Death toll among Brighton’s destitute fills me with anger and despair

Posted On 13 Oct 2019 at 1:23 am

The toll of deaths in sheltered accommodation should be a national scandal. The issue lies squarely with the government’s austerity policies.

Comment by Caroline Lucas, reproduced with permission of The Guardian

It is every parent’s deepest fear that they might lose their child. When that child is in supported living, and supposedly being looked after, losing them is not only a heartbreak, it feels like a betrayal.

The story of Jake Humm, a talented young musician, fills me with despair and anger, not just because of his early and unnecessary death, but because it appears there were so many warning signs of his deteriorating state, and not enough done to protect him. It is tragic that he was only discovered in his room by staff two days after his death.

I am angry, too, at the continuing toll of deaths in sheltered accommodation in Brighton and the surrounding area, where 31 homeless people temporarily housed by the council have died in only two years.

If this number of deaths was happening among any other sector of the population, it would be a national scandal, dominating the front pages. Instead, it is barely mentioned. It seems we don’t just walk past people living on the streets; we ignore their deaths as well.

Jake was one of my constituents. He was living in supported accommodation provided by a local YMCA which works across Sussex and beyond, housing more than 700 young people with different levels of need, many of whom have experienced homelessness.

Their needs are complex: mental ill health, drug and alcohol abuse, low self-esteem. They need intensive support as they move to more independent living within the YMCA.

Jake was known to local service providers, including the YMCA, and questions need to be asked about why he wasn’t getting the level of support he needed. Ultimately, he was badly let down.

The issue does not, however, lie solely with YMCA DownsLink, which had care of Jake. It lies squarely with the government and its austerity programme which, far from supporting vulnerable young people, has sought to whittle away what little help they had.

It has slashed youth support services, tried to deny them housing benefit until forced into a U-turn, capped the amount of rent that housing benefit would cover in the social and private sector, and then, to add salt to the wound, put policies in place which starved housing associations of income so they were unable to build the social homes that are so desperately needed.

Supported housing projects were particularly hard hit, losing hundreds of thousands of pounds. The first service to go? Support for vulnerable residents.

The failing is worse than that. Any institution providing care – whether for patients, children or elderly or disabled people – should be regulated and subject to inspection. But with some vulnerable children being placed in unregulated homes because of a lack of “secure beds”, there are huge gaps in supervision and accountability which urgently need addressing.

Jake Humm

A BBC investigation recently reported that thousands of teenagers and young adults across the country have been placed in these homes, many run by private companies accountable to shareholders with no official oversight because they are not care homes. That is a scandal.

The government puts responsibility for inspecting these homes on local councils who place young people in their care. But this is not a statutory requirement, and unsurprisingly proper inspections have fallen victim to savage austerity cuts, leaving thousands of young people at risk.

The government is belatedly waking up to this and says unregulated accommodation may need to be licensed and registered to keep children safe – a completely inadequate response. It continues to ignore calls from the children’s commissioner for proper regulation.

Nationwide, that means some 5,000 looked-after children in England, supposedly in the care of their local children’s services, are being housed in supported accommodation which is not inspected or registered by Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission or anyone else.

It’s hardly surprising that stories are now emerging of organised abuse at some of these homes. YMCA DownsLink is a registered social housing provider, and is itself calling for a new regulatory framework for supported housing. That’s a call that I support.

 

This country has been living with a housing crisis for decades, and Brighton has been particularly hard hit. The mass sale of social housing since the 1980s has enriched some families and left hundreds of thousands of others at the mercy of private landlords. Too many privately rented homes are substandard, and families are vulnerable to being made homeless because of sudden rent rises or unjust evictions.

Destitution, rough sleeping and homelessness are on the rise and so are the social problems that go with them. It would be tempting to say this is a hidden problem. But it’s not hidden; we can all see it.

Organisations such as the YMCA are there to help some at risk of falling through the cracks. Organisations providing care for young people should be properly regulated and held to account when they fail in that duty.

Caroline Lucas is the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion. This article first appeared in the Guardian.

  1. Rolivan Reply

    Social Services has learnt nothing about the vulnerable since the tragic death of Maria Colwell more than 40 years ago.

  2. Chris Reply

    Maybe if the council didn’t nod through so many student flats and HMOs there might be a bit more family housing too. The Lewes Road area is getting full so the London Road is the next target with Boots and The Co-Op being demolished to make way for more students. Other possible developments for family housing seem to drag on for years with nothing getting done – King Alfred, Hove Station, Hangleton, Ovingdean.

    • Sarah S.W. Reply

      I Agree, there should be a requirement that if they want to build student housing in an area, then half should be for local residents! If only!

      Mind you, WHO can afford £300,000 plus for a new 1 bed flat apart from “down from Londen” types, or only being able to buy a small percentage of it and rent the rest?

      Brighton needs more smaller not-for-profit homes for younger working people and singletons, family homes, and NOT more student flats who in a lot of cases (I was a student once but never like today’s lot) are noisey, messy, and don’t give a monkey’s about their neighbours, yes, we live on a road with six student houses out of about forty on the road!

      Thank goodness for double glazing as nobody would get any sleep otherwise during term time!

      • Sarah S.W. Reply

        My apologies for a spelling mistake or two, before some clever person points it out.

  3. Barbara bonnot Reply

    My 17 year old son died in the care of s s because thaymoved him out of a 24 hour theupuitic children’s home because he was 17 no risk assement dine done that he took his own life whebarn me a mother begged them not to

  4. gilbert bligh Reply

    Does she actually really give a damn about the homeless and housing crisis in Brighton? – presiding in a constituency that almost exclusively builds new homes/developments for students – many from overseas, not the EU, either but China and Asia – to the detriment of everyone else, including the very vulnerable people she is now jumping on the bandwagon of, and scandalously and vilely using their tragic death to further her own political ends.
    This is a national scandal – how people like Lucas and Dianne Abbott are voted in is an affront to decency and democracy. Bear in mind that it was only a short time ago that she was campaigning against women being able to exhibit their breasts on page 3 – that truly shows the depth of the woman, when you look at all the other pressing issues currently afflicting our society.

  5. Hovelassies Reply

    Hear, Hear! BHCC Adult Social Care happily dumps people in revolting private slum “temporary emergency” accommodations “hostels”. These places are grim in every way… and the coroner continues to turn a blind eye to the excess deaths of young people in these places. Several, but not all, have been reported in the local press over the last few years. BHCC pays the landlords profligate and inflated amounts of our money for conditions that do not meet decent homes standards or any reasonable standard of modernity and decoration. Yuk, Yuk. BHCC turns a blind eye to lapsed HMO licenses and allows these slum hostels to continue operating without valid license, all the time looking the other way and dishing out the cash to the landlord. The collusion between BHCC and the private operators of the unregulated slum hostels has all the hallmarks of corruption and should be investigated.

  6. Valerie Mainstone Reply

    Thank you Caroline for a completely accurate and truthful article. As a local member of the Green Party, I hope our Green Councillors will collaborate with Labour Councillors to tackle the local problems, but we also need a change of national government. The current government seems to “know the price of everything, and the value of nothing” as Oscar Wilde once said. Good quality social housing for all who need it, at every stage of life, has to be a priority. “Affordable” housing is way out of reach for people subsisting on benefits, or people on B&H wages. Additional student accommodation cannot resolve these problems. If only Caroline ruled the world!

  7. ROB H Reply

    I agree with some of the comments in the article, even though she is possibly misusing a personal case. Did she ask permission from the family to comment?? Also, the Greens FAILED TO PROVIDE AFFORDABLE, SOCIAL AND SUPPORTED HOMES WHEN THEY CONTROLLED THE COUNCIL. Also, the Green Councillors closed down and sold off the Community Mental Health Centre in Buckingham Road. Quite a lot of hypocrisy here then!

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