“We’re all just two pay cheques away from the streets”: A day in the life of a Norwich homeless charity
- Credit: Archant
Editor David Powles spends a day in the life of a Norwich homeless charity to look at the work they do, cover the stories of some of the people they help and to find out about the current situation in the city.
A TYPICAL CITY CENTRE SCENE?
It's 7am on the second week of January. The temperature is just two degrees above zero, yet there in the doorway of a city centre shop is someone covered by cardboard boxes, trying to get some sleep.
I can't imagine they are getting any. It looks cold, uncomfortable and, quite frankly, degrading.
Yet to those of us who travel in and out of the city on a daily basis sights like these appear to have become more commonplace. It feels like homelessness is a growing problem, not just on the streets of Norwich, but nationally too.
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Across the city there are a number of organisations tasked with combating this, identifying those at risk and helping them to put their lives back on track.
One of these is St Martin's Housing Trust, a dedicated homeless charity with, as I'm soon to find out, specialist centres all over the city.
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They also happen to be one of the beneficiaries of our Surviving Winter campaign, which aims to raise cash for those in poverty and in need of a helping hand during the winter months.
TWO PAY CHEQUES AWAY FROM HOMELESSNESS
As thousands across the city start to wake or get that first cuppa of the day, work is already underway to provide support to those sleeping rough on the streets.
St Martin's form part of a relatively new scheme called Pathways. The aim of this has been to improve the success for those organisations that work with the homeless (and consequently the outcomes for the homeless themselves) by having them work more closely together.
And a big part of this is the regular street counts which take place in the early hours of the day. These are not just about checking on the welfare of those sleeping rough, but then talking to them, understanding their situations and pinpointing them the best support. Much easier done when people from those organisations make those decisions together.
There is no typical morning for this team. They will come across alcoholics and drug addicts, people with severe mental ill health issues, former business people, family men and women whose relationships have broken down. Sadly sometimes they will come across a tragedy, other times they will almost certainly prevent one.
Of those they meet some will want a helping hand, some will refuse. That's their choice and it has to be respected.
Their background doesn't matter to St Martin's, they believe that everyone deserves a chance and everyone should be treated with care and dignity. As any human would want to be treated.
I speak to Jan Sheldon, chief executive of St Martin's, about the perception Norwich has a growing homeless problem and her response is something of a surprise.
She said: 'Actual numbers of those sleeping rough in Norwich are falling and Pathways has had a big impact on that. We're bucking the national trend.
'It's always important to remember that not every person begging on the streets is homeless, just as not every homeless person on the streets is begging.'
That said, the charity is still in the process of negotiating with Norwich City Council over the possibility of leasing a building from them to open a new 20-bed facility for the homeless, such is the demand on the current facilities they have.
She joined St Martin's just over a year ago and sees her role as not only being a champion for the charity, but also to stick up for the people they look after.
She added: 'Few people want to be living on the streets, it's important to remember that. Often something has gone horribly wrong in their lives and it impacts them.
'That is something we really want to educate the public about. They used to say you were just three missing pay cheques away from being at risk of homelessness, but now I think it's two. It's important people realise it could happen to anyone.'
LOTS OF THESE PEOPLE HAVE NEVER BEEN GIVEN A CHANCE IN LIFE
I don't think you'd be able to find two people as passionate about what they do as Angela Herbert and Ian Boag, manager and assistant manager respectively at Highwater House, the charity's residential service for some of the most high-risk and emotionally complex people it supports.
It strikes you within just a few minutes of being in their company. It's intoxicating and completely contagious.
The other thing that strikes you, not just about these two but all that I've met during this enlightening visit, is their compassion for others - no matter what their back stories.
Angela says: 'A lot of these people (who they help) have never been given a chance in life. A high proportion have been abused as a child or had terrible things happen to them. So many of them are not given a chance until they come here.'
Highwater House, based on Westwick Street, caters for up to 22 people at any one time, all of them referred to the service by other agencies because their needs are so severe.
They will be given a bed, 24-hour care, health and welfare support if needed and whatever it takes to try and get them back on their feet. There's no rush, no time limits, no pressure - just support.
It's striking how much care and attention is given to every detail to try and create the right environment. It's known as a psychologically informed environment (PIE), so the smaller details matter.
Angela explains: 'We don't have signs that say 'don't do this, don't do that', in fact we have no negative signage up at all. Staff don't have name tags or key fobs dangling down their sides, this should not feel like an institution. We want people to feel welcome.'
Perhaps more controversially this isn't a 'dry house', residents have a room they can still drink in if they want to. The thinking behind this is that if you take that dependency completely away at the start, it will force people out onto the streets where it is more dangerous to them.
Instead they will work with alcoholics to reduce their consumption in a way that gives each individual control of their own destiny.
The pair boast decades of experience working with homeless people. I ask them if they believe the attitudes of general members of the public have changed at all?
Ian says: 'Generally people are empathic but we do still hear distressing stories of drunks coming out of pubs and kicking, punching or urinating on homeless people. We even had one incident in Norwich where freezing water was thrown on two people sleeping on the streets. How could people do that to another human being?'
He says of the importance of Highwater House: 'We keep people who are incredibly emotionally damaged, safe. Every city needs the equivalent of this. It means people aren't out on the streets, vulnerable. Giving them somewhere like this is so vital to the whole of our community.'
THE HOUSE ON THE HILL WHICH SAVES LIVES
'Without this place I'd either still be on the streets, or dead.'
These are the words of 45-year-old John when asked to describe what the support he receives from Bishopbridge House, St Martin's 37-bed drop-in facility, means to him.
Stark, but when you start to hear his story, about his health problems caused by injury in a childhood fire, his drug and alcohol addiction and then his loss of a leg due to illness, you begin to understand why it's been such a life saver. He even spent six nights sleeping rough in Norwich during last year's Beast from the East, until he was taken in by the hostel.
Bishopbridge, on Gas Hill, is where homeless people with slightly less complex needs, or maybe just in need of some emergency support, are likely to be referred or even refer themselves, at any time of the day or night.
I've joined support workers Laura Howes and Alex Colahan for their early morning 'welfare' rounds, a quick check of all residents to make sure they are safe and well and made aware of any appointments they might have.
These happen twice a day and, given the volatile nature of the lives some people living here lead, it's completely understandable and has saved lives in the past.
It gives me the opportunity to meet a few of the residents, interestingly pretty much a 50:50 split of men and women, and take a look around the facility, which also includes common rooms and kitchens.
Alex tells me: 'We try to encourage them to take care of the communal areas themselves, all part of giving them responsibility for something and helping to give them their independence back.'
Turnover of residents is more common here so I ask the support workers if they've seen any changing trends for those finding themselves on the streets?
'Mental health is the big one,' says Laura, 'and for some reason we seem to be seeing more men come to us who have just come out of a relationship.'
This is also a base for Pathways, the new outreach scheme operating in the city, and home to temporary bedrooms where several camp beds have been erected with the aim of getting people off the streets and safe during the coldest nights of the year.
CARE AND DIGNITY FOR THOSE LATER IN LIFE
You don't often think about what happens to those who are homeless or lead chaotic lives as they get older. Or if you do I guess you fear the worst.
In Norwich, a large proportion of them end up at Webster Court, a Lakenham-based sheltered housing scheme for over 50s with mental ill health issues, possible substance or alcohol misuse problems and links with homelessness.
Residents, who contribute towards their rent, can stay as long as they like.
As Joy Frary, centre manager, explains, homeless will become even more vulnerable the older they get, so it's vital they have somewhere safe, caring and away from some of the problems they may have encountered.
She added: 'Without this, these people would be on the streets, they wouldn't survive. Many of them can't manage their own flats, but we can give them support and care on the site, tailored towards whatever issues they may have.'
I meet Jimmy, a Scouser who has been in Norwich for years, living on and off the streets, and probably someone you'd recognise. I'm told he even has a song written about him called Prince Amongst Men.
And I meet Peter, who has been here for three years and suffers from dementia, no doubt made worse by the drink problem he battled for years.
It's only right there is somewhere for people like him to go, where they are treated with care and dignity.
FROM ABBA TO ART, MENTAL HEALTH TO HAIRCUTS
It seems apt to end the tour of St Martin's with a trip to Under 1 Roof, the Westwick Street-based training and development centre.
For many people this facility, which opened in 2010, represents the link between their old life and their new.
For someone who is staying at one of the charity's residential facilities, this might be the place where they gain valuable skills to help them once their personal problems have been ironed out and they are ready to move on.
But it can also be a vital facility for those who have already come out the other side, have put their lives back on track, but still need support to keep them there.
The programmes it provides are wide and varied. They range from computer lessons to singing sessions, housing advice to haircuts - and more.
Befitting the ethos of the charity as a whole, everyone is welcomed and no-one is turned away.
During my 90 minute stay at Under 1 Roof, I witness three women belting out ABBA songs in a session to boost well-being and mental health, several men access the computers to catch up on emails or polish their CVs and a large group arrive for band practice. They even produced and released a charity album last year, which is available still to buy and pumps money back into supporting others.
Sandra, one of the ABBA stars, tells me about the support she receives: 'I was in a very difficult place, but this has been a lifesaver. You come here and even though you might be fine one minute, in tears the next, no-one judges you. They just listen to you and help you through.'
And therein lies the theme which runs through every aspect of the work St Martins' does with the homeless. They won't judge you, they'll listen to you and they'll help you through.
FACTS AND FIGURES
The Pathways Norwich service is delivered by one team, employed by the different consortium organisations of the project; St Martins, Shelter, YMCA Norfolk, The Salvation Army, City Reach, The Feed and Future Projects. It is commissioned by Norwich City Council.
The average life expectancy of a homeless person is just 47.
St Martins has 129 staff members and at any one time supports around 200 people.
According to St Martin's, in the months July to September 51 known individuals were found bedded down in Norwich, 17 of whom were new to the streets. 15 of these were found suitable accommodation by the Pathways service.
Homelessness in Norwich will be the subject of a new Creative Matters season at Norwich Theatre Riyal, which begins later this month.
For more information about the Surviving Winter appeal and where to donate online visit www.norfolkfoundation.com.
You can also make a cheque payable to Norfolk Community Foundation and send it to Norfolk Community Foundation, St. James Mill, Whitefriars, Norwich, NR3 1TN.