Retired Norwich judge issues plea to help the homeless

A retired Norwich judge has issued a plea for people to help the homeless by supporting shelter schemes and housing trusts in the city.

The call comes from Judge Paul Downes, who retired as a full time judge at Norwich Crown Court just weeks before Christmas – traditionally the most difficult time of the year for people who find themselves living on the streets.

Judge Downes, who was appointed a judge in 1995, said: 'I'm a trustee of what used to be the Night Shelter, St Martins Housing Trust, and we have two to three homes which we get people into on an emergency basis.

'I think it's an area that the public ought to be much more supportive of. I usually go collecting on Christmas Eve and members of the public are normally very generous – they can see the impact of having a night shelter or a hostel for homeless people.

'We actually built a hostel, Bishop Bridge House, a few years ago with public subscriptions and I went around it, about six years ago.

'I went round it last week and it's in pristine condition even though its been open several years, which seems to indicate if you give people somewhere decent to live they respect it.'

Derek Player, general manager of the St Martins Housing Trust homeless charity, which next year celebrates its 40th anniversary and provides accommodation at Bishop Bridge House, Highwater House, and Carrow Hill home in Norwich, said he welcomed Judge Downes' plea and hoped the public would support the charity's annual Christmas fundraising campaign.

Most Read

He said: 'We don't really fundraise throughout the year. Its better to telescope our efforts in the month before Christmas.

'If shoppers can spare a few coins that will all help us and we like to advise all our donors exactly how we can invest the money.'

Mr Player said the charity was 'very grateful' for all the public support it received in the form of donations but added that it was becoming increasingly difficult to generate funds in the current economic climate.

He said: 'I think we're finding it more difficult to preserve our existing services let alone expand them to meet increased demand.

'We do a lot of fundraising at St Martin's. We will be starting our pre-Christmas street collections next week. We've got a lot of generous donors through the church network in the county.

'We still have to fight our corner in a very competitive marketplace with animal charities, the big health charities and also religions as well. That's where a lot of people do donate money, but we'd like to think we've got a pretty good relationship with people in the city and county and they've been very generous.

'I think people do understand about homelessness and I think everyone realises we're going through a serious housing crisis at the moment the like of which we haven't seen for quite some years.

'We've got a serious mismatch between supply and demand and we're not building enough affordable social housing and the biggest losers in that are the people who have nowhere else to go right at the bottom of the ladder. That's what we exist to do - to pick up those people who turn up at our door who have nowhere else to go.'

The scale of the problem of homelessness in Norwich is highlighted by demand for places at the St Martin's Housing Trust run hostel at Bishop Bridge House on Riverside Road, Norwich.

Mr Player said: 'We've always got a very strong demand for the 30 beds at Bishop Bridge House - we never have a spare bed through the year. Someone leaves and we immediately bring someone else in.'

Recent figures show there are about 14,000 people currently on the social housing waiting list for Broadland, South Norfolk and Norwich City councils.

While at the last rough sleeper count, which was carried out earlier this month by Norwich City Council with the help of a number of homelessness agencies, the number of people rough sleeping in the city was six.

Victoria MacDonald, cabinet member for housing, said: 'Norwich City Council provides support to anyone at risk of losing their home and we can also signpost people to other agencies that can help.

'I attended the rough sleeper count earlier this month and saw first hand the real commitment shown by numerous organisations working across the city to address rough sleeping. We are committed to working with local partners, such as these, to tackle and prevent homelessness in Norwich, and we have a highly skilled housing options team that takes every possible step to prevent people from losing their home. City hall is your first port of call if you are facing this problem - our customer contact team based here can put you in touch with our housing advisors, whose primary role is to help people avoid becoming homeless.'

Tim Sweeting, chief executive of YMCA Norfolk, urged members of the public to support charities and organisations who help homeless people in the weeks leading up to Christmas - whether it be financially or by giving their time.

He said: 'Christmas is a particularly difficult time of year. It's winter, it's freezing outside at this time of year. It's a good time to remember those people who are not just on the street, but also who don't have somewhere to call a home.

'It's important we're not just talking about lodgings - a roof over your head. Having a home is the foundation of being able to build a solid, settled life on which you build relationships, jobs, training or whatever it might be. It's the foundation for life.'

Over the past year, YMCA Norfolk has increased the number of young people it houses every night to 244, trebling the service in Great Yarmouth alone.

Work in the area of supporting parents, health and well-being have all been added to the service at the same time as raising more than �600,000 of the �1m needed to fund the new 40-bed Bethel Street housing scheme in Norwich.

The new development, behind the current St Giles Street building, is due to open in spring next year.

Have you turned your life around after living on the streets? Call reporter Peter Walsh on 01603 772436 or email