On Sunday 21st January 2018, Kevin Filsell (65) settled down to sleep under the flyover in Braidley Road car park in Bournemouth. He was found dead the following morning. His sad passing comes at a time when the bankruptcy of the current government's social policies is becoming painfully evident. Throughout the country, people forced into homelessness are freezing to death. Many others are experiencing incredible hardship.
Bournemouth Council, led by an overwhelming Conservative majority, is now in the spotlight of the national media. Numerous TV stations, newspapers and social media commentators are reporting to an audience of millions the utter failure of the Council's efforts to tackle widespread homelessness and social deprivation in our town. In fact, those efforts increasingly appear to be aggravating the problem and causing further hardship to the some of most vulnerable people in Bournemouth.
An 'Update on Homelessness Strategy', authored by the Council's Homelessness Strategy Manager, Caroline Roundhill, dated 5 April 2016, sets out, on page 8 an enforcement approach, which includes:
"Frequent wake-ups, disruption and cleansing from the Rough Sleeper Team, Police and street cleaning team."
In recent years, a variety of aggressive measures have been put into practice on behalf of Councillor Robert Lawton, Portfolio Holder for Housing in Bournemouth.
Bagpipe music was blared across the National Express Coach Station to chase away anyone wishing to rest there, public benches have been 'redesigned' to prevent anyone lying down and spikes have been placed on street sides where someone might have sat down. What is more, private business-funded Town Rangers now patrol the town centre with the foremost purpose of chasing away people asking for money or having to sleep rough - the very victims of the Conservative government's ever-extensive cuts to social services. Another inhumane spearhead strategy of Bournemouth Council that made it into the national news is handing one-way tickets 'home' to the supposedly alien homeless.
Yet, these and further very costly policies have not ended homelessness and rough-sleeping in Bournemouth. Instead, those in such circumstances have been pushed out of the town centre and into the surrounding neighbourhoods and more remote areas. This causes further hardship as they are forced to sleep away from the few vital support services that remain in the town, and it shifts the pressure onto individual wards.
This out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach of the Conservatives leading Bournemouth Council is further evidenced in the outsourcing of core homelessness support services to a Scotland-based charity called St. Mungo's. While the success of such outsourcing is questionable and should be reassessed critically in the face of the overall national plight of outsourcing policies, Bournemouth Councillors seem happy to have shifted the responsibility.
Days before Kevin's death, Cllr Robert Lawton was asked at length about the homelessness problem in the Council chamber by one of the few (only 3) non-Tory Councillors there. His official response referred to homelessness as being 'a lifestyle choice' for some and left many in the audience at that meeting feeling he has no understanding of the plight of those who find themselves in the harshest of circumstances.
Bournemouth has insufficient emergency shelters for the homeless and it seems that the hostel places available are far too few. Beyond the immediately visible misery of homelessness on our town's streets, it is important to keep in mind that many individuals and families also suffer behind the scenes. They may be sofa surfing, or have been placed in dangerous or harmful provision in often derelict Bed and Breakfasts and other temporary accommodation of very poor quality.
At the same time, in the same town, there were more than 830 properties that have been unoccupied for 6 months or more. Of these, 151 have been empty for 2 or more years. Most recently, Council policy supported consigning another 30 citizens to homelessness when it awarded planning permission to Pierfront Developments for the demolition of the former Belgravia Hotel, which is currently home to 30 people who are fearful that they will find nowhere safe to go. In reality, the Council has powers and options to help homeless and temporarily accommodated families but does nothing.
We desperately need change in Bournemouth. It should not take someone dying alone and cold to bring that change, but now that has happened, we cannot ignore it and carry on as before.