As Omar Ali walks through Pill – the historic and most multicultural district of Newport – he is stopped every few yards with smiling faces and messages of goodwill.
“It breaks my heart, these people deserve so much more than this,” he said.
He’s invited me to spend an afternoon here, walking up and down the main Commercial Road street, a stone’s throw from the city centre, to shine a light on the gruelling issues the folk here have to experience every day.
Prostitution, drug dealing, vandalism and alcoholism have been problems at the surface of Pill life for a long time now.
People living in the side streets here tell stories of women waiting for men who drop their partners off at the shop, before trying to get their “business”, and of fearing to venture to the high street. Traders tell of sometimes sleeping in their shops due to fear of people breaking in and wrecking their livelihoods.
The pandemic has made things worse, and the “real Pill people” have had enough.
“This community needs help now, and I’m not prepared to turn a blind eye,” said Omar, who has lived in Pill all his life and who drives taxis in Newport. “The problems are concentrated on Pill now, we can’t accept it.”
Residents and traders believe Pill has been targeted during the pandemic as a place to house homeless people, whether temporarily or permanently.
Within a short radius of the high street vulnerable people are being housed in hostels, ‘pods’ and hotels. Around 10 people can cram into a hostel on Commercial Road, while more are being housed at the pods at Mission Court and on Albert Street. But there are many more.
No-one here disputes that homeless people deserve a proper home, but there are real fears a multi-agency approach to rehouse people as quickly as possible is causing more harm than good.
“We appreciate that the homeless people have suffered significant trauma for many years, but they need more support than this,” Omar added, referring to the quality of accommodation. “Where the new hostels and pods are sited actually victimises many of these vulnerable people. It isn’t an opportunity for rehabilitation. The clustering has and will continue to make matters worse for them, residents and traders.”
Ann Barton has owned her florist business on Commercial Road for 40 years, and was looking forward to a boom in trade after lockdown, but she’s never known business as bad as it is now.
“Sometimes I go a whole day and don’t see anyone in this shop anymore,” she said. “It’s such a shame what is happening. Pill is a lovely community and you won’t find nicer people than proper Pill people.
“My family are from Pill. It used to be the cleanest place. It was like a competition to be cleaner than next door, and everyone left their doors open. But all the rubbish has been dumped on Pill now and we can’t take it anymore.”
When Ann arrives at work at 5.30am, she said she almost always sees people performing sexual acts on benches outside.
“Sometimes it even carries on long into the morning, and kids are passing and seeing it,” she said. “Prostitution has been an issue in Pill for years, but it’s different now. It’s blatant.
“I have customers pull up outside and they’re being offered business. To get customers here now is tough. People say they haven’t seen me in ages and when I ask why they say it’s because they are scared to come.”
Bilal Ahmed owns NB Cash and Carry further down the road towards the city’s famous Transporter Bridge. He’s been here for more than 20 years at different sites on the road, but said he’s now close to giving up – as are many others.
After a recent break-in he slept in his shop because he was so paranoid about a repeat offence.
“We’ve had numerous break-ins that have cost me a lot of money in damages,” he said. “I worry quite a lot most nights. It’s got to a point where I have to think about moving.”
He tells of his business partner recently being attacked by a person living in one of the nearby hostels after asking the man to leave the site over an anti-social behaviour incident. He had to spend a day in hospital to recover from his injuries.
“I was thinking about doing up the shop front to make it look a bit nicer, but there isn’t much point because it will just get vandalised.”
By May 31 this year [the latest available data] 6,838 people were in temporary accommodation in Wales according to government statistics. That is an increase from 105 in April, and 1,394 of these people were dependent children.
The current figures represent a significant increase compared to before the pandemic. At the end of March 2020, when lockdown started in Britain, around 2,300 people were in temporary accommodation.
The manager of a premises in Newport which houses previously homeless people agreed to speak to WalesOnline anonymously about issues of hostels having an adverse effect. He said it’s undoubtedly a good thing to get people off the streets, but it isn’t being done correctly.
They said: “Pill is the easy option for the authorities. I think they think ‘just put them in Pill and nobody will care’. It’s not sorting out the issue. It boils down to choosing an area where the authorities think they will get the least hassle [for housing vulnerable people].
“There are many large buildings in the city centre which could house homeless people right now, but they still choose to cram them into Pill.
“I think the buck stops with the Welsh government. There is so much pressure to house people quickly, but it’s about how you house people.”
They said they feared many hostel managers were not giving vulnerable people the time they need.
“I have always thought doing this job is about investing in the people that are staying with you. I see it as my duty,” they said.
They said if the accommodation was spread around Newport, rehabilitation would be much more likely.
“This problem has been here for some time, but it’s clear Covid has really exacerbated this,” they explained. “What we have now are groups of mentally ill and vulnerable people living next to young families. It has been caused by a desperation to fill rooms quickly. The Welsh government is saying it will get every person off the street. It is impossible that can be achieved in this way. These people are only sleeping in these hostels, they’re not being rehabilitated. They’re on the street all day and much of the night. Doing it this way is just a waste of money.”
Curtis Laurence, who part owns No1 Barbers on Commercial Road, said he has tried to work with housing associations and the council throughout the pandemic, but the problem is continuing.
His business brings in visitors from all over the region. He said he’s determined to try and stay in Pill and fight the issue, but is concerned issues around temporary accommodation have led to other traders “giving up”.
“Right now these hostels are out of control,” he said. “We see blatant prostitution every day, people drinking on the street at all times. Where is the support for us and for them?
“I see foreign traders move here to set up a business, and they’re scared of these people coming onto their premises. If things that happen here happened in Rogerstone it would be stopped immediately.
“It’s still Pill – and Pill has a loving and multinational culture. There are a lot of good people here. But a lot of these people are being driven away. You don’t see them now. It hits all of us.”
Teblez Burrows is one of the traders who has moved in during the pandemic. She arrived in March last year from Saudi Arabia to open Bana Restaurant on the road.
She said considering the street is often packed with people, she was surprised with the low interest in her restaurant at first.
“It’s not like I expected,” she said. “People come in sometimes and say they’re shocked how nice it is here inside. When they come in they love it. But the problem is out there. Some people tell me they wish I was somewhere else.”
A spokesperson for Newport city council said: “Newport city council’s housing support teams have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to find appropriate accommodation for rough sleepers and those presented as homeless.
“At the start of the crisis, Welsh government directed that everyone living on the streets should be placed in temporary accommodation.
“The council does not have its own housing stock so had to secure a range of accommodation throughout the city. It has depended on availability, not location.
“Throughout the last 15 months, people have continued to present as homeless as relationships have broken down or ‘sofa surfing’ arrangements ended, for instance. All had to be found somewhere to live.
“More than 300 units of accommodation have been found during the pandemic for rough sleepers and homeless people. This included using private-rented properties, houses of multiple occupation, hotels and creating the temporary managed units in Mission Court
“Many people in this position also have other problems such as addiction or mental health issues. Support has been provided by the council and its trusted partners to help deal with these and, where necessary, properties have been staffed and managed.
“Some people have been able to use this opportunity to turn their lives around and move on to supported accommodation or become tenants of their own homes.
“However, it has to be recognised that others have continued to lead chaotic lives. Some have been rehoused multiple times. Anyone who has concerns about people behaving in a criminal or anti-social way should contact the police or the council.
“Like many people in the city, Newport city council shares the ambition of the Welsh Government to see an end to homelessness and rough sleeping. Some schemes for move-on or more permanent accommodation across the city are in place and others are being planned.
“This will not be easy to achieve but the alternative is the return of many more people living on our streets and that is something the majority of our residents do not want.”
A spokesperson for the Welsh Government said: “Throughout the pandemic we’ve worked to ensure that no-one is left without accommodation. As a result over 10,000 people have been supported to stay safe since March 2020.
“We have provided additional funding to local authorities to provide accommodation and crucially the support packages needed.
“It is to the huge credit of local authorities and partners that in the face of continuing pressure so many people are being accommodated, not just in the short term but also in long term homes.
“We’ve been clear that there is no going back – our Programme for Government has set out our intention to fundamentally reform homelessness services to focus on prevention and rapid rehousing.”
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