The economic boom promised to consign homelessness in England to history. But then came the crash, austerity and Iain Duncan Smith. Homelessness soared, with visits to Exeter’s St Petrock’s charity doubling in the past five years. Terri Sutherland, administrator of St Petrock’s, tells Ben Clarke that it’s time to start treating the poorest in society as individuals with dignity, rather than as a problem to be sidelined.

There’s plenty to impress inside St Petrock’s HQ. The charity operates a daily drop-in centre for the local homeless in an old red brick parish church just off the cathedral square. Vaulted ceilings and intricate gothic windows immediately make a mark. But a series of portraits lining the far wall catches my eye. “They’re all pictures of rough sleepers painted by a local artist,” Terri Sutherland, St Petrock’s Glaswegian administrator, tells me at the beginning of our conversation about homelessness in Exeter. Visceral, resilient and overwhelmingly male, the portraits staring out from the church’s wall paint a poignant picture of the homeless crisis currently engulfing England.

For years, issues surrounding homelessness seemed to drop off the news radar. It appeared only a matter of time until the economic boom consigned homelessness to a bad memory. Indeed, the number of “statutory homeless” households – those deemed to be in priority need by local authorities – peaked in England at 135,000 in 2004 and had fallen to 53,000 by 2009. But the portraits in St Petrock’s old church bring one face to face with an uneasy truth: homelessness is once again on the rise.

According to government statistics, 2,714 people slept rough in England on any one night during 2014, doubling the 2010 figure. But the problem of homelessness extends far beyond the number of rough sleepers. It is a curious irony that most people who are homeless – in the sense of not having a home – do not live on the streets. National homeless charity Crisis estimates that 112,330 households applied to their local authority for homelessness assistance in 2014/15, with just over 54,000 accepted as statutory homeless – a 36% rise in the past five years. But even these statistics underestimate the scale and complexity of the issue because they omit the soaring number of “sofa surfers” who hop from one friend’s house to the next – not to mention the estimated millions of people squeezed into squats, B&Bs and overcrowded houses all over the country.

But, as Terri points out, it’s all too easy to let individual faces and their unique stories drown in a sea of statistics. “Homelessness is a very complex issue and all of our clients have different but equally complex needs,” she explains. For Terri, the complicated nature of homelessness means it’s important for St Petrock’s to function simply as a “warm and dry place for clients to come and just be.”

Everything at St Petrock’s – from the portraits on the church walls to the way Terri repeatedly refers to the charity’s homeless visitors as “clients” – is geared towards putting the individual at the centre of a personalising process. The charity’s first port of call with anyone who walks through the old church doors is to establish a narrative. “There’s always an assessment,” Terri continues. “We ask the same questions: ‘What happened to your accommodation? How long have you been in Exeter? Do you have an income?’ If they don’t, we’ll help them set one up.” And what happens when a prospective client refuses to oblige? “Then we’ll withhold a lot of services. Food is always free as 22 it’s a basic need.” But unless clients have “very complex mitigating circumstances”, anyone seeking support from St Petrock’s “must help us help them.”

That specialist help comes in wide-ranging and complementary forms, and usually begins with a warm meal. Five charity volunteers prepare and serve breakfast and lunch everyday from a modest kitchen stuffed with cans and crockery. Breakfast consists of cereal, toast, porridge or a big fry up; lunch is usually something hearty and hot. Curry, chocolate and cups of tea (“often with five sugars or more,” Terri tells me) are the most popular items on the charity’s menu. The high levels of fat and sugar in these foods provide energy for long, arduous days on the streets. The kitchen is open 365 days a year and runs on a meagre annual budget of £2,000. That shortfall is compensated by donations from the public, church schools and businesses. The Devon and Cornwall Food Association works closely with supermarkets such as Aldi and Waitrose to redistribute unsold food to St Petrock’s and other local organisations. The charity also welcomes leftovers from parties and events. Terri particularly relishes the Harvest Festival period in Autumn when some of the best organic produce from farmers’ markets finds its way into the St Petrock’s kitchen. All the fresh food is kept cool in the old church’s enormous cellar hidden below a trap door down an innocuous hallway.

Around the corner lie shower and laundry facilities for clients to freshen up. A hairdresser and chiropodist also visit every week or so to provide specialist head to toe assistance, as well as advice on how to best deal with the unforgiving elements.

Once fed and washed, most clients are taken to a huge room out back stocked from floor to ceiling with second hand clothing. On the floor lies a mountain of freshly pressed socks waiting to be paired. Boxes of woollen hats and gloves hang off shelves. All around sleeping bags, rucksacks, thick-set jackets and pairs of tough military-grade boots (“we only accept size 8 and above,” Terri says) stuff Exeter’s biggest walk-in wardrobe.

“Speaking on the phone to someone from a benefit agency is too much of a barrier for some clients – especially if that person asks you invasive questions”

The provision of all essentials – from the meals to the toiletries and clothing – are free if the client does not possess an income. Prices, however, are modest: a fry up and laundry service cost a pound each; showers are 50p. The whole idea of charging these amounts is, Terri says, “to try and instil budgeting skills. We always endeavour to implement a budgeting system so clients learn the value of our services, and how to save up for a weeks’ worth of food.” The aim here is help clients foster commitment to a regular routine and reclaim a sense of responsibility. Only then can they break the cycles that lead to repeat homelessness and once again start to live something approaching a normal life.

A big part of this routine entails managing important administrative tasks. St Petrock’s assists clients in this respect, too. The old church houses around half a dozen computers for visitors to wade through bureaucratic procedures, such as fulfilling employment searches in order to maintain jobseekers’ allowance.

But a deprivation of skills and confidence can quickly cause problems. “Speaking on the phone to someone from a benefit agency is too much of a barrier for some clients – especially if that person asks you invasive questions,” Terri says. “It’s also expensive: without access to a mobile, you’re talking £5 to make the call.” To counter this common problem, St Petrock’s teams up with the local YMCA to run a bi-weekly “Engage Hub” in which staff members sit in with clients on phone calls and teach essential IT skills. After becoming more self-sufficient, Terri finds that “people are more willing to focus on the central part of our work: to find safe and secure accommodation”.

St Petrock’s main drive has always been to help people off the street and into suitable and affordable housing. All the immediate humanitarian aid is predicated on making referrals to housing agencies with a view to secure permanent accommodation. The initial assessment, free meals and tutoring are just the first steps in this long and often difficult journey.

But a rise in the numbers of clients seeking support has put unprecedented strain on the charity’s resources. The number of individuals using the charity’s services increased by 29% last year and, according to the charity’s Annual Report in 2013, over 11,000 client visits were made to advice and emergency services. These figures continue a worrying upward trend: overall visits to St Petrock’s have doubled in the past five years. Terri says the old church now sees up to 75 people pass through its doors every day in a space that struggles to house more than 20 23 people at one time. But all this will hardly be surprising to anyone walking around Exeter’s city centre, where rough sleepers line the high street with depressing familiarity.

st petrocks in numbers

It’s also unsurprising to learn that 90% of St Petrock’s clients are men. But, once again, this figure is unlikely to accurately represent Exeter’s homeless demographic. “Women are more vulnerable than men,” Terri explains. “It’s far more dangerous for them to sleep rough on the streets than it is for a man, so they tend to be a bit more hidden.” This increased vulnerability leaves many women open to exploitation: “Women will often sofa surf. It’s often safer for them to stay in a predatory relationship when they know the person rather than sleep rough. A lot of women sleeping on the streets will enter into an abusive relationship purely because it’s more secure for them than being alone.”

But perhaps the biggest danger facing all homeless people is more innocuous, as Terri knows all too well. “I was homeless for a brief period,” she continues. “The main thing I found was that time was my total enemy. I was always waiting for somebody to go somewhere so I could have somewhere to sleep. I was thinking ‘what do I do to waste time until I can go to my friend’s sofa?’”

Time can be corrosive, and too much of it leaves gaping holes in one’s day. It’s true that many homeless people – especially rough sleepers – turn to drugs and crime to fill these voids. Just over half of St Petrock’s visitors last year had an offending history. But Terri is quick to puncture the idea that homeless people enjoy idly wasting time looking for their next hit, pointing instead to the links between addiction and mental health issues. It is tempting to dismiss Terri’s defensive comments as excusing criminal behaviour, but the facts speak for themselves. According to St Petrock’s Annual Report, almost half of the charity’s clients were either diagnosed with a mental illness or were suspected of having one. A recent Salvation Army study, meanwhile, found that 90% of rough sleepers suffering from addiction did not have a drug problem before they were sleeping on the streets. If abusers are using now, the study concluded, it is generally a result of their circumstance.

Of course, these challenging circumstances arise for complex reasons. It’s unwise and unfair to generalise. But during my conversation with Terri recurring themes emerge: a background in care, mental health issues, a smattering of domestic abuse, sudden job loss – all these things can wreck lives and deprive people security, control and, perhaps most importantly, a functioning family unit. It’s little wonder then that 8% of St Petrock’s clients are ex-servicemen who struggle to assimilate back into civilian life. Loss of some sort seems to bind all these different stories together.

It is as this deflating juncture that I find myself wondering aloud: if such loss can often be attributed to circumstances beyond an individual’s control, then surely the government should put safeguards in place and provide more comprehensive support for the vulnerably housed? This question prompts the hitherto loquacious Terri to fall silent. Her measured response is a case study in diplomacy. “It’s a difficult one to answer, and I can only speak from a personal perspective. There’s obviously a housing crisis in England. That’s a huge issue. I’d say that we need some more affordable homes built, and more funding for bodies like ours is always welcome.”

Terri’s cagey response can perhaps be explained by the delicate political situation many smaller charities find themselves in. In a precarious funding climate, third sector organisations must refrain from being too openly critical or face alienating potential backers. A charity report lambasting local council strategy is unlikely to invite future investment. But, as Terri puts it, “stating the facts can sometimes be offensive.”So it is left to other less inhibited organisations to state these facts as regularly and clearly as possible, and try to objectively explain how they came about in the first place. Predictably, many lay the blame firmly at Number 10 Downing Street’s door.

“This is not an easy life anymore, chum. I think you’re a slacker” – Iain Duncan Smith

A recent Homelessness Monitor study offered a searing assessment of the government’s record on housing, identifying welfare reforms as fuelling England’s rapidly worsening homelessness crisis. The study found that the bedroom tax contributed to an 18% rise in repossession actions by social landlords in 2013-14, while housing benefit cuts played a “large part” in a third of all homelessness cases caused by landlords ending a private rental tenancy. The 24 same cuts then made it harder for those who lost their homes to be rehoused. These housing reforms coincided with devastating benefit sanctions that seemed intent on penalising the poor for, well, being poor.

“This is not an easy life anymore, chum. I think you’re a slacker,” Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, warned benefit claimants in an interview with the Sunday Times in 2012. His comments conjured up a pool of lifelong idlers, but in 2012, of the 1.5 million people claiming jobseeker’s allowance, barely 0.3% had been claiming for five years or more. But Duncan Smith was right about one thing: it’s no easy life for those feeling the sharp end of the welfare cuts.

Duncan Smith’s churlish comments were not only factually incorrect; they also revealed a wilful misconception about poverty, and homelessness in particular: that it is a lifestyle choice, something to be sought and savoured. In Duncan Smith’s mind, poverty is attributed to personal failure. To be poor is to be weak and underserving. Any state assistance is dismissed as feeding the parasite. When this attitude is applied to the homeless, the message is uniform and clear: you’ve made your cardboard bed, chum. Now it’s time to lie in it.

George Orwell summed up this survival of the wealthiest mentality in his book Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. “People seem to feel that there is some essential difference between beggars and ordinary ‘working’ men,” he wrote. “They are a race apart – outcasts, like criminals and prostitutes” and deemed “worthless in their very nature.” Yet, Orwell continues, “when one looks closely one sees that there is no essential difference between a beggar’s livelihood and that of numberless ‘respectable’ people”; it only seems that way because “money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised.” Over 80 years have passed since Orwell’s observation, but Duncan Smith’s regressive ideology and anti-humanitarian cuts prove the governing response to the impoverished remains largely the same.

A different understanding of homelessness is clearly needed, and St Petrock’s – with its research, allocation of aid and personalising referral strategy – is leading the way. “One of the faults of charities in the past has been to respond with just humanitarian aid: ‘these people are hungry; let’s give them food!’” Terri concludes, before drawing on an analogy. “For too long we’ve been occupied with pulling people out of the river of poverty as opposed to going upstream and finding out how and why they’re falling in. We need a balance between meeting humanitarian needs and petitioning both local and national councils.”

But with many smaller charities reluctant to estrange potential financers, a fundamental question lingers: precisely whose job is it to champion advocacy and petition the government for social change? In an open lecture on homelessness hosted by the Guild earlier this year, Paul Cloke, Human Geography professor at the Univeristy of Exeter, argued that small, localised organisations such as St Petrock’s form “possible places where we can start to build new public movements… where there’s potential to build networks of more progressive ethics and politics that turns a groundswell movement into a cohesive national operation.”

Yet Terri, who attended the lecture, remains unconvinced. “Paul envisions a bubbling up from the surface that can impact the higher powers. Personally, I feel that the void is too big. Sometimes you do hear about success stories and you think you can influence local policies that have an impact on a wider scale. But it’s a big struggle.” With the government intent on scaling back welfare provision even further, and stereotypes of the homeless still deeply entrenched, the struggle is only going to get tougher for St Petrock’s and its clients.

As I get up to leave, Terri offers a downbeat summary: “there’s always things we can do on a micro level, but deeper issues exist on a macro scale.” Her words seem to capture the prevailing mood and, leaving through the old church doors, I’m struck by how all the charity’s outstanding efforts cannot help but be tempered by a profound pessimism.

Of course, St Petrock’s will rightly keep surging upstream to provide life-saving insulation for those who need it most. But, to build on Terri’s analogy, the river they face is quickly gathering momentum and claiming more victims. For every client that is successfully rehoused, the sad reality is that more and more local faces are just as likely to find a home on the old church walls.

 You can learn more about the work that St Petrock’s do and donate on their website stpetrocks.org.uk.