The volunteer run Tent City in Doncaster is both a warning sign and a ray of hope. Yorkshire Party Deputy Leader, Chris Whitwood, explains the importance of tackling homelessness in Doncaster.
Having visited Doncaster’s tent city a number of times, one cannot fail to be moved by the sense of community that has emerged. Members of the public giving food and sleeping equipment, volunteers giving up time and energy, and a community amongst the residents themselves because, as it says on one of the tents, they are ‘Homeless but not Hopeless’.
To some, the tent cities popping up in many towns across Yorkshire are another alarm bell to a political establishment for whom all is far from well. However, they are also a sign of something more positive – local communities coming together to highlight and attempt to find a solution to an issue that affects all of us… and homelessness does affect all of us. From the business owner coming into work to discover someone has spent the night on the doorstep, to the weekend shoppers, who want to go into town with their family without being asked if they could spare any change, the repercussions of failing to tackle homelessness reach beyond just the individual who is sleeping rough.
In Doncaster, it is estimated that around 70 people are sleeping rough at any one time. Addressing homelessness and its root causes must therefore transcend traditional political divides; party politics, left or right, leave or remain. It doesn’t matter where you sit on the political spectrum, breakfast means breakfast. The tent city is an example of members of the community coming together to provide those less fortunate than themselves with warm clothes, a safe place to sleep, and a decent meal.
If we are to tackle homelessness effectively, it is imperative that we tack its root causes. There is a stereotype that anyone who is homeless is a drug addict or alcoholic. Whilst it would be naive to pretend this is never a factor there are also a number of other causes – lack of job security resulting from short term or zero hours contracts, issues around mental health, and sudden changes in personal circumstance.
The city of Medicine Hat in Alberta, Canada, has substantially reduced homelessness amongst its 61,000 strong population by adopting a policy of ‘Housing First’. According to the city’s Mayor, Ted Clugston:
"It used to be, 'You want a home, get off the drugs or deal with your mental health issues… If you're addicted to drugs, it's going to be pretty hard to get off them, if you're sleeping under a park bench."
Yorkshire Party Deputy Leader, Chris Whitwood, in conversation with Les, one of the volunteers at Doncaster Tent City (click to watch the full interview).
This statement has been echoed by volunteers at Doncaster Tent City. One explained that the tent city had helped reduce drug and alcohol use:
“It’s because they’re in a friendly environment. They can talk to each other about it. They’ve not got that issue with having to sit on the street all day and look for food and money for the drugs and ale because, the simple reason is, they’re forgetting about it. Their mind occupied by something else; by cleaning the camp or helping us give food and things like that.”
One homeless resident of Doncaster’s tent city (who for the purpose of this piece shall also be nameless), stands out in my mind in particular. When we first met he was scruffy; his beard was unkempt and he looked (and to be brutally honest, also smelled) unwashed.
The second time I met him, I didn’t recognise him. He was clean shaven, dressed in warm clothing and, most noticeably of all, held himself with a rediscovered air of hope. Contrary to the stereotype, he had neither an addiction nor mental health issues. As a result, he had been told that he was ineligible for some of the support being arranged for others in the tent city. The welfare state provides a safety net, yet the problem with nets is that sometimes people slip through the gaps.
Whilst praising the overwhelming generosity of the public and acknowledging Doncaster Council’s efforts - permitting the use of Council land for the tent city and providing temporary sanitation - he expressed a sense of having been left in limbo:
“We’re not living here. We’re existing. This isn’t anyway to live.”
That is why the Yorkshire Party is calling on Doncaster Council to rehouse all residents of the tent city, providing ongoing mental health and social service support for those who need it, so the site can be closed by Christmas.
If we want to make Yorkshire a better place and build a brighter future for everyone, it’s up to us to work together to make it happen. Even though the tent cities offer only a short term solution to a much longer term problem, they show that people in their local area, working together as a community, can begin to make a real difference.
Note: Published in the Yorkshire Post - 'Chris Whitwood: Tent City Is Both a Warning Sign and a Ray of Hope' on Wednesday 14th December 2016.