others are structural, related to the economy, the law, social trends, and the national housing system. Homelessness is likely to be caused by a combination of structural and personal factors. Economically, hikes in rent prices have led to a higher amount of evictions and with little sustainable financial support from government and local authorities, a lot of families and individuals are falling below the poverty line and losing their homes. Coronavirus has had a devastating impact on employment opportunities and job security for many people in flexible work arrangements. This disproportionality affects those living on or just above the poverty line, leading even more people to slip below and experience financial difficulties.

Individually, difficulties with mental health, domestic trauma and substance dependence may impact a person’s measure of safety in their home and lead them to seek refuge away from their occupance. Recent studies have shown a positive correlation between young people ‘coming out’ to their families and experiencing problems as a result, leading them to leave their homes at an early age. In a study that found 24% of homelessness young people identifying as LGBT+ 77% of them believe coming out to their parents was the main factor in them being ‘pushed out’.

As you can see, there is no singular reason why people end up homeless and this is why breaking down conservative stereotypes are so important to raise the level of understanding around homelessness. As students, we have so much information available to us and I would strongly encourage everyone to read up on recent studies breaking down these out-dated myths.

Can you tell us a bit more about the homelessness situation in Cardiff? What major problems are there at the moment?

This is quite a difficult question to answer as figures are not always reliable and often underestimate the amount of people experiencing different forms of homelessness (eg. sofa-surfing and hidden homelessness). It’s been reported that there has been an increase in rough sleepers in Cardiff over the span of the past few months, and a gradual rise in people seeking help and being supported by homelessness charities over the past five years. As of 2019, more than 4,000 people reached out to Cardiff council for housing assistance. Among those 4,000 households were 465 children, including 50 aged under 12 months old, who were found to be unintentionally homeless.

The major issues facing Cardiff’s homelessness crisis specifically is a lack of social and affordable housing. The Wallich set out seven key recommendations back in 2017 including governmental promotion and development of the Housing First scheme as an effective solution to entrenched homelessness, constructing more affordable housing, improving the focus towards trauma-informed approaches to providing support, and the abolition of the ‘priority need’ system in Wales. They call for the system to be replaced by one in which everyone living a street based lifestyle gets the support they need when they need it as this would improve the rough sleeping situation ‘immeasurably’.

How has COVID-19 impacted the nature of homelessness in Cardiff and the ways volunteers can help? 

During the first national lockdown, local councils worked with homelessness charities around the UK to house rough sleepers in emergency accommodation such as hotels, in order that they were protected and able to self-isolate, preventing the spread of the virus. Some people have been moved into more sustainable accommodation or are still being supported. However, others have returned to the streets and, at the same time, new people have found themselves sleeping rough as a direct impact of the virus. Some have found themselves in this dangerous position due to a loss of income, lack of flexible employment opportunities or a breakdown of family relationships. There may be an inflow into homelessness once the eviction ban is lifted, unless safeguards are put in place and renters’ income is secured after the freeze.

Rough sleepers are three times more likely to have chronic health conditions including respiratory issues, making them more vulnerable to coronavirus. Cardiff’s homelessness community has seen limited access and capacity to walk-in centres. Many local charities are closed to in-person donations and have seen a sharp drop in funds due to cancelled fundraisers. For example, Cafe H located near Cardiff Central is run by volunteers and clients of the Huggard Centre which is a non-profit and offers employment opportunities. However, it has had to shut its doors to the public as a result of the lockdowns. Therefore, we would urge students to please consider donating your time towards volunteering opportunities in your local area and keeping an eye out for ethical centres and cafes where you can still make a positive difference through ‘pay it forward’ schemes.

How did you come to get involved with the Help for Homeless CU Society? Why is this important to you?

Our committee stems from varied backgrounds, but what unites us is our motivation to have a positive impact on society. I think one of the most striking and sobering experiences moving to Cardiff is seeing the visual extent of street homelessness when heading into the city centre and having conversations with rough sleepers, hearing about their difficult journeys leading them to life on the streets in such close proximity to our lecture buildings.

We believe in encouraging student action as together our voices can be heard and make it possible to demand real change. We feel that the student community needs to take action and play our part in the fight against homelessness. H4H provides an opportunity to raise awareness and take part in fundraising without strict volunteering commitments. We pride ourselves in creating an open space to discuss complex issues from different perspectives without pressing any agendas and we’re always open to new ideas.

Tell us a bit more about the Help for Homeless CU Society…when was it set up? How can students at Cardiff University get involved? What events does the Society run etc?

H4H is a relatively new society founded in 2017 dedicated to alleviating homelessness in Cardiff. In light of the pandemic, we have hosted all our events virtually this year including a StayUp as opposed to our regular SleepOut to raise funds for Cardiff’s homeless community. Upcoming events include a discussion panel aimed at students by sector professionals who can inform us of the more complex issues surrounding homelessness in Cardiff specifically, and ways we can assist to untangle certain stigmas and also a sponsored 100 sit-ups a day challenges in association with Crisis in February. Usually we’d be running regular food drives and collection stalls in the SU, pub quizzes and outreach workshops, but have had to brainstorm creative solutions and brush up on our zoom skills.

How can students in Cardiff help rough sleepers and the homeless community in Cardiff?

There are so many different ways that students can have a positive impact on the homeless community! More than monetary contributions towards local charities, I would strongly encourage students to download the StreetLink app on mobile devices. If you see someone sleeping rough, send an alert to StreetLink which will enable local services to go out and make contact with the individual in order to connect them with support and available accommodation. It works best with a lot of community members sending as many alerts as possible to help alleviate the cyclical nature of rough sleeping.

Social interaction and support are more important than ever at the moment. Whilst remembering to maintain a respectful distance in line with social distancing guidelines, try just stopping and having a conversation with people you see sleeping rough. Try asking nearby cafes if they have ‘pay it forward’ schemes to help the Cardiff homeless community. Big Moose, Wild Thing and Brodie’s Coffee are examples of such ethical cafes within walking distance of Cathays. Consider purchasing a Big Issue for £2 and having a conversation with the vendor about something as trivial as the weather or recent sport fixture – you never know what you could learn from people.

Additionally, volunteering or donating at your local food bank or shelter is hugely beneficial as the UK is seeing a higher number than ever queueing for basic supplies. If you see someone in urgent need of medical attention, call 111 or 999 for assistance.

The smallest acts of kindness from students can help lift people’s spirits, and what’s more important than a hand-out is a hand-up. Offering someone your time and raising awareness for Cardiff’s homeless crisis will help shed light on the complex issues of homelessness and help our individual understanding of the problems facing homeless people in today’s society.

What changes still need to happen to help prevent rough sleeping? (e.g. legislative level, community etc.)

On a legislative level, the UK homeless community needs more reliable and sustainable support. Structural issues such as lack of affordable housing and welfare reforms (cuts in legal aid, housing advice, and welfare benefits) need to be addressed by government and local councils, as well as reshaping preventative measures to protect at-risk individuals. Homeless people need stable physical care facilities and more reliable access to mental health and rehabilitation centres.

Public Health England highlights the need to increase engagement with educational establishments by housing and health professionals to raise awareness and share effective practice in identifying vulnerable young people at risk of homelessness.

Moreover, one of the most important aspects is abolishing outdated prejudices. When the national mindset changes towards a better understanding of the complex causes of inequality and increases in government regulation and funding is brought in alongside, there will be a more effective change in the homelessness crisis. Changing public attitudes is key and it’s something we as students can help with through campaigning and sharing petitions.

What do you wish people understood about homelessness? (to break the stereotypes)

Homelessness is a trap that’s easy to fall into but extremely different to climb out of. As aforementioned, it could literally take just one misstep in judgement or experiencing circumstances out of your control to end up with long-lasting housing difficulties. The stigma surrounding homelessness vastly hinders individual ability to reach out for help and accept assistance from charities. The lack of knowledge, especially with young people, in how to access reliable support needs to be addressed so to be able to protect yourself as well as local homeless communities. We’d urge people to stay alert to warning signs as it’s not easy to identify particular forms like sofa-surfing or hidden homelessness. The UK has reached a homelessness crisis that really can affect anyone.

Cardiff Food Banks:

  • The Fringe at Cathays Community Centre
  • Trussel Trust on Crwys Road

Key Charities & Resources:

  • Huggard
  • Wallich
  • Llamau
  • Shelter

You can follow H4HCU on Instagram – help4homeless_cu – and their Facebook page – Help4HomelessCU.