27 February 2018
( The court notice issued to Homeless residents camping on the Southend Cliffs in 2017. ©Lisa Shirley )
This is unacceptable.
With the recent cold weather, we question if enough action being taken on this issue locally?
While some people are having to sleep on the snow-covered streets, there is an unquantified number of properties across the borough sitting empty.
Over the last few months, we have submitted several Freedom of Information requests to Southend Borough Council with regards to its' Homelessness provision.
Southend Borough Council collected a Council Tax premium on 235 empty properties amounting to over £475,000 in 2016/17.
This means that the council is aware of at least 235 empty properties across Southend, but many Southend residents tell us that this number is much higher.
However, it is concerning to learn that while the council is collecting these extra funds on empty properties, a further FOI request has revealed in the last five years, Southend Borough Council has not executed a single Empty Dwelling Management Order*, with the council's own role of Empty Homes Officer sitting unfilled for more than a year.
*Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs) are a legal device used in England & Wales which enable local authorities to put an unoccupied property back into use as housing.
Why are these EDMO's not being executed in the borough? Could more be done?
The Charities, Church Groups, and an army of volunteers across the borough have to be commended for all they do to alleviate the situation locally, especially in their efforts over the winter period in running the Winter Night Shelter to help keep the homeless off our streets in the bad winter weather.
While Southend Borough Council acknowledges there is an issue here, recently announcing a one-off investment of £75,000 to help combat and support the prevention of homelessness, disappointingly a further Freedom of Information request revealed that for 2017/18, the council donated just £3,480 to the entire Winter Night Shelter program.
This would appear to be a paltry amount considering the large reliance on the continued work form the voluntary sector.
Southend Council has regularly failed to address it's own inaction regarding homelessness, regularly claiming that authorities from outside the borough are paying for one-way rail tickets, and sending their residents to Southend for emergency provision.
We issued a number of FOI's to Southend Borough Council alongside a selection of London Borough Councils with the aim of establishing how many people from outside the Borough have been offered social housing properties in Southend Borough Council properties within the last five years.
The responses received reported zero residents being relocated into the borough; although one authority did not hold the information required in its own records, and another has flatly failed to respond.
With the Borough's Social Housing list estimated to have 2,500 people awaiting homes (which almost certainly excludes those sleeping rough on our streets), could more be done to match those in need with empty homes?
For those that do find themselves homeless, the Council's own website offers advice for what to do. You will need to have access to the internet and be able to spend 10-15 minutes completing the Southend Borough Council Housing Options Wizard.
Even for those that are deemed a priority, it is expected they have completed the Housing Options Wizard before contacting the council in person.
Given that the only public no-cost walk-in internet access provision (The Public Library) requires a permanent address to register, how are Southend's homeless expected to access this online service?
The council website also states “Please be aware that if you don’t have a priority need, we can’t help with accommodation under the homeless legislation”.
We believe that the Council needs to take a more proactive role in tackling the borough's homelessness issues.
For too long Southend Council has relied on the efforts of a handful of charities and an army of volunteers to provide an adequate Homelessness provision.
In our Local Manifesto for Southend, we detail several actions we would implement to help alleviate the struggles of homelessness:
We also believe Southend Council, it's partners, and affiliates, need to stop treating the homeless like criminals.
The aggressive militaristic approach of the Southend BID Street Rangers aided by Police in moving the homeless from the Town Centre does nothing to aid these people.
While it appeases High Street businesses, simply moving these people to where they can no longer be seen does not fix the issue.
In a situation where the most vulnerable in our society are literally dying on our streets, more can and needs to be done about it.