As I walk through Digbeth every morning to work, it's hard not to notice the growing number of people sleeping rough in passages and shop doorways. It's always been a reality but worryingly it's becoming a more common sight.
The rise in homelessness is well-documented. According to Homeless Link, between 2010 and 2015 the number of people sleeping rough in England increased by 102%. Another concerning fact is that the Birmingham local authority is the region with the highest rate of rough sleeping in England. In 2012, it wasn't even in the top ten.
This is just the public side of homelessness. It's a complex situation with other groups including the hidden homeless, the single homeless and the vulnerably housed.
The problem in Birmingham is not being ignored by the city's social enterprises. Digbeth has the highest concentration of social enterprises in the country. Together, these 70 organisations have formed a network under the initiative of the iSE, known as the Digbeth Social Enterprise Quarter.
Recently, the members have pulled together to help one of their fellow organisations, SIFA Fireside. SIFA offer practical support to the vulnerable, homeless and socially excluded.
The "Help the Homeless" initiative was started in June this year. In the first week of every month, the iSE accept donations from a list of items that are needed by SIFA. They then take these to SIFA to be distributed to the people who need them.
I spoke to Cath Gilliver, Chief Executive of SIFA, to find out more about the homeless situation in Birmingham and their work to support those affected.
ETV: Tell me about the work that SIFA Fireside do in Digbeth. What are the aims?
CG: We run a very busy Day Centre for people who are homeless or vulnerably housed which is open 7 days a week, including 3 weekday evenings, with an average of 150 people accessing our services each weekday.
Our aim is to provide immediate support and a safety net for people in crisis, such as meals, showers and help to find temporary & permanent accommodation. We then work with them to tackle the underlying reasons for their situation which, as examples, may be mental or physical health problems, addiction, offending, or lack of life skill.
We do this through providing daily health surgeries (in partnership with the NHS) as well as projects to divert people away from addiction and offending through arts sessions, training & volunteering. We also have a weekly Job Club & organise work placements with local firms.
In the last six years, what changes have you seen take place in Digbeth and the people that SIFA helps?
We moved to Digbeth in late 2012 and over this time we’ve seen the area go a bit more ‘upmarket’. But we’re also pleased to have other charities nearby and we get support from some of the newer art galleries. We’ve also seen a 50% increase in the numbers accessing our services over the past 2 years.
Digbeth High Street. Photo courtesy of Elliott Brown.
According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, Birmingham has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country. What do you see are the ways of responding to this challenge?
I think the main need is for more social housing and for a crackdown on the minority of private landlords whose property is in a poor condition and who evict people too readily.
We’d also strongly support an Alternative Giving campaign covering the city centre to encourage people to give to a central fund rather than to individual beggars. This way, the money can be targeted towards helping people to move on out of homelessness.
Finally, how can people support SIFA Fireside?
We’re very grateful for the support from iSE in relation to collecting food, clothes & toiletries which are used in our daily ‘drop in’ sessions.
Our other two main needs at present are for financial support (a regular standing order, however small, is really helpful to ensure we can pay our bills and keep our doors open), along with volunteers to assist with admin, reception duties, and fundraising.
To make a donation, visit the SIFA Fireside Just Giving page.
After speaking to Cath, I caught up with Emma Nugent, Business Consultant at iSE. I asked her about their new initiative to support SIFA and how others can get involved.
ETV: Tell me about your new initiative to help the homeless in Digbeth.
EN: The aim of the iSE network is to encourage inter-trading, peer to peer support, sharing information, knowledge, and skills, and also raise awareness of the impact of social enterprise.
iSE are aware of the issue of homelessness through its member organisations. Also, staff have personally seen the increase in homelessness locally and decided to do something about it.
We contacted SIFA Fireside to see whether they would be happy for us to carry out the initiative and in particular what they would need so as to ensure that what we collect on their behalf would be beneficial.
Since setting up the initiative, it's been extended and circulated to encourage awareness and participation with both public sector and local private sector businesses.
This initiative is one that won’t take many resources for iSE but it can have a large impact on SIFA Fireside, the homeless locally and therefore the local area and community.
Other initiatives and partnerships do already exist within the network and we hope for that to continue dependent upon member and community needs.
If people want to donate items, where can they find out more details, such as drop off dates and items that are needed?
Keep an eye out on the iSE website and Twitter. In the first week of each month, we will be accepting a collection of items donated from the list on the website. These can be dropped off at iSE’s offices: Avoca Court, 23 Moseley Road, Digbeth, Birmingham, B12 0HJ.
SIFA Fireside is based at 48 - 52 Allcock Street, Birmingham B9 4DY. Call them on 0121 766 1700 or email [email protected]