11 June 1999

HIDDEN HOMELESS

Think of the homeless and

you probably think of people

huddled in city train

stations or shop doorways.

Think again. The problem

is rife in the countryside,

particularly among

youngsters. Tim Relf reports

CAROLE Turner has begun to recognise some of the homeless in London.

She sees the same faces in the same doorways on the occasions her work brings her to the capital. How different to back in the country, she says, where the homeless are hidden. Hidden and forgotten.

"Its a big myth that its just a city issue," says Carole, a rural housing enabler in the midlands. "People dont run to the bright lights – they stay in the place they are familiar with." They sleep on friends settees, in sheds, in cars, under hedgerows. "They disappear."

And thats when the downward spiral begins. No address, no job, no welfare, no health care. "Then youre on the path to crime."

Recent statistics from Nottinghamshire, where Carole works for the Rural Community Council, show that in one population of 102,000, more than 500-plus single people were without homes. "Were just scratching the surface," she says.

The problem is most acute among the young, with more than half of those affected between 16 and 25. Single people of this age are most at risk because of a lack of evidence of the problem. Local housing authorities and social services, for example, have a duty to record the needs of other groups – such as pensioners, families and children. "But if you dont fit into these categories, nobody cares."

According to 22-year-old Rickie, who joined the ranks of Cumbrias homeless at 19, the situation has reached "crisis" point. "But who believes it? Getting local people and authorities to act is a real problem – how could such an area of outstanding natural beauty hide such an ugly secret."

Government, meanwhile, aims to cut the number of rough-sleepers by two-thirds by 2002. But that, according to Carole, brings us back to the thorny question of figures. To cut the level by two-thirds, you need to know what youre starting with. And making a count is harder in a big open space than in a city centre. "You try counting people sleeping rough in the middle of the night in Sherwood Forest."

So, if councils cant collate the figures, they probably wont get the money to solve the problem. Conducting a count isnt compulsory, either. "If you are a dyed-in-the-wool authority, you just put a zero in the column, say, no, we dont have a problem so, no, we dont need a strategy."

But whats needed, according to Carole, is a mix of "emergency" measures like more overnight stops and, longer term, more permanent provision. "The bottom line is there is not sufficient accommodation. Its got to be affordable though – its no use just building executive-type properties or barn conversions."

"We have an empty homes problem and a homeless problem. Why cant we match them up? It shouldnt be made easy for people to leave homes to deteriorate when, up the road, there are people deteriorating because of a lack of good homes."

Youth homelessness charity, Centrepoint, is also worried, claiming those that ask for help reflect just the "tip of the iceberg".

Research by the charity in the Eden Valley, Cumbria, reveals youths forced to sleep rough in parks, graveyards, even beneath motorway bridges. National development director Steve Lee-Foster says: "Young people cant compete with the prices charged for private rented accommodation and commuters invariably come first.

&#42 Insecure housing

"The lack of affordable housing, accessible transport and support is forcing young people into inappropriate and insecure accommodation."

What work is on offer may be seasonal, adds Steve. "Theyre pushed from pillar to post on short-term employment and before long theyre back to square one."

As well as evidence, it also, say campaigners, comes down to changing attitudes. The "No, we dont have that sort of thing in our village" mentality persists.

As Geoff, a 21-year-old homeless man from rural Buckinghamshire, says: "We are all human beings and we need a place to live where we can be safe and welcomed into the community – not all treated like thieves, thugs and drug users."

OF THE COUNTRYSIDE

water garden starts from a well (used to top up in a drought) by the header pond and, like the irrigation throughout the garden, is fully automated. A series of six interlinking ponds with waterfalls are pump-fed from the bottom pond at around 500 gal/hour via an inch and a half-bore pipe. Fish were originally put into the upper pond but an unusually hard frost in 1997 killed them all. However, fish in the lower pond did survive, and despite a predatory heron there is now a large shoal.

The plantings going down stream start with a wisteria scrambling over a rustic bridge set off with luxurious hostas, day lilies, plantain and marsh marigold. The next stop is a superb, ancient flowering cherry while monkey flower Mimulus luteus, is dotted along its entire length and can always be relied upon for bright splashes of colour in summer as can the evening primrose Enothera biennis and the many varieties of Astilbe which ribbon several areas of water. Surrounding shrubs include a superb mountain pine pinus mugo, Pieris, and a dwarf forsythia Arnold Dwarf, genista and several gorgeous Japanese acers and azaleas.

"I never write things down," says Myrle. "I just wander about and have a good think and that seems to work. I know my colours and I have a good idea about what will work and more importantly, what wont, though a few things have been moved to different positions. I give all plants three chances. Two chances where it is, once chance when moved and then the compost heap."

There are iris varieties in the stream including I psuedacorus and I sybirica which compliment each other wonderfully. One has been confined in a bottomless drum to prevent it spreading out of control.

The sound of water is a vital ingredient in a water garden. Here, you can walk through the entire area to enable you to see everything, via paths or stepping stones. But its not the place to linger on a still summers evening unless you like midges.

The £10,000 irrigation system which covers the entire garden is fed by the well and each bed has its own type of nozzle spray. The same computerised system switches on the stream in the water garden every other day in drought conditions and in different parts of the garden as it is required. Some mature trees would have been lost without it.

It might be a cliché to say that there is always something to see in a garden, but here there honestly is never a dull moment. "In the spring we plant pollianthus and then there are lots of early bulbs. We have lots of winter-flowering pansies, too. The water garden especially seems to go on forever with a continuation of colour even in the autumn with leaf colour."

Myrle loves all of the garden though shes especially fond of the herbaceous borders. Visitors tend to head for the water area. "Im very hands on and the network of paths enable me to reach virtually every area to remove whatever weed has the audacity to show.

"My main advantage is that I dont regard gardening as a chore. To me it is jolly good fun. When it becomes a chore, that is the time to call it a day."

Its so hard to get back on ladder…

ROBERT became homeless at 16 after a spell in care.

He tried to get a job. Tried and failed. He slept rough for six months in and around Penrith, Cumbria – an area known more for its scenic beauty than its youth homelessness problem. He slept in barns, under motorway bridges and in ventilation shafts.

Public transport is limited, employment is often seasonal. He feels that tourism matters more to his community than young people.

After a difficult six months, a space became available in a local hostel. Here, he has been given the support needed to make further steps forward. He wants to find a job, find somewhere to live with his girlfriend. Make a home. He knows it wont be easy.

Roberts question is simple: "Why is it so difficult for young people without family support to get accommodation and employment in rural areas?"

WORKING OUT SOLUTIONS TO THE PROBLEM

Paul Tyler, Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall

"Twenty five years ago, all the major problems were in the cities. Today, there are huge numbers – in all age groups – who find it impossible to get housing in rural areas." Tourism, commuting and retirement home demand have driven prices up, leaving a big affordability gap. "You might not see people sleeping on pavements or in church doorways, but its manifested in other ways – like gross overcrowding in some houses."

Brian McLaughlin, head of environment and land use at the NFU

The general public typically associate homelessness – like poverty – with towns and cities. "The popular image of the countryside is one of affluence. Thats why its difficult to get it on the agenda and see a solution. But for any problem to be addressed the first stage is recognition."

Peter Luff, Conservative MP for mid-Worcestershire

"Yes, it is a big problem – and one that doesnt get the attention it deserves because it is more disparate than in urban areas. You dont see people with dogs selling copies of the Big Issue in most rural villages." Wealth among some country dwellers raises the average income level, masking poverty among others. "Below the average, there are lots of people who need lots of help."

Ann Marie Wells, Rural Stress Information Network

Tough times in agriculture mean more employers are having to let workers go – some of whom may be in tied accommodation. Farmers can also find themselves homeless if they have to leave a dwelling when their tenancy ends. They then may face the daunting possibility of moving away. "This is when farmers can get very distressed, cant cope – and the worst can sometimes happen."