SEDGEMOOR has seen a spike in the number of rough sleepers, with the nightly average up from three to five, to a new height of 13 to 15.

Questions were raised at Bridgwater Town Council and Sedgemoor District Council and discussed at a multi-agency forum set up by Cllr Kathy Pearce involving the police, social services, Westfield Church, Sedgemoor housing and others, as well as a joint scrutiny committee at Sedgemoor District Council on January 6.

At the scrutiny meeting, Sedgemoor District Council housing advice manager Sarah Stillwell outlined the scale of the problem, explaining that there were currently 10 families and 16 single people living in temporary accommodation, and rough sleeping had risen to around 13 to 15 people daily.

Mrs Stillwell said: “Sedgemoor is working with the other local authorities across Somerset on a homelessness strategy to take them through to 2023.

"Our priorities include bringing empty properties across the county back into use.

“There was also a widening ‘affordability gap’ and so there was a need to influence housing providers to deliver suitable accommodation that is both affordable and meets local needs, and there was a need for more temporary accommodation to meet the needs of clients, including specialist arrangements such as for disabled people.”

Mrs Stillwell explained that a change in policy in Taunton meant Sedgemoor District Council could no longer refer as many people to the Linley House hostel in Taunton.

Mrs Stillwell said: “Sedgemoor consequently faced an increase in rough sleepers crossing the district borders and now they had to be dealt with locally where direct access provision was historically non-existent.

“Faced with this increase SDC chose to work closely with Westfield Church, where volunteers provide hot meals and a laundry service twice a week for rough sleepers.”

With extra funding from the town and district councils, people in need can now access help with benefit claims, meet Somerset Drug and Alcohol Services personnel as well as representatives from Citizens Advice and ARC outreach workers at Westfield Church.

Sedgemoor officers undertook a spotlight count to gauge the number of rough sleepers in the district, and with this information were able to put in a bid for additional funding for a new property at Blake House in Bridgwater, owned by the YMCA, to be used as a Somewhere Safe To Stay Hub.

Mrs Stillwell continued: “The development of Blake House is the most crucial intervention by SDC in the rough sleeping problem as it means that sleepers can be engaged with and the start of a pathway to support and enablement can be established.”

Sarah turned to the problem of engaging with rough sleepers, which she admitted often took an average of 50 contacts before getting a response.

If residents report cases of people sleeping rough via a member of Sarah’s team will be called out within 24 hours.

On Thursday, January 16 the matter of aggressive begging was discussed at Bridgwater Town Council, with town clerk David Mears reporting that 22 businesses had been in touch over the Christmas period with examples of persistent and intrusive examples of begging.

At the meeting the police representative accepted there was an issue with a number of people presenting themselves as homeless who in fact were adequately housed but engaged in ‘opportunistic begging’.

Cllr Glen Burrows said a community response was needed to the issue.

She said: “There is a wall of hysteria around this and often an intolerant attitude. The answer is a community response not putting more people in prison.

"There’s plenty of abominable people out there in suits and ties as well and who live in nice houses."