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Indies seek help with homeless ‘epidemic’

Independent fashion retailers across the UK and Ireland are calling for government support to help tackle the homelessness crisis, which they claim is putting shoppers off visiting the high street. 

Drapers’ exclusive survey on the state of independent retail found small business owners are facing a catalogue of challenges, including high business rates, rents and a lack of investment in local high street regeneration. Several respondents also pointed to the growing problem of homelessness. 

The latest Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government figures, which were collected in the autumn of 2018 and published in January this year, show that on average 4,677 people are estimated to be sleeping rough on any one night across England. 

The West Midlands showed the biggest year-on-year increase in rough sleeping in 2018 (up 42%), followed by the north-east of England (29%), Yorkshire and the Humber (19%), East Midlands (14%) and London (13%). 

“The homelessness issue has gotten a lot worse over the past few years,” said Martin Brighty, owner of menswear independent Peckham Rye in London’s Carnaby.

“A lot of homeless people who hang around the shop are abusive and there are lots of knife fights. A couple of guys have given one of my staff abuse before for not giving them change. It’s really intimidating, and it feels unsafe to be in the shop on your own. It also puts people off from coming inside the shop.”

An independent womenswear store owner in the West Midlands told Drapers: “Businesses have folded and gone away, making the town look so dilapidated and empty. This is made worse by drug addicts, alcoholics and homeless people who are sleeping in the empty shops, and walking around the town day and night. While I have empathy for them, they are driving people away from the town.”

She added: “The local council needs to step in and help. For independent businesses in town centres, this issue really has to be addressed.”

One managing director of several menswear independents across the UK said: “We had no homelessness till a year ago. Now we have a group of rough sleepers and they are big problem. No one wants to walk into urine-ridden doorways, especially the retail staff who have to clean up the mess.

“If the government wasn’t so busy on Brexit, they could get back to more localised issues and this is definitely a big one.” 

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government was unable to comment because of election purdah. However, the government’s £1.2bn Rough Sleeping Initiative, introduced in March 2018, has provided £76m to 244 councils to reduce rough sleeping. In the original 83 areas funded under the initiative in 2018/19, the numbers of people sleeping rough was found to be around a third lower than predicted if the initiative had not been in place. This scheme will provide an estimated 2,600 more bed spaces and 750 additional specialist support staff this year.

Meanwhile, the Labour party has promised to do more to tackle homelessness in its pre-general election manifesto. 

Some indies are partnering with local charities to try and alleviate the problem. 

Clothing and accessories independent Roo’s Beach in Newquay is hosting a “Festive Fling Party” on 28 November in support of charity St Petroc’s Society, which is working to put an end to street homelessness in Cornwall. It also has a “Donation Station” for the charity in its store, where shoppers can drop off bedding, clothing and footwear for homeless people. 

Emma Limn, digital marketing and ecommerce assistant at Roo’s Beach, said: “Newquay has a massive problem with homelessness. At night, most shop doorways have people sleeping in them, looking for shelter. Unfortunately it makes the town look run-down, and there is definitely a sense of insecurity walking through the town at night.”

Julia Jaconelli, owner of womenswear independent Courtyard in Guildford, said she is considering setting up her own charity: “As we do seem to have a lot of homeless people around our area, I am considering running a charity for the homeless where people bring their old designer clothes in and we have an event to raise money for them by donating the money raised to a local homeless organisation.”

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