At one of the few Council debates that was not over-shadowed by political knock about, all councillors who spoke showed the sympathy, care and understanding that we would expect from our elected representatives. Perhaps everyone realised that, in the words of a song, “..there but for fortune go you or I”.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the discussion was that the Tories moved a motion, which they then used their majority to push through, to find the money to extend the project only until the end of October but they did concede that they would consider extending it further if there was no coherent strategy. The project funds two outreach workers who have already established a rapport with the street-drinkers. As Linsey Cottington was quick to point out, this extension allows Council to learn the lessons from the project and develop a strategy for the whole of Kingston.
It is easy to condemn street-drinkers but their stories reveal how like anyone else they are. Addiction is a terrible affliction but how common it is. For every drinker on the street there are ten, twenty, thirty times that number who keep their addiction hidden. In fact it was said of a former leader of Kingston council – and how true this is we cannot say – that officers would try and get a decision in the morning because after lunch he was too often beyond rational judgement. Addiction consumes all, trampling down relationships all around, as erstwhile friends and family back away, uncomprehending, hurt, despairing and not knowing what to do.
But addiction to alcohol, that most dangerous of drugs which is pushed at us on every occasion, masks a whole raft of problems. Amongst these features mental illness. And mental illness, something that affects one person in four at some time during their life, has been for too long the subject of prejudice, ignorance, discrimination and joke. Since 2010 twenty percent of the inadequate budget devoted to mental health has been slashed away. Those ignored and rejected in their time of so much need, resort to what solace they can find: too often that includes the self-medication of drink or drugs.
Things go wrong in our lives: relationship breakdown, misfortune, stupid decisions. For many of us the pain and anguish is contained, often with the help of an extensive support network. But for many others it creates a personal disaster and emotional discontinuity in the flow of their lives. The discontinuity becomes a way of life and the everyday spirals beyond control. Suddenly they are homeless, alone and destitute.
We have ridiculously poor provision for the homeless. And even that which exists is short-term and limited. Many homeless find a bed for the night but then are sent back out on the street for the day. There are very limited toilet and washing facilities for those without funds. Getting a job is extremely difficult for those who do not have the means to make themselves presentable, nor an address through which to communicate, nor the means through which to engage in job search or employer interaction.
Food is a problem for the homeless. How, if you are on the streets, do you find the money to purchase it and how do you cook food even if you have some money? Is it a wonder that those on the street eat the unhealthiest of foods: this adds to the unhealthy life-style and to the decline in well-being.
It is easy to see why people in this situation self-medicate with drink and drugs to escape from reality and just make it to the next day. The boredom of their lives on the streets increases the attraction of drink and drugs albeit a short-term palliative. But most of all, a hard, cold, tarmac and concrete bed, with the ever present danger of robbery and attack, means alcohol and drugs are almost a pre-requisite for sleep.
If the extension is an attempt to brush this issue under the carpet in a period of tough budget decision making, then the Kingston and Surbiton Labour Party will be up in arms. The Council must start its review and strategy development now. If it fails, the remaining months will sail by and nothing but futile hand-wringing will have occurred. Use these months well. All councillors acknowledged the need to act. Let us see it happen.