Andover Churches Together held a two hour meeting on Poverty and Homelessness at the Bridge, in Bridge St in Andover. It was attended by about 60 representatives from churches of all denominations in and around Andover, and by those who worked for organisations that helped homeless people - such as Alabare and Sarum House. Also attending were Cllr Sandra Hawke, portfolio holder for Housing at Test Valley Borough Council, County Councillor Pat West and local MP Sir George Young, a former Housing Minister.
Opening the meeting, Alan Evans quoted from the Church of England publication in 1984 - Faith in the City - and said that poverty was relative. Those whose incomes were 60% below the median were excluded, in the sense that they could not take part in life on the same basis as every one else. Groups such as the elderly were disproportionately likely to be poor.
He pointed out that homelessness had increased by 87% since 1997 - homelessness being defined as those who were living in temporary accommodation.
The meeting heard from Annie Mihill about the Andover Food Bank, launched by St John the Bpatist Catholic Church two years ago. Because of delays in people getting benefits they were entitled to, families were having to rely on the food parcels given by Andover Food Bank. They needed more donations and would be outside Waitrose the following day.
The meeting heard from Toby O'Neill, who became homeless and lived in his car. He described the problems he faced in looking after himself and maintaining his self-respect, while he looked for work and accommodation. He would sleep in his car in a lay-by, but would be moved on by the police. During the day he would walk up and down the streets of Andover.
The meeting heard about two people - Jo and Steven. Jo had come from Poland and had difficulties getting benefit because she had no National Insurance number. And because she had no address, she couldn't open a bank account. When she found work and got paid by cheque, she couldn't cash it. The meeting also heard about Steven, who had been helped by Sarum House - a project that helps young people up to the age of 25.
The meeting then broke into separate discussion groups, who were asked to come up with three key factors affecting homelessness. Common themes were relationship breakdown, benefit delays, the need for a night shelter in the town and the lack of "signposting" to organisations that could help.
Summing up the meeting at the end, Sir George said that, however acute the problems might be in Andover, they were far worse in other parts of the country. At the heart of the matter was the imbalance between demand and supply of housing - we simply were not building enough houses. He said that immigration was relevant to the discussion, in so far as a more generous regime led to the need for more housing; and pointed to a number of factors that might make the problem worse. Repossessions were likely to rise; more people were getting into debt; and alcoholism and drugs were behind some of the homeless statistics.
He suggested that more could be done to help social housing tenants become home-owners, in turn freeing up their accommodation for those on the waiting list; more could be done to encourage private landlords to accept those on benefit, and to bring back into use flats above shops and empty homes in the area. He suggested building flats above supermarkets, and encouraging those with spare rooms to accept single people who were temporarily homeless. He was delgihted that so many people had attended the discussion and were "fizzing with good ideas". He planned to send the findings of the evening to the newly-appointed Housing Minister, Caroline Flint.
Cllr sandra Hawke said she had found the meeting very valuable; only three familes were currently in bed-and-breakfast accommodation iin Test Valley and many of the suggestions made during the evening were being actively pursued by the council.