Torbay's social services, council and churches have shown what can be done

Sad Homeless old man or beggar head down and sit on city walk. Poverty with depression feeling in wi

The most severe form of poverty is seen on our streets as homelessness. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In the lockdown I’ve started some genealogy and found that my four-times great grandfather was an Irish archbishop.

This sounded impressive until I read one of his revolutionary ideas. Anyone convicted of begging should have his feet branded so that, if he were found begging again, everyone would know.

Apart from not being particularly Christian, he must have also assumed that beggars could not afford shoes and socks.

He was following the idea which goes back to Queen Elizabeth I‘s Poor Law. This made the distinction between the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor.

Sadly, there are still echoes of this idea in the 21st century although even the most extreme politician does not suggest branding the poor.

The most severe form of poverty is seen on our streets as homelessness. Homelessness is always miserable but is even worse throughout the winter.

Unlike my ancestor, Torbay churches and the Salvation Army have decided to help without any branding.

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During the coldest months from January to March they opened their premises to offer a warm and safe bed for the night with a hot breakfast the next morning. No-one living on the street is undeserving.

Seven churches in Paignton followed by another seven in Torquay offer one night a week for up to 12 people.

There are 300 volunteers throughout the Bay cooking and overseeing the project.

And this is in addition to the excellent work of the council and the Leonard Stokes Centre in Factory Row, Torquay. 

This has not been easy during the pandemic. Any emergency accommodation must not become a hub for Covid. Socially distancing is vital and could be life-saving. 

The council stepped up with individual short-term placements with social distancing while the churches’ volunteers provided pre-packed meals. 

There was also a national programme during the pandemic.

Fairly early on it was realised that the homeless on the streets were at serious risk from Covid.

The Government, with support from charities and local councils, managed to provide emergency accommodation for 34,000 people nationally since March 2020.

The roll-out of the vaccine has been amazing but there has also been amazing progress in tackling rough sleeping. 

When offering emergency accommodation, it turned out that the problem was far worse than the official figures suggested.

More than seven times the number of official rough sleepers needed support.  

So how do people end up homeless?

Whatever Queen Elizabeth I thought, they are not the 'undeserving poor'.

Homelessness can start with redundancy, ill health or a relationship breakdown. Their landlord may repossess their flat, sometimes illegally but they are not in a position to take legal action. They may not even realise it was illegal. 

In Torbay many small hotels close for the winter losing temporary housing and even staff accommodation. 

Some people released from prison may not find anywhere to live.  

Homelessness becomes a vicious circle. Once on the street health deteriorates.

Without a fixed address, finding a job or even accessing benefits is difficult.

To access the NHS everyone needs to register with GP but this requires a home address. 

Landlords ask for references and a deposit. On the street people have neither.

When desperate for money they are easy targets for drug dealers.

It is also dangerous. They can be physically attacked. 

A recent Government survey found that 60 per cent of rough sleepers have a problem with drugs or alcohol and over 80 per cent reported physical or mental health problems.

As we slowly come out of lockdown it is vital that the homeless are not forgotten.

Our social services, council and churches have shown what can be done. Support needs to continue.

We are right to celebrate the heroes of the NHS and carers who have been amazing throughout the pandemic, but we should add the incredible volunteers working to help the homeless.

In Torbay, our churches and council understand that all the poor are deserving.