On Wednesday the 12th of October 2011 I attended a “triangle” meeting between the management of the hostel at 222 Victoria Road, the police and local residents.
- There are 72 beds at the hostel. About 30 people have been evicted for a period of time in the last year.
- A grant application to central government for reducing the number of rooms in the hostel is “current”, the aim would be to offer more intensive help to fewer people.
- The hostel is for vulnerable people, there are no/few restrictions on who is accepted. Many residents have come to the hostel from prison.
- A light touch approach is taken, allowing residents to make decisions for themselves, for example in relation to drinking alcohol.
- As well as those in the hostel, there are many “ex-homeless” people living in the area, who contribute to problems, far from all problems associated with the hostel are directly caused by residents.
- Prostituiton, aggressive drunken behaviour, noise, thefts, as well as urination and defecation are problems arising from the hostel. Cllr Sales thinks such things are inevitable, Cllr O’Reilly disagrees and wants them tackled.
- The hostel management are frustrated that at £3m grant from central government to Jimmy’s Nightshelter awarded in 2008 has not yet been spent on improving the facilities for the homeless in Cambridge
I found out about the possible date and time of meeting by chance having walked past a notice on the railings of Histon Road Cemetery earlier in the day.
At the last North Area Committee the meeting was mentioned, but the wrong time and date was supplied by the triangle meeting’s facilitator Kay Harris. When I turned up I didn’t know which date was right and if the meeting would be on. Councillors, and local residents have repeatedly complained at the North Area committee about not being told when these meetings are happening, and as the meeting started Cllrs O’Reilly and Ward repeated this comment and urged better publicity for the meetings, including notification of councillors so they could publicise it themselves (they too had apparently all found out the correct date and time by chance as I had).
The meetings between 222 management and local residents have been mentioned a number of times at North Area Committee meetings but this was the first time I had found out the time and date of a meeting before it happened.
I don’t know if the facilitator Kay Harris intentionally misled councillors, the police and public at the North Area Committee but she was certainly hostile to the presence of people, particularly me, from outside the immediate area of the hostel, ie. the area of Histon Road and Victoria Road junction and the Bermuda flats themselves. Councillors have asked for residents from a wider area who are affected by the presence of the hostel to be invited to the meetings and Cllr O’Reilly repeated this at last night’s meeting, she herself lives half-way down Victoria Road, above the bookmakers, and complained about hostel residents urinating on her front door. I’ve lived within the sphere of influence of the hostel for seven or so years now. Kay Harris had posted flyers to homes in the immediate area of the hostel only.
The hostel is run by Riverside ECHG (formerly English Churches Housing Group), they were represented their area manager, responsible for the hostel, who said he had been in the job for just a week but has had other jobs within Cambridge working with homeless people. Two of the “team leaders” from the hostel were also present. The police were represented by Sgt. Jason Wragg, there were around 10-15 residents along with Cllrs O’Reilly, Sales, and Ward. Cllr Todd-Jones sent his apologies, as he was ill.
The first thing discussed was the Nasreen Dar mini supermarket on Histon Road. The meeting was told they had written to the chair saying they had decided not to attend the triangle meetings anymore due to the lack of action following them. Sgt. Wragg of Cambridgeshire Police said that while the supermarket was clearly experiencing lots of crime, theft and vandalism, associated with its proximity to the hostel it had stopped reporting such crimes to the police. Sgt. Wragg noted that the shop made a lot of money from the residents of the hostel [presumably buying alcohol] as well as being caused problems by them.
I have noticed the supermarket placed their own “wanted” poster around the area following recent vandalism, though that encouraged people to call the police with information and included what appears to be presented as a police crime number. I think it is a worrying sign, indicative that the police are not being as effective as people want them to be, when they start taking things into their own hands like this. I think what’s going on here is worthy of further investigation.
A long series of people talked about the problems they were experiencing emanating from the hostel. Those living on Histon Road backing onto the Hostel appeared to be having a particularly bad time, reporting loud music late at night coming directly from the hostel and brazen thefts of bikes from back gardens, as well as experiencing the problems affecting the wider area, particularly threatening and aggressive drunks. The problem of drunks jumping off pavements into the path of cars and bikes was raised, as was fighting – even in the middle of Victoria Road with cars going past on both sides. People cycling while extremely drunk was also mentioned.
A number of people complained about people urinating on their property. One resident explained how she had found someone had defecated over her wall, “an amount a cow would have been proud of” was how the mess was described. We were told soiled underwear had been left too. The resident was an older lady who reported she had had to pay someone £45 to clean the mess up using a power hose and disinfectant.
One of the residents of Histon Road backing onto the hostel said she was from Baltimore, Maryland, she said that was a place known to be violent but she was more scared here in Cambridge. She said the frequent fights were “crazy” and that she had started to shout back at the drunks.
The meeting was told a family with young children had recently moved into one of the houses backing on the the centre.
Hostel residents and those drawn to the area by the presence of the hostel are clearly making the area feel unsafe; and these are problems which occur at all times of the day.
The meeting heard from the caretaker of the Bermuda flats who said that prostitution and debris from it was a problem within that area too. Residents of Victoria Road also suggested prostitution related activity could be taking place in the car park opposite the hostel. The regular presence of a taxi was mentioned, and Sgt. Wragg said that a taxi driver had a relationship with one of the girls so was often present.
County Councillor Paul Sales
Cllr Sales (Labour) was treated particularity rudely and unpleasantly by the meeting’s chair Kay Harris. Once he was allowed to speak it became clear his views were at odds with the majority of those present. Cllr Sales said it was “difficult to know what to do” and suggested the best course of action was to “manage expectations”, he said that the kinds of problems being experienced were an inevitable consequence of having a hostel present and amounted to an “intractable problem”. Cllr Sales said it was “a fact of life there will be problems with hostels like this”. Cllr Sales appeared to be unaware of the degree to which the hostel was causing a problem to local residents, his lack of a grasp of the issue led to people present questioning where he lived. Many appeared surprised to discover he doesn’t live in the ward he represents, but across the city in Romsey. Defending himself under heavy fire Cllr Sales said he had was a qualified a social worker (I can’t find him listed on the General Social Care Council register) and was very familiar with the hostel’s “client group”.
Cllr Sales said it was wrong to call for more robust police action, which he said would amount to “arresting people for D&D [drunk and disorderly] for the 54th time”. Sgt. Wragg said this was not a reasonable way of characterising the way the police worked.
Speaking to me after the meeting Cllr Sales said he had worked with hostels where there were 9-10 staff and 20 residents; whereas 222 has 9-10 staff but 70 residents, implying he thought this was a key part of the problem.
When Cllr Carina O’Reilly spoke the first thing she did was to distance her self from the comments her party colleague had made. She made clear she didn’t think the degree to which the hostel was causing problems was inevitable; she was strongly calling for action from all involved, the city council, police and the centre management.
Cllr O’Reilly particularly complained that she didn’t get any response from the hostel staff when she had tried getting in touch with them or writing to them. She said her emails to the hostel had gone unanswered. A couple of others present also said they had not had a satisfactory response from the hostel when getting in touch with them.
Cllr O’Reilly said the way the hostel was managed meant that at the moment it was little more than a “doss house”. The management of the hostel accused her of using inflammatory language, something she accepted and withdrew her description.
Cllr Ward noted that he was always being told that the hostel was under new management.
The manager explained that while lots of people were attracted to work with homeless people, it was quite challenging giving the type of people being dealt with, and that there was a high turnover of staff.
Plans to Reduce Number of Rooms
The manager of the hostel said 222 Victoria Road is currently one of the largest hostels in the country. He referred to “the large hostels review” (not something I can find a reference to online) saying there is currently a trend towards smaller hostels.
I asked about the plan to reduce the number of rooms in the hostel, and provide a more intensive intervention for a smaller number of individuals. This had been mentioned by Sgt Wragg at the last North Area Committee. I asked for a timescale and was told by the centre manager that none could be given as this was dependent on a grant which had been applied for from the Department for Communities and Local Government. I have made a public freedom of information request for details of these proposals.
I asked if the smaller, more intensive, hostel would result in residents with more significant needs, those who’ve committed more serious crimes, being housed in the hostel and was told no, the type of resident would remain the same, there would just be fewer of them and more work would be done with them.
I asked if support from local residents, the police and city council would help such an application and was told by the manager that the grant already had the formal support of the city council.
A little more detail was given, the proposals would be to retain some of the centre as it is, the rear section, but to modify the front and reduce the number of rooms, adding more space for intervention work.
The manager of the centre said that the era of large centres (from which people used to be able to make lots of easy money he said) had gone. And there was now, following a review, a move towards smaller hostels.
Safe and Calm?
I asked the management if the hostel was generally a safe and calm place for the majority of residents who were not among the few involved in the aggressive behaviour.
I did not obtain any assurance it was a safe and calm place from the management, who suggested given the type of people living there it would be impossible to achieve such a state.
I asked if any of the other residents had raised complaints / concerns about the behaviour of the problematic residents. My concern is that while the aggressive, noisy, and criminal behaviour is a problem for local residents it may well be even worse for those inside.
The management painted a picture of the residents seeing the staff at the hostel in a similar way to the police or prison staff and not wanting to be seen to be grassing up or complaining about others.
Sgt Wragg said that he does work within the hostel and sometimes he does experience assistance from residents, for example in persuading someone they’ve been a nuisance and really ought move on in the interests of everyone else.
222 Set as Priority by Councillors
I asked if there had yet been any effects seen as a result of councillors setting 222 and the associated problems as a priority at the North Area Committee on the 22nd of September. I asked if the police had yet accepted the priority (at the secretive Neighbourhood Action Group).
My question about the effect of the priority was not addressed by Sgt Wragg.
I would like to see a representative of the hostel management invited to the North Area Committee when councillors assess the police’s performance in relation to the priority set by councillors.
I noted that residents had praised responsive policing to calls of problems; and asked if the priority would result in more proactive policing, such as more patrols of Victoria Road, Searle Street, Carlyle Avenue. Sgt. Wragg said he already spent part of each shift on Carlyle Avenue noting it was the location of the Job Centre, another hostel, Alexandra Gardens where street drinkers often drink, as well as being an area where 222 residents, en-route to and from the city centre, cause problems.
A number of residents appeared happy with the level of police patrol, based on seeing PCSOs. However I noted many appeared not to distinguish between PCSOs and police constables.
I have never seen a police constable patrolling on foot in the area around where I live Victoria Road, or the surrounding streets.
Sgt Wragg had told those present that a key tool to deal with problems was dispersal under Section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006; as I understand it PCSOs are not given that power. I feel Sgt Wragg, by omission, misled some of those present who clearly were not differentiating between PCSOs and PCs.
It was noted that the City Council had put a new bin outside the hostel, but it was regularly overflowing.
Kay Harris suggested people should call the council when they spotted it was full.
Commenting that there were lots of cans and glass bottles, it was suggested one of the city’s recycling bins might be suited to the location.
Cllr Ward expressed support for that idea, but said his comment was “lighthearted”. I’ll leave it to the reader to assess for themselves if, or to what degree, he was joking.
The manager of the hostel said that banning alcohol would just push the problem elsewhere, and further out of the city.
He explained the hostel’s approach was one of letting residents make their own decisions and only offering them help, not requiring them to take it. He suggested that banning residents from drinking would be against the centre’s ethos. The caretaker of the flats, who said he was an ex-resident of the hostel, suggested that the tolerance of excessive drinking and lack of action by those running the hostel was due to an rise in the view that to take any action would be an infringement of the residents’ human rights. The hostel management made no comment following this statement.
The management suggested that if there was no alcohol accepting hostel near the city centre then the consequence would be more people sleeping rough and said this “isn’t something tourists and residents want to see”.
Shops selling alcohol to drunks was raised as possibly part of the problem; but the general feeling was that these people will get alcohol from somewhere.
The management team reported they’d evicted about 30 residents over the course of the last year (the centre has 72 rooms). They explained there was often no where else for residents to go, so evictions were hard. (Sgt. Wragg explained that as well as evictions, there were also overnight/weekend suspensions). Sometimes evictions are for non payment of rent.
The manager expressed frustration that a £3m grant to Jimmy’s Night Shelter in Cambridge had not yet been spent; his implication being that improvements there could give those evicted from 222 somewhere else to go. He explained the grant was for an assessment centre which ought direct people to appropriate sources of help. Cambridge City Council’s Current Homelessness Strategy states the project should be completed by December 2011. (The previous strategy document had the deadline a year earlier). I can find no council papers providing an update on this project within the last year.
Fence to prevent sitting on the wall
A resident said that previously the hostel had committed to putting a fence on the wall outside the centre on which people sit and drink alcohol. The new manager said he was unaware of this. There was no firm commitment made to look into it, just comments saying it would be very expensive and would have to be done in an expensive manner to ensure it was long lasting. The management did not appear keen on the idea.
A suggestion of CCTV, for the car park opposite the hostel, was discussed, but the conclusion was that the people involved in both the alcohol related problems and the prostitution are already known, what they’re doing is known, and the addition of CCTV wouldn’t really achieve anything extra.
- Residents asked if the centre’s policies could be made public. One area raised was keeping dogs, and dog ownership
- The police clearly have an interest in making the triangle meeting work, and are a key participant, but were reluctant to take responsibility for it.
- Minutes of the meeting were taken by Helga Bailey who was described as a “Victoria Road Team Leader” and a member of staff at the hostel. Email addresses of those present were taken and a promise to distribute the minutes was made.
- The centre management promised to distribute a newsletter, possibly by email, to local residents communicating what was happening at the hostel
- A number of people, particularly the American who now lives backing onto the centre, and Cllr O’Reilly expressed a keenness to help the hostel in its work getting people’s lives back on track.
Items not directly related to 222
The meeting’s facilitator, Kay Harris, didn’t do a very good job of keeping the meeting on topic and allowed it to stray into a wider discussion of policing matters (which may have some connection to the hostel). One was aggressive door to door selling, typically of cleaning materials, with the sellers claiming to be ex-prisioners trying hard to make a living for themselves. Sgt. Wragg urged people to call the police to let them know when these people are operating in the area so they can check them out. He said when he’s been at home in Huntington he’s had some come to his door and is aware of how aggressive and pushy they can be. The problem comes when they meet vulnerable people at the door and exploit them, such as old people who might pay £15 for a duster, in the hope they’ll go away.
Another wider topic raised was drug dealing in the area. Sgt Wragg said that two brothers were about to be dealt with (presumably by the courts?) for drug dealing in one of the passages off Frenchs’ Road.
There was some discussion of a need / desire for a ward based policing meeting along the lines of the one held, and serviced by the city council, in East Chesterton. I pointed out that Arbury was not getting as good a service from the city council as East Chesterton in this regard and urged our local councillors to redress the balance, Cllr O’Reilly nodded as if she agreed with me.
The suggestion was made that meeting focused on the 222 hostel should continue too, alongside a more general ward based meeting.
Making the meeting work better in the future
A number of people suggested that the meeting ought be run by either the hostel, or the police, or the city council, the suggestion being the current facilitation by Kay Harris wasn’t appropriate or working.
Kay Harris noted that anyone else taking on the meeting would have to pay to hire a room in which to hold it. A report to Cambridge City Council’s North Area Committee from 2004 reveals the Community Room is leased by the City Council to Bermuda Road residents group. It was not clear if Kay Harris paid the residents group for the room hire personally (I did ask), or if the room was provided free to Kay Harris why the residents group would not provide it if another individual (such as a councillor) or organisation was running the event.
Overall I think the meeting was far too focused on a series of people relating their experiences and not enough on how the problems could be addressed.
I think those who are alcoholics or who are regularly excessively drunk need to have access to health services to treat them. I think such access should be available to all who need it, not just those who’re convicted of crimes, but think that the courts should be prepared to sentence people who are committing alcohol related crimes to supervision orders which require them to enter treatment programmes for their problems.
I think its crucial to keep a safe and calm environment for the majority of residents in the hostel. Those taking drugs, or drinking alcohol ought be able to keep themselves separate from those who are. Smaller hostels, or hostels with smaller units within them which enable those with different, and incompatible, needs to be kept separate are desirable. Hopefully that is what we will see a move towards with the re-organisation and scaling down of the hostel.
I think one of the key things the current Liberal Democrat administration in the city council has achieved is a substantial reduction in the number of people sleeping rough in Cambridge. To an extent this hostel and its associated problems are a consequence of this. Hopefully a change in the makeup of the hostel provision, with more intensive programmes for those resident there, will reduce the impact on the area.
The police’s key primary role is to keep the peace. Fighting on the streets, loud and threatening drunken arguments, drunken aggression, and thefts should not be tolerated. I would like to see some police patrols in the area.
I would like to see the divide between local residents and those in the hostel, at least those who are not causing problems, lessened. It was notable none attended the meeting themselves, I wonder if it was advertised within the hostel, or even if future meetings could be held inside. I think if the hostel management let local residents know how they could help residents at the hostel with getting their lives back on track there would be significant help forthcoming from those living in the surrounding area. When the previous management spoke to a meeting of the Friends of Histon Road Cemetery in 2008 there was lots of interest in residents from inside and outside the hostel getting together on gardening, maintaining the cemetery and craft projects and even discussion of starting businesses; I think some of that desire to help needs a bit of sanity checking and channelling, but should certainly be tapped into.