Church groups step in over people sleeping rough

Elaine MaslinChurch groups in Norfolk have stepped in to give a rising number of rough sleepers camping out in Thetford a roof over their heads on freezing nights as officials try to address the growing problem.Elaine Maslin

Church groups in Norfolk have stepped in to give a rising number of rough sleepers camping out in Thetford a roof over their heads on freezing nights as officials try to address the growing problem.

Five rough sleepers were taken in on Tuesday on the first night of a new scheme by the Salvation Army and Thetford Churches Together as temperatures dipped below zero.

The offer of a bed and hot meal was offered as part of a severe weather action plan being put together by Breckland Council.

The plan aims to prevent anybody sleeping rough in the district when the temperature is predicted to drop to zero degrees centigrade or below in the district over three days.

It comes in the wake of the death of Mariusz Fidos, 33, from Poland, in December of suspected hypothermia when he was sleeping in a tent at Barnham Common in Thetford.

John Walker, Breckland's principal officer for housing advice and homelessness, said the council had been working on a severe weather emergency protocol since September after noticing a rise in rough sleepers, especially people from eastern Europe.

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Mr Walker said part of the problem with rough sleepers was that many did not want to be found, often because they were suspicious of authority.

'For most of the eastern Europeans the reason they are sleeping rough is because they are out of work and cannot claim benefits,' he said, adding that many were reluctant to return home, where it is also much colder, because they face shame and embarrassment as they have travelled to England to find work and send home money.

Police and Breckland staff have already been carrying out pro-active searches to find people who are sleeping rough and if an encampment is found but nobody is there a card, written in different languages, is left offering help.

Breckland has had to use bed and breakfast accommodation to house rough sleepers in severe weather until the authority started working with the Salvation Army and other church groups on Tuesday night.

Up until then nine homeless people had been put up in temporary accommodation since before Christmas, Mr Walker said, as part of an informal agreement to help people during severe weather regardless of their entitlement in normal circumstances.

But he said there was a need for formal guidelines.

The proposed cold weather protocol will see Breckland asking organisations including the Salvation Army, town councils, police and homeless organisations to support their work.

It will also aim to link migrant workers, the majority of the rough sleepers, with employment and services as well as referring them to organisations like the Salvation Army, said Mr Walker.

Val Chaplin, of the Thetford Corps of the Salvation Army, said on Tuesday night five people were referred to them.

Neil Stott, chief executive of the Keystone Development Trust, based in Thetford, said: 'It is very hard to put numbers on rough sleepers but it has become an issue, and with the severe weather it becomes even more of an issue.'

Mr Stott stressed that there was no evidence that there was more than a handful of people sleeping rough in the area and he described Breckland's new protocol as a pragmatic way of dealing with the issue.

But Labour parliamentary candidate for south west Norfolk Peter Smith, who has written to Norfolk's chief constable asking for an urgent inquiry into what happened to Mr Fidos, said Breckland's severe weather emergency protocol was 'better late than never.'

He added: 'I would argue their policy is as little and as late as possible because it costs money.'

Thetford town councillor Terry Jermy added: 'We welcome any support and provision that is available but questions have to asked as to why it wasn't implemented sooner.'