WHILE most of us have been enjoying the warmth of family gatherings and home comforts over the festive period, a growing number of people in High Wycombe have been faced with temporary accommodation or the prospect of sleeping rough this Christmas.

The Wycombe Homeless Connection has reported a huge rise in attendances, with 1,037 visits made to its thrice-weekly drop-in centres up until September - an 80 per cent rice on the same time last year.

And people pleading for help having described themselves as homeless to the charity is also up 27 per cent on September 2012.

The connection expects unprecedented demand to its Winter Night Shelter when it opens next month, traditionally when the temperature plummets and the homeless numbers grow.

But with the continuing economic downturn coupled with the introduction of the Government’s Universal Credit benefit system in April, charity bosses expect the homeless crisis to deepen.

Dr Sheena Dykes, Chair of Trustees, says: "So many people have been made redundant this year, in the face of widespread job losses.

"Together with planned cuts in welfare payments, we predict a dire winter ahead for the homeless in Wycombe."

During a Free Press visit to the drop-in centre, charity trustee Paul Griggs was holding a triage service - giving vulnerable people someone to talk to and receive day-to-day advice.

Mr Griggs warned more needs to be done if Wycombe is to eradicate its homeless problem - starting with the attitude towards the situation.

He said: "When we started this project people asked ‘why are you doing that, we don’t have a homeless problem here’.

"And the other problem is people see a few guys sitting on the street drinking and assume they are the homeless people - there are loads of people homeless in Wycombe and they are not necessarily them.

"A lot of them are from relationship breakdowns, we’ve seen architects to business men who have lost their business. A couple of years ago we had someone who was worth £2m on the stock exchange, who lost it all and, as a result, lost his home and his family.

"It isn’t fair to pre-judge every homeless person - it can happen to anyone, you’re only two paycheques away from homelessness. We could do with more interaction and support, especially for single homelessness."

The charity is working with Wycombe District Council to address the homeless issue, with the connection keen to set up a full-time shelter.

Mr Griggs said: "Besides the shelter between January-March, we don’t have any emergency provision in Wycombe.

"So any other time of the year we either have to send folks back to their own local area connection or across the county to Hemel Hempstead, which is the only shelter with open access."

But a lack of available private-rented housing is the major problem, with many landlords preferring to target the growing student population.

Mr Griggs said: "Single males over 25 are the lowest need when it comes to accommodation, there’s a shortage there - if you’re not in priority need you go on the Bucks Home Choice system.

"The irony is, unless you have something drastically wrong with you, the chances of getting housed on that if you’re aged between 25-50 are pretty slim unless you have an addiction issue or have a leg missing.

"That niche group of guys are only really going to be able to access private rented homes - but where is that going to come from? About ten years ago we were flooded with private rented homes.

"I’m not declining the fact we have the university, but if you think a landlord has a choice between an unemployed guy or five students, with parents guaranteeing them, a month’s rent in advance and a deposit - what would you take?"

Planning on how best to tackle the incoming benefit changes is also a challenge facing the charity’s team of expanding volunteers and staff.