Together we can help end homelessness

Heather Petch is project managing the Westminster Homeless Action Together (WHAT) project. Here’s why:

"After this week of shocking, tragic news, both at home and abroad, it is so heartening and inspiring to see communities coming together to support each other in shared grief.

"Communities are powerful things. That shared sense to unite, to better understand, to lean on each other, can make a huge difference and effect real change.

"That’s the idea behind Westminster Homeless Action Together (WHAT) – that a group of more than 200 volunteers will come together during a week in July to go out on to the streets of Westminster and talk to people sleeping rough. And that through those conversations and a deeper understanding of what has led people to sleep on the streets, we as a wider London community will be better placed to suggest ways forward, really help improve the situation of those people and prevent others from ending up street homeless in the future.

"We’re not doing this in isolation. WHAT is itself a partnership of charities working together, with the support of Westminster City Council, and with volunteers coming from an amazing mix of businesses, universities, faith groups and concerned individuals.

"WHAT is also not a one off London project. It’s part of the European End Street Homelessness campaign and the responses our volunteers receive in their conversations with people sleeping rough will be included in learning from surveys that have already taken place in two of the other six pilot cites – Valencia and Barcelona. 

"I was struck by a tribute paid to Jo Cox MP by one of her fellow MPs that: “... She had an energy that left most of us feeling we had to lie down exhausted”. Other colleagues praised her lack of cynicism, her dogged determination to make common cause across party lines to find a way to solve seemingly intractable problems – such as Syria.

"That sense of passion and commitment pushing real change is why I’m involved in WHAT.

"Rough sleeping in Westminster may seem a long way from Syria but it is a complex and growing problem. More and more friends, family or people I meet ask me about this. They comment on seeing more people sleeping on the streets in which they live or work.

"They are right. The 2016 Crisis Homelessness Monitor reported a rough sleeping increase in London of 37% between 2010 and 2014; the rise in Westminster accounted for the greatest proportion of this.

"Charities working with the City Council and a network of London-wide agencies continue to succeed in making sure that 60 to 70% of people sleeping rough in Westminster do not spend more than one night on the streets. But numbers are rising.

"In Westminster, where many people feel safe because it’s busy 24/7, we know that a large proportion of people sleeping rough have mental or physical health problems and often a fear and distrust of services. Some people are migrants, some are working but perhaps on low pay and others are not entitled to any public benefits.

"Through the WHAT community action week in July, and the responses our volunteers find out from our survey, we want to deepen our understanding of what people need to get off the streets for good.

"Of course we know that housing is a part of this; it will be difficult for many of the most vulnerable people on the streets to get on top of problems that have overwhelmed them until they get housing. This is why Housing First is one of the key principles of the European End Street Homelessness campaign. We want to know how we can make this work in London. 

"But my other aim for WHAT is that it inspires our volunteers - and a broader mix of the Westminster and London community - to listen, learn and help move things forward. Together we can do more to help end homelessness."