Out on the streets: How outreach team is 'trying to break the cycle' of homelessness

Rough sleeper

In December 2021, Crisis estimated around 227,000 people were experiencing the worst forms of homelessness across the UK - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

In 2022 so far, there have been more than 300 occasions of people found sleeping on the streets of Ipswich.

The number was reported by Ipswich Homeless Action Group (ihAg) and counts only those they have been physically found.

It also includes those who have been counted more than once.

ihAg have a dedicated team of outreach workers who serve as the first port of call for rough sleepers.

Among this team is Rob Wragg, who spends four days a week patrolling the town's quiet early morning streets, offering support to those who need it most.

As the early morning mist swept across the town's suburbs, only a lone sleeping bag underneath a tree was visible.

"I'll go have a chat with them", said Rob, stepping out of the car.

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Slowly approaching the scene, it was clear the makeshift bedroll was nothing more than a thin piece of clothing and a stained white duvet.

Inside were the faint outlines of a body, holding the material tightly in a bid to ease the cold bite of daybreak.

"Good morning", Rob said softly, cautious not to startle to the sleeping individual. 

"It's Thursday. Will you be coming for breakfast? It will be down at the Chapman Centre at 9am."

A slight movement came from the improvised sleeping bag. 

Then a low murmur and a voice. 

"Not today, thank you", the person said. 

Rough sleeper

Since the start of the year, ihAg have found 339 people sleeping on the streets - Credit: Ipswich Housing Action Group

Every Tuesday and Thursday, Rob will invite those he finds to ihAg's Chapman Centre for Breakfast By Invite (BBI), a programme which offers food, drinks and a number of other vital amenities.

"I've been doing this for five years", he said, back in the car. 

"During that time I've had to develop a thick skin. 

"It's difficult because you want to help, but not everyone wants it.

"What's important is that we don't cut them off.

"Today, they might say no, but tomorrow might bring a very different answer.

"At the end of the day, they are human beings. We need to treat them like that."

On outreach, the number of rough sleepers found across Ipswich can vary between 0 and 6 a day. 

As of January 1, a total of 339 have been recorded, including some who have been counted more than once.

Many of these are found following reports from concerned locals or rough sleepers themselves.

Residents can also use Streetlink, a website which allows the general public to connect those sleeping on the streets with local services.

In the back seat of the car was Martin Hender, rough sleeper project manager for Ipswich Borough Council.

"We do have rough sleepers, but there are organisations that can help", he said. 

"Reasons behind it can range from rent arrears and debt to mental health issues and drug abuse.

"If we can help and ultimately get to the bottom of why they are on the streets, they might stand a chance."

ihAg's Chapman Centre on Black Horse Lane.

ihAg's Chapman Centre on Black Horse Lane, which hosts Breakfast By Invite for those who are found on the streets by outreach workers. - Credit: Ipswich Housing Action Group

Earlier in the day, the pair had received an anonymous call about a tent in a known rough sleeper hotspot.

It was believed the person was close to the town centre. 

By this time, the sun was now beginning to break through the early haze of morning, revealing Ipswich's near-empty streets and alleyways.

On route, the pair met with Jeremy Ransome, senior outreach nurse at NHS Health Outreach.

His role requires him to provide essential medical care to those found sleeping rough.

"This job is all about keeping people alive", he said.

"It's about giving them time and, most importantly, giving them time to make a better choice."

As the trio approached the suspected area, it soon became clear there was nothing to be found.

"This can happen", said Rob.

"Sometimes we get reports but don't find anyone.

"They may have moved or it could have just been someone camping.

"But we'll check back multiple times just to be sure.

"We won't leave anyone behind."

In December 2021, Crisis estimated around 227,000 people were experiencing the worst forms of homelessness across the UK.

The ongoing cost of living crisis has led to organisations voicing fears of an increase in that number, with an Amnesty International report published last month highlighting that one in three adults are currently worried about becoming homeless in the next five years as a result of rising house costs.

"We are concerned about this", said Martin. 

"It won't be the people at the top who will be affected. It will be the people who are already struggling to get by.

"So many of those we find sleeping rough at the moment have been evicted because they can't afford to pay rent. A number of them even have full-time jobs. Through no fault of their own, they can end up in a vicious cycle.

"With the rise in the cost of living, this is only going to worsen. 

"But this is why prevention and intervention are so important."

Continuing the walk across town, the group often stopped at suspected hotspots to check on those they found.

The majority had nothing more than the clothes on their back, one or two bags and, if they were lucky, a sleeping bag.

Rob Wragg, Jeremy Ransome and Martin Hender

L-R: Rob Wragg, Jeremy Ransome and Martin Hender at ihAg's Chapman Centre - Credit: Archant

"It's very unforgiving", said Rob.

"This is their reality.

"It could be me, you or anyone.

"To understand it, you need to be able to sit behind their side of the table.

"Their world is so different to ours and their priorities are very different to ours.

"But they are still people."

In what would turn out to be the final stop of the walk, the trio came across someone laying tucked away outside a nearby shop. 

The person, wrapped tightly in a stained blanket on top of a thin mattress, was someone the workers had known for a while.

"There is a bed for you, come in for breakfast today", said Rob.

"What time is it?", the person responded, having only recently awoken.

"Yes okay, I'll be there."

ihAg's housing service provides 55-bed spaces across Ipswich for single people living with the experience of homelessness.

Residents can stay for up to 18 months before moving to independent living.

"That's the most challenging aspect of this job", said Rob. 

"Where do they go afterwards?

"Some make it and are in permanent housing years after receiving our assistance.

"Some can end up back on the street.

"It's our job to try and break that cycle."

In total, the group found five people on that morning's outreach walk. 

Four of them were male, while the majority were in their mid to late 30s.

"We tend to find significantly more men than women", said Martin.

"And, at the moment, none are under the age of 25. 

"Most are between 25 and 60.

"Of course, the older they are, the more vulnerable they tend to be as well."

Model houses on a pile of coins and bank notes.

The ongoing cost of living crisis has led to a number of organisations voicing fears of an increase in the number of rough sleepers across the UK - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

As the walk came to an end, the group returned to ihAg's Chapman Centre for Breakfast By Invite. 

Inside were three tables, computers and a desk full of various cereals, bread and hot drinks.

One the walls, messages of hope stood to assure visitors that brighter days were ahead.

"No one can go back and make a new beginning. But anyone can change and make a new ending", one read. 

Downstairs, rough sleepers could socialise, have breakfast and talk through any issues they may have with specialist advisers.

There was a medical room where people like Jeremy could provide essential healthcare, while a cupboard full of canned food stood next to a box full of essential clothing.

Upstairs was a space for educational and recreational activities, such as essential computer skills, painting and writing.

Standing over the room, a colourful painting depicted a bright scene of sailboats, cars and blue sky.

"It was painted by a group of people who came in needing our support", said Paula Cook, a senior adviser for ihAg.

"It's a nice way for them to be able to express themselves.

Bright painting on the wall

The painting that was put together by rough sleepers who received support from ihAg. - Credit: Archant

"We use this room for a number of things, including how to use computers.

"With everything being online now, it's so important for ensuring they can apply for benefits, housing and things like that.

"We also serve as a postal address for them to be able to get their mail and we're currently working with HSBC to set up bank accounts for them.

"We're just small piece of the puzzle to help people on their pathway to a better life."

As the hour passed, a number of people came and went. 

They sat to eat breakfast, talk with each other and send off any necessary paperwork.

By 10am, the room had cleared and it was the end of another busy few hours for ihAg.

For Rob, who had been working on the outreach walk since 6am, it had been just another day of doing what he loved. 

"For me, this job is about giving something back", he said.

"I think someone once said even the smallest act of kindness is never wasted. 

"If I were in their position, I'd want someone to help. 

"I don't see myself as a do-gooder or anything like that. I just like people. 

"There's nothing better than seeing someone turn their life around after needing our help.

"For me, that in itself is rewarding enough."

For the purposes of safety and confidentiality, locations, names and genders of all rough sleepers mentioned have been kept anonymous.