A storm to weather: why I’m still fighting for homelessness funding

Oliver Townsend has been part of campaigns to protect housing support funding for almost a decade.

Now, as many in the sector are warning things are harder than they’ve ever seen, he reflects on whether we can hold onto hope.

I realised this year that I have been writing about the Housing Support Grant (or its previous iteration, the Supporting People Programme) now for almost a decade. When I moved back to Wales in 2014, I hadn’t really heard of it. That’s because in England, it had faded away after the ringfence was removed. 

It’s now my ninth year in Wales, with the last three years in Platfform. And I’m still writing about the Housing Support Grant (HSG). 

There’s a sadness to that, as I write it. My whole working life has been under the shadow of austerity. My whole working life acting with hundreds of thousands of other people across the UK as a sort of rearguard. Keep fighting, keep arguing, keep explaining, and perhaps eventually people will understand.  

I wanted to write this blog for the #HousingMattersWales campaign, and I will. But I do need to acknowledge the weariness, the bone-deep exhaustion, that I feel when writing it. I struggled even to think about what to put down.  

So I turned, as I often do, to music. And one of my favourite singers, the radical left-wing firebrand and all-round good egg, Grace Petrie. Her song, Storm to Weather, feels so relevant this year. More on that later. 

We shouldn’t have to do this every year

This will be the ninth year I have been part of a campaign to protect homelessness funding in Wales. I just can’t shake the feeling that we shouldn’t have to do this every year.  

It is one of the undersold accomplishments of the previous Labour government in Westminster, that they reduced the numbers of people sleeping rough significantly. By 2010, it had reached the lowest level on record, but it has climbed sharply since.  

Across the UK, the homelessness figures remain high. There is the visible challenge of people sleeping rough, which is the ‘type’ of homelessness most obvious to people; in England alone this increased by 26% up to 2023 (Homelessness Monitor 2023 | England | Crisis UK).  

One of the areas which is seeing greater strain in Wales is temporary accommodation, with the previous Welsh Government data (Homelessness: April 2022 to March 2023 | GOV.WALES) showing an increase in households placed in temporary accommodation of 23%, and temporary B&B accommodation an increase of 29%.  

In some ways this is a positive – more individuals accommodated safely away from the streets where longer-term harm is more likely. However, it also reflects a significant failure in the system – people don’t have properties they can move into, and so they often become placed in these forms of accommodation for a long period of time. 

When we consider that people experiencing any form of homelessness are likely to have experienced higher levels of trauma or distress than the general population, it is clear why it is so important to have support wrapped around people in their time of need. That’s where most of the services funded by the Housing Support Grant are found. 

They are there in those dark moments when people need help, advice, or just a human to talk to

They exist in the spaces between, alongside, before and after statutory services. They are there in those dark moments when people need help, advice or even just a human to talk to. A lot of people employed in these roles have been in similar places before or know people who have. They do brilliant work, guided by their own experience and expertise.  

People they have supported over the years have shared their thoughts. Over the last nine years I have heard so many people who have been supported by HSG services. 

I feel those stories in my heart. 

I remember people I’ve spoken to in every single campaign. It has become something deeply personal. It has helped people I care about.  

Words echo from the past as I write this blog. Words like “miracle worker”, “patience of a saint”, “go above and beyond”, “nothing was too much trouble”. Those phrases used to describe the support workers, shared with me by people experiencing homelessness, over the years. 

And the stories of the people who have been helped. They echo too. Of survivors who have rediscovered through freedom and safety, their own words, and their own voices.  

Or of people who were scared, at first, of sleeping in a bed, but who could pick up the phone and speak to a support worker who helped them through it.  

Or of people who were terrified of leaving the house, but who were helped to come to terms with that.

The Housing Support Grant prevents a greater cost to the budget. It’s evidenced, it works, and it is a positive difference

It can sound dramatic, and perhaps it is, but it is the truth: every year when we talk about HSG funding, I can remember these stories, and I wonder why we must argue every year for the value of this grant. 

And then there’s the policy person inside me, who is then doubly boggled that we need to make the case not just for a grant that makes a difference to people’s lives, but that makes a difference financially 

It prevents greater cost to the budget. It’s evidenced, it works, and it is a positive difference. 

I don’t say this in an attack. The decisions of course, are made by Welsh Government, in the context of a UK-wide disintegration of our public services. Whilst of course there is a debate about the nature of New Labour’s policies to tackle rough sleeping, the fact remains that this was an area, as was a movement to tackle wider homelessness, that was given real focus and attention. That seems to be lacking at a UK level.  

So I don’t say this as an attack, but I do say this with weariness. Just last week, we submitted our response to the Finance Committeehttps://platfform.org/policy-and-influence/finance-committee-welsh-government-2024-2025-draft-budget-response/where we wrote for the first time ever, that we felt hopeless and powerless as an organisation.  

This is the ninth year I have campaigned for HSG funding. In other years, perhaps, there was a sense that a flat budget settlement might be welcome. This year does feel different. It feels like something significant will change in the sector. Perhaps it will take longer than a year for it to be felt. Perhaps we will weather a storm and come out of the other side. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.  

What I do know, is that the brilliant people we support, and those who support them, are hurting. And increasingly we feel like we can’t help. The distress people experience is increasing. The harms caused by the system are worsening. 

My hope comes from knowing I am not searching for answers alone

This is the ninth year I have campaigned for HSG funding. And I am at my lowest ebb. Which is why I conclude with Grace Petrie, and her song: 

Batten down the hatches love, the night is rolling in 
The clouds are getting darker and you’re scared of what they’ll bring 
And you are searching the horizon for some sign, some little spark 
Of morning that will chase away the dark 

I am searching the horizon for some spark of morning. It’s harder and harder to find it. 

But my hope comes in knowing I am not searching for it alone. 

So if you haven’t already, please join with us as we ask Members of the Senedd to support the #HousingMattersWales campaign – and ask them to prioritise this budget, despite the difficult choices facing them. 

It’s the ninth year I’ve campaigned for HSG funding, and I’m not ready to give up yet.