There’s nothing better in the run up to Christmas than being at home with your loved ones, safe and warm with a mince pie in hand. But for many in Exeter, the winter nights are not so inviting - more than 100 people in the city sleep rough, and beg and busk in order to survive.
That is the finding of a Street Needs Audit carried out by Exeter City Council earlier this month.
According to the audit, which ran from 6am on Thursday December 13 until 3am on Friday December 14, a total of 104 people were seen to be rough sleeping, busking, begging, selling the Big Issue and engaging in nuisance behaviour.
The research, coupled with the council's twice-weekly early morning outreach sessions and information from partners, suggests 30 people in the city are rough sleeping.
The estimate of homeless charity Emmaus is higher still – Kay Hammond, project manager at the charity’s Exeter branch, says 50 people are rough sleeping in the city centre, and a further 300 families are living in temporary, substandard accommodation.
Exeter has the fifth-highest number of rough sleepers and homeless in the UK, and the council's latest audit shows an increase of 30 per cent on 2011.
Mel Hartley, project manager at Exeter homeless charity St Petrock’s, said: “This figure is an estimate based on local intelligence of the number of people verified as rough sleeping on a particular night.
“We know that this figure is the tip of the iceberg as this is the most visible form of homelessness. Many others are rough sleeping hidden away from view, and also many others are sleeping on friends’ floors or in unsuitable accommodation.
“At St Petrock's we saw an increase of 31 per cent over the last 12 months. We are continuing to see increasing numbers of new rough sleepers - in particular people rough sleeping for the first time.
“Last year 284 people accessed our emergency, support and accommodation services at our centre (9,645 visits) and 1,396 people were housed through our centre and prison resettlement services.”
Ms Hartley said from June 2012 to the end of November 2012 St Petrock’s assessed 127 new rough sleepers. Some 39 were newly arrived on the streets, 64 were new to Exeter and 24 were rough sleeping after a period of six months in accommodation.
Some 82 per cent of this group were accessed within 24 hours and 44 per cent avoided a second (or first) night on the streets.
Exeter was one of 19 communities to receive a grant in December 2011 to help those facing homelessness. St Petrock’s was awarded £250,000 to adopt No Second Night Out, an initiative that aims to ensure anyone who ends up on the streets gets helped quickly so they don’t spend a second night out.
“Homelessness is not what you think,” said Kay Hammond, project manager at Emmaus Exeter.
“Yes there are a lot of drugs and alcohol, but there’s also a lot of returning service personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a lot of families – people who never thought they’d end up homeless.
“You cannot necessarily say it’s someone’s fault or that people want to be homeless.”
Emmaus has a long-term approach to supporting homeless people – starting with a social enterprise which over time makes money, the charity establishes communities in which people can live and work. Each member of the 25-strong community has a role, which helps to rebuild their self-esteem.
Ms Hammond added: “Homeless people don’t just lose their homes, they lose their dignity. They feel ashamed and embarrassed; sub-human almost.”
The communities, which cost around £2 million to set up, “give people a bed and a reason to get out of it in the morning”, a spokesperson for Emmaus UK explained.
There are 24 communities across the UK, helping more than 500 people. It is the ultimate goal of Emmaus Exeter to set up a community in the city.
As a means to achieving that goal, the charity has set up a high-end women’s charity boutique, which sells second-hand designer clothing.
Based in 9 Paris Street, Sprout boasts names including Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Boden.
The store was opened in October by Terry Waite, the assistant for Anglican Communion Affairs for the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, in the 1980s.
“We sell high-end designer goods,” Ms Hammond explained. “You’ll find big names and great vintage items from the 1950s – fashion treasure.”
Customers will find designer dresses for between £40 and £80, tops for around £8 and skirts in the region of £12.
Emmaus Exeter’s medium-term objective is to set up a halfway house in which homeless people from the area who have had to go to nearby cities such as Bristol for help can return and live.
“It allows them to take the next step, to come back to where they are from,” Ms Hammond said.
But what can the people of Exeter do to help the homeless over the festive period and in the new year?
“People can donate high quality items to the shop in Paris Street, or volunteer their time,” said Emmaus Exeter’s Ms Hammond. “We have difficulty running the shop on a Saturday so we’re always looking for Saturday staff”.
People can also head to the store to make a cash or cheque donation, the project manager added.
Meanwhile St Petrock's will be open over the Christmas period providing emergency and support, Christmas lunch and basic survival services.
Project manager Mel Hartley said: “Our funding is always at risk so offers of financial support are always appreciated. People can also help with donations of food, sleeping bags, coats and boots.
“If someone is concerned about someone sleeping rough they can contact a 24 hour phone line 0800 151 3441.”
For more information about St Petrock’s visit www.stpetrocks.org.uk.
To find out more about Emmaus Exeter, visit www.emmaus.org.uk/exeter.