The Streets Of Swansea

Last Monday I watched a programme on BBC 1, Swansea: Living On The Streets, about homelessness in the ugly lovely town. When I realised it was the first of a series I assumed the subsequent programmes would focus on other Welsh cities and towns, but the whole series is devoted to Swansea. I couldn’t understand why . . . until a few days later when I saw an item on the BBC website about homelessness in Wales.
According to the latest statistics Swansea has more people homeless than Cardiff with 2,945 against Cardiff’s 2,020. Or, in percentage terms, 1.27% against 0.59% of the population seeking help. Which is both disturbing and odd. Because in second place, with a figure of 1.25%, is Neath Port Talbot; while in third place, with 0.83%, is Carmarthenshire. It’s reasonable to assume that the Carmarthenshire figure is heavily influenced by Llanelli, so we are really looking at the Swansea conurbation. But why should homelessness be a bigger problem here than anywhere else in Wales? (The full table is on the right, click to enlarge.)

The figures were supplied by the local authorities, so part of the answer must lie in how different councils assess homelessness. There is no other way to explain Flintshire having a figure of 0.07% and Swansea 1.27%. But I don’t think that’s the full answer.

Watching the programme last Monday I was struck by the fact that few, perhaps none, of those telling their stories were actually from Swansea. There were men from other parts of Wales, an Englishman, an Irishwoman and some Romanians. So why are they all in Swansea? If they’re looking for work, then surely Cardiff is the place to be? There must be something other than the sea air attracting them to Swansea and its satellite towns. There is, for I believe these homeless are just pawns in a bigger game.
Shelter Cymru, the homelessness charity, and one of the giants of the third sector, is based in Swansea. (Its president-for-life, John Puzey, was also on television last week, calling for more affordable housing.) Also very active in the Swansea area is Cyrenians Cymru, who help ‘rough sleepers’ (I don’t sleep too well sometimes – does that make me a rough sleeper?). There are other charities like the Salvation Army and various Christian bodies also active in the area, providing help for down-and-outs.
Then add the fact that Swansea is also home to major players in the social / ‘affordable’ housing sector, some of which I have dealt with in the past, such as The Coastal Housing Group, which seems to be both a social housing provider and and a property developer; plus the Gwalia group, which housed the gang of English paedophiles jailed last year. All of which I suggest makes the Swansea conurbation something of a magnet for dossers and those looking for somewhere to live at someone else’s expense.
This also reminds us how fragile is the economy of our second city. We already know that Swansea is over-dependent on public sector jobs, from local government to the DVLA, but there seems to be a blind spot about the third sector, which is also over-represented in the city. The third sector is composed of the kind of organisations I’ve mentioned in the two preceding paragraphs, reliant for their survival on grants and donations. As might be expected in the current economic climate, both sources of income are declining, made clear in the most recent set of accounts available on the Shelter Cymru website. But these are for 2009 / 2010, so we can assume that the position is even more desperate today. Which probably explains what’s happening in Swansea, and at BBC Wales.
With their income streams drying up those in the homelessness and affordable housing business need to stress the problem in order to keep the lolly rolling in . . . and of course to secure the funding needed for hundreds if not thousands of publicly-funded jobs in Swansea. How to do it? Thinks . . . get the Beeb onside then wheel on the dossers . . . let them tell their harrowing tales of self-destruction . . . capture them crying . . . see them sleeping under cardboard – hey presto! more funding is guaranteed. Both for homelessness directly and also the ‘affordable homes’ built by outfits like Coastal Housing and Gwalia which also feed off the ‘homelessness problem’, using it to justify more funding to house more problem tenants.
Here’s my take on this. Human nature being what it is, the third sector contains some unscrupulous people wishing to exaggerate the scale of homelessness in Swansea (and Wales, generally) in order to, a) guarantee their own positions and salaries and, b) make political points about ‘wicked, uncaring capitalism’. Before anyone accuses me of right wing bias, just remember this: most of the third sector in Wales – outfits like AWEMA – must justify their existence and their funding by identifying and stressing a ‘problem’. The bigger that ‘problem’ can be made to appear then the more funding can be claimed. This is an incontrovertible fact.
The problem of homelessness in Wales will only become worse if more funding is allocated to solving it. This is because the more support and funding provided the more an area, like Swansea, becomes a magnet for dossers, junkies, alkies, misfits and criminals. The bottom line is that – due to the Englandandwales framework in which our third sector operates – the better funded our third sector then the bigger the problems will become. Politicians should start waking up to this reality.

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