About the Hatfield Night Shelter Project
The project had its roots planted back in March 2015 when Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service received reports of a garage on fire in Hatfield. However when the fire-fighting crew gained access to the garage it became apparent that someone had been living inside and that they had unfortunately lost their life.
An investigation was then carried out to determine what the cause of the fire was, but also to determine the answer to the key questions:
- Are there any other persons living within garages?
- If so, how many are there and how much of a problem is it?
A plan was implemented to carry out investigations around known high risk areas such as highly concentrated areas of Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs), large garages and derelict plots, with findings being that there were people rough sleeping within garages and it was a problem.
This gave birth to the award winning fire service initiative “Garage Watch” which had the objectives of:
- Reducing arson related fires within garages
- Target landlords renting garages as housing, and to remove the yearly fly tipped material from the town’s HMO stock
- and most challenging of all to assist those persons who were rough sleeping to keep safe and to engage with agencies into support.
Through working extensively with community stakeholders and partners such as the University of Hertfordshire, Welwyn Hatfield Council, Police, the charity Resolve amongst many others, Hatfield saw fires within garages over two years (2014-16) reduced from 200 to a single garage related fire (2016-17) and it also saw a number of improvement notices issued to landlords.
Although the initiative had proven to be highly successful, that success could only reach so far. There were still a sizeable number of persons rough sleeping within Hatfield with no obvious route out of their situation, particularly if there were complex issues involved such as mental health or substance dependency, and importantly they still remained at risk within the community.
There was great effort placed into identification of rough sleepers and the areas they sleep within. This is a hugely complex and difficult matter to deal with, however results achieved by Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service and community partners has been substantial.
At this point the Garage Watch initiative had successfullly met its objectives and ended, but winter 2016 was quickly approaching with no place for those who were homeless to seek shelter, with the risk of death due to disease, exposure and fire increasing during these cold months.
Why the fire service?
A question that is often asked is “what do rough sleepers have to do with the fire service”. Besides the tragic fire fatality, through the work of Garage Watch, HFRS had identified, alongside the charity Resolve, a large number of persons rough sleeping. These people are extremely vulnerable to disease, substance dependency and violence, and it is those issues which naturally bring further criminal and anti-social behavior elements into the equation, through drug dealing, begging and negatively impacting the public’s perception of crime within the town centre subsequently also damaging local business.
Some of the issues related to rough sleeping are far beyond a single agency’s reach and capability to deal with, however by working together the response to rough sleeping within Hatfield has been made much more effective. For example, the initial Garage Watch forum allowed an area of open discussion and intelligence sharing between partners and highlighted at times areas of differing policies, opinions and occasionally opposing actions that could cause conflict. The forum allowed these issues to be openly discussed and resolved.
HFRS had also developed a large amount of intelligence about where rough sleepers were actually sleeping, which were often in areas that were difficult to access or hazardous – such as derelict garages or buildings. This information could then be passed to those who needed to know such as garage owners, the council and other stakeholders.
Rough Sleeper Packs
In the lead up to the winter 2016 HFRS developed the “Rough Sleeper Pack” and with it the next step along the path to the Hatfield Night Shelter Project. After securing a £500 funding bid from the charity Arise, a number of items were purchased to make 7 complete packs. Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service then worked very closely with Resolve to identify persons who would most benefit and with a set of criteria in mind that the persons receiving the pack would:
- Agree to not sell or lose the pack
- Maintain regular contact with Resolve
- Share their accurate details so that further action and sign posting could be given
Outreach workers from Resolve approached a number of people rough sleeping and the response was very positive and encouraging. Initially three packs were issued following an assessment of the person at risk and how likely they were to respond. The packs were not designed to be given and forgetten – they were intrinsically linked to engagement, responsibility and re-humanising an already de-humanised person. When the packs were issued to a person, a member of HFRS went along with outreach workers from Resolve to open engagement and to also give critical safety advice.
The results have proven to be highly successful. A total of 7 packs were issued throughout the winter and each pack was used throughout that time. Impressively, those people who were rough sleeping who would naturally hide from authority figures were now actively looking for them to engage and say hello! By the end of winter, out of the 7 persons that had received a pack, one was on the path to being re-housed, another was engaging with the YMCA, and another still was on the cusp to fully seeking help to escape the rough sleeper trap and others, despite very complex needs, were still engaging.
But the packs were only a stop gap and not a complete solution.
The next stage
The next stage of our overall project, to reduce harm to those who are rough sleeping and to reduce the impact this has on the local community, is to establish a temporary winter night shelter in Hatfield for those who are homeless or street sleeping.
It is the aim of the project to use the Housing Justice model that is already established in 30 London boroughs, 70 other local authorities and has a proven track record of success in reducing anti-social behaviour, substance dependency, and re-housing, which will utilise local religious groups and volunteers to provide a range of services such as shelter, food, substance dependency and housing needs support.
This will also form part of the borough’ strategy to help those who are homeless and street sleeping and coincides with the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and an increase in funding from central government to the local authority to help tackle the issue. It also coincides with the setting up of a new foodbank in Hatfield coordinated by 3 local churches.
In early 2017 we held a meeting at Hatfield fire station involving around 20 people from a large range of religious denominations, the Housing Justice charity, Resolve, and the head of the Welwyn Hatfield housing needs team. It was agreed in principle that this is an effective way to tackle the complex issues. However, a significant amount of work is needed to organise and plan, develop governance, find suitable locations, raise around £5000, and find 100-400 volunteers to set up and run the night shelter from Nov 2017. We have begun this journey and we are now actively looking for volunteers, venues and equipment.