Friday. 8.20am. The rhythmic shunting of the earth to explore the grounds for a new school building next door has been vibrating for half an hour now. Bute Street is waking up – been woken up. There is a trickle of two way traffic as workers walk to and fro, taking the half mile route from city centre to bay. It is too early yet for the school run.
Near the shops at Loudoun Square, at one of the corners of Christina Street, a solitary homeless man leans on a garden wall. His arm suspended in a sling, he looks, walks in a circle, leans again, waits. There are no drug dealers yet. It happens sometimes, when there is a momentary pause in proceedings on this side of Butetown. Maybe they’ve sailed across to the ‘Paddle Steamer’ or loiter on the edge of Canal Park. Maybe the drugs have dried up for a while, as they wait for a new delivery.
Throughout each day, there is often a steady stream of homeless people making their way to Butetown. A ten minute watch – and you can count a dozen as they turn into Christina Street, make a deal, and then scurry away. It’s suggested that some people are injecting up to 8 times a day – you can do the maths yourself, work out the cost, imagine where the money comes from, imagine where it goes, a tenner a time.
The guy with a sling moves on, looks further afield, stops me as I walk back from the shops, asks if he can buy a cigarette.
In recent days, there has been a Twitter search for the moral high ground. There are mixed responses to tents dispersed across the city centre, half a dozen in Queen Street, others spread across the Hayes and High Street. This is a polarised conversation. Some say ‘Tear them down.’ Others prefer to express a more patient way, and then there are those who jump from one pole to another. All have a point to make. But complex issues are not solved by Trump-like twitter posts. (LINK: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/tory-councillor-branded-vile-calling-15730801
Two years ago when the streets gave way to the Championship League Final, there was the rumour, denied by police, that they had instructed homeless people, rough sleepers, to clear the city centre. Other council officials I have spoken to accept that this was the case.
Watch what happens in the city centre around the tents and those who sit in doorways a hundred yards apart. See coffee cups and fast food, sandwiches and money dropped into the hands of those who beg. For some, it may be the tenth sandwich they’ve received that day. Some people visit Cardiff armed with tents to distribute to rough sleepers, give them shelter, and inadvertently keep them on the street that much longer.
The gesture is well meaning, comes from a good heart and yet, quite often, the money invests in the industry of drugs, lines the pockets of some who make more money in a week than I see in a month. And then there is the associated knife crime too. A blade is never far away from a deal done on the street.
There are many services which reach out to the homeless – including hostels, emergency beds, support and advice services, drug services, and an abundance of food available at various times of the day and night at various points in the city. What could they do with a tenner? (LINK: http://www.huggard.org.uk/free-food-available-to-the-homeless/)
“I’ve never known anyone beg their way off the street,” said Richard Edwards, CEO for Huggard, in a television news item. The winter time raises the profile of homeless people, begs the public interest, gives homeless charities air time to get their point across.
It was recently announced that ‘FOR Cardiff’s’ Give Differently Campaign, a contactless payment point in the city, raised relatively little – in one year, £9,964 of which over half was a grant from Cardiff Council. Many people support the homeless charities in lots of different ways, through donations and practical support but perhaps some folk, filled with compassion, prefer to give direct. (LINK: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/contactless-payments-scheme-help-homeless-15713026)
In 2018, the Huggard worked with 1,274 people, 649 of whom had slept on the streets of Cardiff last year. But as one person is helped off the street, another soon appears. There is plenty of floor space on the streets of Cardiff.
As winter sets in, extra cold weather provision is put in place. More than ninety additional spaces are provided in addition to the 216 hostel places for single homeless people, 78 emergency beds, and 390 supported accommodation units that are available all year round.
Ian Ephraim, from the council’s city centre outreach team, said the average number of empty emergency bed spaces was currently 15 per night – from 88 available spaces. He said there had not been a single night when the provision was full. (LINK: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/explosion-drug-use-among-cardiffs-15726120)
It’s difficult to avoid stereotyping – and each person who has found themselves homeless has a different story to tell. Their needs are complex, their lives often chaotic. There are many reasons why some find it difficult to access services to help them off the streets, but the majority of homeless people in Cardiff have some drug related aspect to their lives.
“In the last couple of years,” says Richard Edwards of Huggard, “we have seen a huge explosion of drug users in the city with the homeless community.”
The news headlines capture phrases such as ‘Crisis Point’ – but even the definition of that phrase keeps changing, gets loaded with weightier consequences, as we discover afresh what ‘crisis point’ actually means. Each turn in the statistics revisits a response that was considered some time ago and rejected. This time, it’s safer places for people to take drugs, enhanced harm reduction centres, where people could inject drugs safely with medical supervision, keeping more people off the streets. (LINK: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-46978120)
A few years ago, this was considered by Cardiff Council but it was decided that then was not the right time, and so it was put aside, waiting for the crisis point. Time for a rethink?
There are, of course, consequences for all the individuals involved, and for others too – for businesses, visitors and investors, for local communities, like Butetown where the industry of drugs meets the demise of the poor, and children are brought up in an environment where it is now quite normal to see small cling film parcels passed from hand to hand, and notes exchanged in front of you, in full view, a game to be mimicked in the playground – Cowboys and Indians gives way to County Lines.
At Christmas, St Mary’s Church adopted two charities: Huggard and Tiger Bay Amateur Boxing Club – with the aim of trying to contribute in some small way to addressing two related issues which impact most profoundly on those who live in Butetown: homelessness and drug dealing. The Boxing Club works with young people from across the city to guide them away from drugs and dealing and into sports and fitness, teaches discipline and more healthy lifestyles, and provides some mentors too. A recent report presented to Cabinet stated there was no correlation between cuts in youth services and a rise in drug dealing, but there is no indication of the evidence behind this observation.
The dealers, too, are not all Butetown born and bred. They skirt across the bridge from east and west, across the bridge from Grangetown, Splott and other places around the city – for this is an easy place to sell, with a sitting clientele just a five minute walk away. Last week, walking to the shops in Loudoun Square, a new kid on the block thinks he’s blown my cover, thinks I am undercover police. Unfamiliar with my face, on three different occasions he calls out to me, ‘Alright, Officer . . .you’re a FED mate.” Think’s he is clever but simply betrays his own unease at the possibility of police who may move in again.
9.20am, an hour later, near the large decorative letters which spell out that this is Loudoun Square, our local councillor gathers with what appears to be other council officials. They are as easily spotted as someone who is homeless. Stereotypes abound. He greets me, offers a handshake, tells me that CCTV cameras are due to be fitted around Christina Street within the next two weeks.
We know this won’t solve the problem, will just push dealers elsewhere, somewhere, anywhere, but it will give some people a release from the constant crack cocaine and heroin exchanges done on their doorstep, in their face.
Back home, the drilling in the playing field continues –waiting for a new St Mary’s School to find a home, as Cardiff continues to grow up and out. Here, the pavement is well walked by tourists who seek the Bay beyond, by parents and children skipping their way to school, by city workers who walk between the water’s edge and the concrete, steel and glass of the city centre. And there are those, too, who have left behind their tents and hostel beds, carry their complex lives and their tenner notes, dip into Christina Street where someone waits now with a bag of white. “That’s a tenner to you, mate.”