Homeless In Cambridge: Part 1

Why is homeless such a big problem here in Cambridge? ENQI CHANG investigates in the first of our new series on homelessness.

Big Issue charity homeless Homelessness housing jimmy's shelter Poverty

For many of us, our only contact with homelessness is the awkward avoidance of the Big Issue sellers’ eyes and the occasional disappointing moment when the celebrity interview turns out to be half a page long. But whilst we all know it’s a big problem in Cambridge, few of us really know why. To lift the lid on the problem, The Tab has written a short series on homeless in conjunction with some of the leading charities in the city. Our first part looks at why homelessness is such a problem in Cambridge.

As embedded into the Cambridge landscape as the centuries-old buildings are the Big Issue sellers and the homeless. Tucked in their nooks and crannies, we see them as we dash to lectures and supervisions and occasionally we spare some pennies (if they haven’t all gone in wine).

48,510 individuals were officially declared homeless across England last year: an increase of 14% from 2010. And because of the government’s hard-line stance on reducing homelessness this is often seen as an understatement. In Cambridge the problem is particularly acute.

The causes of homelessness are complex: some are specific to Cambridge, others are more personal. Typical problems are a lack of qualifications, poor mental or physical health, alcohol or substance abuse; family factors might be a dysfunctional family background, a previous experience of family homelessness, or being refused accommodation by a family. Institutional factors include having been in prison or in the armed forces. The cause most often cited is being refused accommodation by a family member, and Jane Heaney, Operations Manager at Jimmy’s Night Shelter in Cambridge, cites a breakdown in family relations as the main reason given by individuals who walk in.

Structural causes were key starting factors of homelessness in Cambridge. It developed in the 1960s, because of slum clearance and a decrease in the availability of private rented housing. There was also the closing down of many mental institutions, resulting in large numbers of previously institutionalised individuals requiring housing.

In the 1980-1990s, this worsened as prices of housing increased, and the structure of housing benefit changed. With rising unemployment, people were less able to rent or purchase housing.

The homeless not only have to deal with a lack of food, health-care or security, but also battle with the merciless cold, wind and recently, rain – particularly when our Junes are as bad as this one. In the past year, according to Cambridge Link-up, 20 members of the homeless community have passed away; and more than 70 over the last few years. Others who may be physically or mentally disabled may often be targets of abuse or have their collections stolen.

Numerous agencies and shelters such as St Mungo’s and Shelter have sprung up in Cambridge and across the United Kingdom to attempt to reduce the number of homeless people as much as possible. But can homelessness ever be eradicated?

In the second part of this feature, we shall be taking a look at what exactly has been done to tackle homelessness in Cambridge, and what outlook there is for homelessness in the future. It’s not all grim news, despite the weather.

The information about homelessness in Cambridge was taken from a publication by Anna Clarke, a member of the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research (CCHPR) within the Department of Land Economy, in conjunction with the Cambridge Cyrenians. The publication is available from the Cambridge Cyrenians, or downloadable from the CCHPR website.