The Island’s Hidden Homeless

Though many of us are quick to point out a perceived flaw in the island’s society, one issue that often doesn’t get the attention it perhaps deserves is the Isle of Man’s homelessness problem. 

In the wake of the Tynwald Select Committee’s report on poverty from July, Gef spoke to homeless charities Graih and Housing Matters (HM) about how big the problem is on the Isle of Man, what the main issues are and why attitudes need to change. 

Graih is a homeless charity based in The Alpha Centre in Douglas that provides a free drop-in service for food, drinks, clothing, bedding, a shower and safe social space as well as emergency overnight shelter for those who need it. Housing Matters is another Manx charity that provides advice, guidance and support to those struggling with housing in a variety of ways. HM supports their clients through home starter packs, ongoing advice and meetings, tenant and landlord advice and peer education to educate the island’s young people and attempt to reduce the number of them that become homeless.

The Prevalence of Poverty

Though the Isle of Man is an incredibly wealthy country for its size, the World Bank lists us at sixth in the world for GDP per capita, Graih manager Erica Irwin says there is a big divide between the rich and the poor. She said: ‘The benefits system works against the poorest and doesn’t help people move forward with their lives – it penalises those who, for example, would like to go to college to learn a trade. It limits peoples’ housing options due to the limited amount of money people receive each week, either you can buy food and toiletries or you can pay extra for your rent. When/if the landlord’s registration comes into force, we could easily see this gap widen between those who have and those who have not as the availability of affordable housing is going to be even more out of reach. The waiting list for local authority housing is very long so this is not always a quick option for sorting accommodation issues.’

There’s often a tendency for people on the island to say there isn’t a homeless issue here as you’re less likely to see someone sleeping rough in the streets, especially compared to cities in the UK where rough sleepers can be a frequent sight. 

Data on the issue of poverty and homelessness is especially difficult to get as the Isle of Man does not currently have an official definition of poverty, although this was recommended by the select committee. 

Julie Marshall, the Homelessness Projects Development Manager for HM, said: ‘Poverty isn’t less prevalent in the Isle of Man, just less visible; the island’s sense of community and being connected helps to prevent rough sleeping here.’ This was echoed by Erica who said: ‘We do have those who sleep rough, either in tents, cars or just under the stars and this can be due to many reasons. Due to the fact that on the island we have lots of open spaces out of public view, people more often than not are able to stay away from the main traffic of people not like across where numbers are so high and in big cities there are limited corners to hide in.’ 

With people losing their jobs because of Covid and housing prices rising, the gov recently admitted that homeownership will be hard to achieve for young workers with the release of their annual market review

Erica said: ‘The number of unique users of Graih has continued to rise and in the last 18 months since the start of the Pandemic, the amount of support required has considerably increased. During Covid we obviously had to close our Drop-in service, however, the Emergency Night Shelter remained open throughout and our community support increased. We did integrated work with Social Care throughout each lockdown, ensuring our most vulnerable individuals continued to be supported and were not left at risk.’

Sofa Surfing

Both charities told us that ‘sofa surfing’, where someone moves from house to house with no permanent home, often sleeping on friend’s sofas or in spare rooms, represented a significant percentage of the people they support. Julie said: ‘Sofa surfing represents a large proportion of those folk asking for our help. Family and friends step up, people may be of “No Fixed Abode” however it is rare that anyone has to resort to sleeping on the streets as you would see in the UK.’ The fluid nature of this type of living means it can be hard to get true numbers, this is also due to one of the main issues for those who find themselves ‘sofa surfing’ which is not having a permanent address, something that is often important for official documentation. 

Erica said: ‘There is a big problem with sofa surfing on the island. We can’t get numbers due to the fact that it is sofa surfing, which is a hidden form of homelessness. No real study has been done on this, also the census which we’ve just had did not allow for those who are homeless to be included in any way and this was a real missed opportunity. Sofa surfing is the biggest type of homelessness on the island, although not to the same levels as across.’

How Does It Happen?

There is never really one sole reason that somebody will become homeless which means that a wide range of support is needed to help people back on their feet. Erica said: ‘The reasons people find themselves in these situations can be for a variety of reasons. Mental ill-health, addictions, relationship breakdowns and lack of knowledge of services available to them. There are also limited services available to help individuals in these circumstances. The main reasons we see individuals reach the point of homelessness is due to several factors,

* Long lists on the local authority housing

* Lack of affordable accommodation

* Relationship breakdowns

* Addiction

* Mental ill-health

* Chaotic lifestyles

* Lack of understanding of vulnerable people’

She also added: ‘There is not a standard piece of advice. you have to look at the person as an individual and a whole and provide the appropriate advice and guidance to that individual. However, if someone reading this is facing the possibility of becoming homeless I’d like to encourage them to reach out to either ourselves at Graih or Housing Matters or Social Care for advice and support. There are no wrong questions or queries and you won’t be judged. We all just want to get the right help to the individual no matter what your background. What is probably less known out in the community is that there are teams within Social Care who work really hard with our vulnerable adults. If they can’t help you, they will have phone numbers and links to those who can.’

There is some good news though, one of the main focuses for HM is the education of young people through their Peer Education scheme in schools and youth groups which uses real-life experiences ‘to dispel myths about homelessness and highlight the reality of living without permanent accommodation.’ Julie said the number of people under 21 approaching the charity has decreased by 3.4% in the last few years. Erica also says that whilst Graih are not able to accept anyone under the age of 18, there are more support services out there for young people than those in the 25-65 age bracket.

An Acknowledgement Is A Good Place To Start

One of the main stigmas around homelessness is that people who end up homeless or struggling with their housing have themselves to blame. Evolve, a London homeless charity, found that 72% of people in the UK believe that homeless people could get themselves off the streets if they wanted to with 28% believing that people sleeping rough are to blame for their situation. Erica said: ‘There is a stigma here, that if someone is in this community of people it’s just because of addiction issues, not because of wider issues. The homeless issue is also ignored, not just because people want to ignore it, but because there is a lack of awareness that there is homelessness on the island due to the fact it’s not in your face like across.’ The Isle of Man often positions itself as an inclusive and supportive society that always lands on its feet, the island motto is of course: ‘Wherever you throw it, it shall stand’. However, this can’t be true until we are helping all those in need, Julie said: ‘The island is aspiring to become an inclusive society, however, there is still a lack of awareness of the existence of poverty and homelessness. An acknowledgement that these issues exist on the island would be a good place to start.’

Erica also said that the stigma issue is not just limited to those who are homeless and can be an obstacle to change. She said: ‘The problem we often see when the community is making judgements about individuals, whether they are homeless or reported on due to their criminal activities, is that these individuals are not seen as a whole. People only see the consequences or the end result of something that is far bigger than what is presented. Often there is years and years of trauma, neglect, abuse, addiction, mental ill-health and so on. Within the community here there is still a lack of understanding of mental ill-health or even addiction. 

‘No one chooses this lifestyle, no one growing up has dreams of living on the streets with no money or food, with no hope, feeling lonely and desperate. People do not choose this. They are someone’s son, daughter, father, mother – if people are able to put themselves into this mindset that these people matter, they are important, then my hope is that people are motivated by community spirit and the fact that morally and ethically it’s not ok to have people on his island living at this level no matter how much of a minority this people group are, we shouldn’t have one person living like this.’

If anyone finds themselves in a genuine housing crisis, such as facing eviction and homelessness, they can contact Housing Matters on Freephone at 0808 1624 100, through Facebook messenger or by email at Graih’s drop-in hours can be found here and they can be contacted, during office hours, on 07624 304381.

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