Real Life Stories: How First Base Day Centre helped Joe off the streets

Many of the people we are seeing are new to rough sleeping, like Joe who was helped by First Base Day Centre.  This is his story:

“When Joe first came into our service, he had never before been in the position of rough sleeping.  He was 45 years of age, had worked fairly consistently and always had friends or partners he could rely on if work dried up and he found himself in between jobs.  The recession had meant that he had faced a longer period of not working, his relationship had succumbed to stress and he found himself sleeping on the beach.

“Joe had made a claim for Job Seekers Allowance, but had not received a payment after several weeks.  He had eaten nothing for two days and was embarrassed, he said that he had not washed or changed his clothes for a week.  We made sure that Joe had a hot meal, a change of clothes and was able to use the shower at First Base.

“Joe was assigned a caseworker who met with Joe every day for the following week and it became clear that he was feeling overwhelmed by his difficulties, ashamed and hopeless about his future.   He said that he had visited a railway bridge on several nights in the previous month and had considered throwing himself under a passing train.  Joe disclosed the difficulties that he experienced throughout his life and that these experiences were re-visiting him on a nightly basis and tormenting him.

“Joe’s caseworker referred him to the Mental Health Team, a multi-agency team providing mental healthservices for homeless people, contacted his GP and made Joe an emergency appointment.  The Doctor was sympathetic and offered medication and follow-up visits.

“It was obvious that Joe was in no position to be actively seeking work and he needed a new claim for a sickness related benefit.   Joe was very anxious and physically shaking while he spoke with the Department for Work and Pensions on the phone so his caseworker supported him with the call.  It was a further two weeks and many phone calls later that Joe received any benefit payment.

“Joe met with the Mental Health Team at First Base and they agreed to offer some on-going support, seeing Joe fortnightly, alongside regular contact with his GP and daily support from his caseworker.

“With the support of his caseworker, Joe arranged an appointment with a BHT housing adviser who suggested that he make a homeless application.  His application was rejected due to lack of medical information supporting his case.  As Joe did not have a local connection to Brighton and Hove it was not possible for him to be referred into one of the City’s hostels, so we began to explore the possibility of privately rented housing with support from another BHT project, Firm Foundations.

“Throughout this time, Joe was continuing to sleep on the beach and his mental and emotional state would fluctuate greatly on a daily basis.  Joe made very good use of services at First Base, including volunteering and on good days was able to plan the direction of casework himself.

“Over time, we collected letters from his GP and from mental health specialists involved in his care and re-submitted his homeless application.   With the additional evidence gathered Brighton and Hove City Council accepted Joe’s application for housing.

“Joe is now living in BHT supported accommodation for people experiencing mental health difficulties.  He has key work support from this project alongside specialist mental health support for Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He is engaging with alcohol support services and still calls in periodically to let us know how things are for him.”

First Base operates in the centre of Brighton and is the main centre for the provision of support to assist people who are homeless or vulnerably housed in Brighton and Hove to move on from the streets or insecure accommodation and realise their aspirations.  First Base operates client-centred specialist services to support people who are sleeping rough in the city to get off the streets, start realising their aspirations through work, learning and leisure and find a place they can call home. Several services run from First Base including a Healthy Lifestyles Project (comprising the Catering Training Project and Fitness 4 All), PASH (Promotional and Awareness of Sexual Health), First Impressions (CV and Employment Service), Culture (Heritage and Cultural Activities), and Dine, our catering Social Enterprise company.  

My doubts about the value of Housing First

There is a growing consensus that Housing First is the way to go in combatting homelessness. Housing First is defined as “an approach that offers permanent, affordable housing as quickly as possible for individuals and families experiencing homelessness, and then provides the supportive services and connections to the community-based supports people need to keep their housing and avoid returning to homelessness”.

The concept of Housing First has been around since 1988 but in recent years it has been championed by Homeless Link and, as a result, has attracted more interest and support.

The concept, as applied in the U.K., is that street homeless people, usually with addictions and chaotic lifestyles, get housing and open-ended support in order to avoid further periods of homelessness. This is not conditional on any change of behaviour or the need to engage with support services.

There is very informative research carried out by Joanne Bretherton and Nicholas Pleace from the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York that is very positive about the nine pilots that have been run around England, including one in Brighton run by CGL (Change, Grow, Live, formerly CRI – Crime Reduction Initiatives).

I can see the positive aspects and achievements of Housing First, but I don’t think it is the panacea it is sometimes presented, and I think it has some fundamental flaws in principle.

The research found many positive outcomes had been achieved, for example:

  • 74% remained housed for over a year;
  • Bad or very bad health fell from 43% to 28%; and
  • Bad or very bad mental health fell from 52% to 18%.

But while there have been improvements in other areas, the situation remains depressingly poor:

  • Drug use fell only from 66% to 53%;
  • Those who “drank until they felt drunk” reduced only from 71% to 56%; and
  • Anti-social behaviour, compared to the year before entering Housing First, remained at 53% compared to 78%.

I am not sure whether we can regard a scheme as a success when the majority continue to use drugs, drink until they are drunk, and continue to commit anti-social behaviour.

In other areas of their lives, the improvements, while welcome, are not very encouraging. Begging dropped from 71% to 51%. Why, we should ask, are people who are housed, and getting support to claim benefits, still begging? 36% of those housed had been arrested, compared to 53% before they were housed.

For most of us, when we meet someone for the first time, the first two bits of information we share about ourselves are our names and what we do, be it paid or unpaid, work or hobbies. In the Housing First research, there was absolutely no change in the number of clients entering work, remaining stubbornly low at just 3%. Those in Housing First schemes are at risk of continuing to be defined by what they do: drinking until they are drunk, using drug, begging, perpetrating anti-social behaviour. Housing First hardly helps people to achieve their aspirations and their full potential.

My doubts about Housing First are those very principles that its advocates regard as its strengths:

  • It is based on a harm reduction model;
  • It offers open-ended support;
  • It is not conditional on engagement: and
  • Retention is not based on behaviour modification.

At its heart, Housing First lacks ambition, that change is possible, that people can achieve their aspirations and full potential. It embeds dependency, on welfare benefits and support. As one interviewee put it: he gets “help with everything”. At BHT, part of our ethos has seen a move away from staff always doing things for clients, helping with everything, to promoting change so that people can take advantage of the opportunities available to them so that they can combat their homelessness, poverty, mental ill health and addictions.

Economically, can the modest savings be regarded as adequate? The report found that savings were £15,000 per person per annum. While that is not to be dismissed, by being more ambitious, greater savings can be made. Our Addiction Services, for example, will see 60 individuals each year with a history of homelessness and addiction becoming abstinent and housed. Most go on to training and employment. Relationships strengthen, they don’t beg or steal, and their health improves. As a result, crime rates plummet and there are no demands on the police and criminal justice, there are fewer ambulance call outs, fewer attendances at A&E, welfare dependency reduces, people begin paying taxes.

For how long should landlords tolerate rent arrears and damage to property, disturbance to neighbours and the community excused, high levels of public funds be expended?

Housing First is an open-ended commitment. It would be great if we had open-ended resources, if we had plentiful housing, if we had homes with no neighbours being impacted by anti-social behaviour. But even then, I don’t find it acceptable, morally or economically, to leave people in action addiction, committing anti-social behaviour, begging and offending, when better outcomes are possible. Surely we can do better.

Inspiring accounts of recovery from addiction

I sometimes think that, after over 30 years at BHT, there is little more that could surprise me. But two things this evening have impressed on me how wrong I can be.

This evening (17th January 2017) I went for dinner at our Addiction Services, something I like to do every couple of months. It is an experience that never fails to move me. The accounts of how clients are determined to overcome their addictions is humbling, their courage awe inspiring.

One resident moved me to tears. He said that he is sixty and that this Christmas was the first in 50 years that he hasn’t been drunk. He spoke of his gratitude to the service because his gaining sobriety means that his eight year old son will never again have to see him drunk.

Another client was so determined to gain a place in the project that, in order to attend the pre-admission drop-in session, he had walked from Eastbourne (where he was in temporary lodgings) to Brighton, a distance of 22 miles.

i can’t imagine what these two clients must have gone through to achieve what they have. It is far too easy to dismiss those in active addiction. About twenty years ago I heard a worker in a drug prescribing service write off the prospects of recovery and abstinence by using the grotesque expression “once a junkie, always a junkie”. Thank goodness such attitudes have (largely) disappeared. And thank goodness that there are people in recovery who show just what is possible.

Brighton Pride, the Orlando shooting, and the struggle that continues

orlandolgbt_1280x720Tomorrow is Brighton Pride 2016.  I wrote yesterday about some early memories of Pride when it was a political demonstration, not the celebration it is today.  And while it is a celebration, I would urge you to remember that oppression and atrocities are still being carried out.

Three days after the Orlando massacre on June 12th 2016, a colleague of mine at BHT, Hannah Maher, wrote the following which I said I would publish on my blog, and have waited for this moment to do so:

The past 72 hours have been a real emotional rollercoaster for me.

I’m standing in a wet muddy field with my oldest friend from primary school, the two of us surrounded by excited metal heads, all of us waiting in anticipation as we get ready to rock out to Iron Maiden. I’m cold, tired and sore from partying for the past three days, but none of this dampens my joy – it’s the final day of my number one favourite festival and the headline act is about to begin! I was pumped.

So you can imagine how surreal it was to hear Bruce Dickinson denounce the horrific acts of a madman who opened fire on the patrons of a gay club across the pond that very same day. This was the first I’d heard of the shooting in Orlando.

For some reason, his words hadn’t quite registered in my mind and I continued to head bang alongside my friend and everyone else in the crowd. Maybe I was in shock or unable to comprehend what had happened. The next day, I took a look at my Facebook feed and it was flooded with article after article, recounting the terrible tragedy in Florida. It still took a while for the news to sink in, but slowly it did and manifested itself within me in the form of silent tears rolling down my cheeks.

This isn’t the first time I’ve opened my Facebook to be met with the news of yet another member of the LGBT community being murdered for who they are. Depressingly I am accustomed to hearing all about the violence my community is regularly forced to endure. Some, if not most of my friends on Facebook will probably have noticed the continual string of shared articles I post regarding the senseless killings of transgender women of colour across the globe. I am used to the hate.

I was about 8 years old when I realised I was a boy. I knew I didn’t belong in the girl’s school I had been enrolled in, but I also knew I couldn’t attend the boy’s school just up the road. In addition, I had absolutely no knowledge of the existence of the LGBT community and didn’t know that it was possible for people born in the wrong body to be who they really are. So instead of telling anyone about how I felt, I stupidly decided to live the following 14 years in complete denial of who I am. In retrospect, I think this was a wise choice. I can remember when I was a young teenager seeing documentaries on the television about transgender people. The way they were depicted back then was awful. These people were presented as being weird, as freaks and as rejects from “ordinary” society. At the time I didn’t consciously agree or disagree with any of this information; I just allowed it to sink into my head and thus shape my previously warped understanding of gender. What I was fully aware of at the time was people’s unnecessary and unfounded hatred towards trans people, hence why I’m glad I made the decision not to disclose my gender to anyone.

At the age of about 15, I realised I was attracted to women as well as men. There was a rumour going around school that some of the girls were bisexual. I would overhear my fellow classmates describe this kind of behaviour as disgusting, with one girl in particular calling lesbian sex an “abomination”. I was fuming, but feared for my safety. I decided not to disclose my sexuality to anyone. I knew that there were other people out there in the world who were exactly like me, but I was trapped in a hostile environment that refused to accept and support kids like myself. In response to all this, I isolated myself from everyone and buried my head in my studies. Finishing school and escaping that place never felt so unbelievably liberating.

On my 21st birthday, I came out to my family, telling them that I am bisexual. I had already told most of my friends way before. I now identify as pansexual. Last year, I discovered the term genderfluid, which I now use to describe my gender and also realised that I can pick and choose my own pronouns (I use they). I also identify as transgender. I am open with absolutely everyone about all this.

In my brief life so far, I have encountered so many horrid things. I’ve been aggressed in the street by complete strangers for “looking gay”, received criticism for queuing to use the men’s toilets, had boyfriends tell me I can’t have male or female friends because I’m attracted to both, had lovers tell me they’ll break up with me if I transition, had people argue over my pronouns, been told I’m schizophrenic for being trans, had my gender described as being “complete bullshit”, been called greedy, selfish, confusing, weird…I’ve even been asked “why can’t you just be normal?”.

And you know what? I would absolutely love to be your idea of “normal”. I would love to not have to fear for my life every time I mention openly in public that I’m trans and attracted to people regardless of their gender. I would absolutely love to know what it’s like to be able to be myself without feeling like there might potentially be a target in the middle of my forehead that I’m totally unaware of. The number of times I’ve been in situations where I am sweating and looking for escape routes, just in case some homophobic and/or transphobic nutter might be next to me with a knife – it’s a stressful existence.

I live in Brighton, the gay capital of the UK, and it’s great. For years, I have attended various Pride events and gay clubs across the world. I have worked with the LGBT community, including young kids in schools. I consider myself an active member of my community and love the fact that I am able to easily surround myself with people who are just like me. I can be safe.

So when you hear about a group of innocent people dying at the hands of a homophobe in a gay club, that sense of safety is completely ripped away from you. If I can’t feel safe in an environment which is meant to be a haven for myself and my community, then where else am I meant to go? How do I escape this feeling that my life is constantly in potential danger?

I’m not a martyr. I’m not the way I am as some kind of political or humanitarian statement. I do not exist to be killed because of who I am. I am just me. Why should I be defiant towards such acts of violence? Why should I potentially put my life on the line for the sake of a gay club or Pride event? Does it not make more sense for me to hide under my bed and never leave the house? Or start telling everyone that it was all just a phase and that I’m actually a straight woman? And quit all the LGBT voluntary work I do? Why do I have to be the one who suffers?

For reasons unbeknown to me, equality is a hard thing to fully achieve. Peace and understanding seem to only be achievable via pain, death, blood. I am able to live the life I live now because of those who have fallen so people like me can exist peacefully and happily. So many people have done so much for us; I will not allow the acts of one lunatic to destroy all their hard work.

I have been crying for three days because I am scared.

But I have also been crying for three days because we are stronger than you can ever imagine.

Remember to always love yourself and those around you.


Real Life Story: The Fulfilling Lives project is changing lives

fulfilling-lives-logo_W220Fulfilling Lives, working in East Sussex, is one of 12 projects across England where Big Lottery Fund investment is supporting people with complex needs.  This will be a combination of mental ill health, addictions, offending behaviour, and homelessness.  BHT is the lead partner in the south east project, one of twelve funded by the Big Lottery and operating nationwide.

As well as supporting people, the funding will evidence more effective and efficient ways for designing, commissioning and delivering support services for this group in the future.

The purpose of this initiative is to bring about lasting change in how services work with people with multiple and complex needs; this funding is a vehicle to help bring about that change.

biglotterylogo_W300-220x125The legacy of the eight year programme will be that systems and services in all three geographical areas will better meet the needs of this group.

Here is an account of one client who has benefited from the Fulfilling Lives programme.

Before joining Fulfilling Lives Jane (not her real name) had received support from a number of services and workers but only for short periods of time. This was due to a mixture of the set number of sessions available and staff turnover. She explained that the longest time she had been with a single worker was eight weeks. Having to repeat her story to new people caused stress and anxiety and she felt it was a contributing factor to her continual relapses.

One of the ways that Jane’s specialist worker at Fulfilling Lives has been able to support her is by negotiating new ways of accessing services that would benefit her recovery. Previously Jane had become homeless after entering a detox programme because her room in supported housing was not retained while was in the programme. In effect, the system saw this decision as making herself intentionally homeless. In addition, Jane had previously not completed detox programmes as she was excluded due to her behaviour.

Through the advocacy of her specialist worker, Jane’s housing was retained whilst she entered a detox programme. Her worker regularly visited her during detox and was able to advocate for Jane with service staff by recalling information and discussions undertaken. This advocacy helped address Jane’s behavioural challenges while providing her with the support she needed through the detox process from someone who knew and understood her well.

Fulfilling Lives provided Jane with access to therapeutic support via Horse Therapy. Before therapy Jane was unable to get on buses, go shopping, visit busy places, wait in queues of more than four people or use stairs. The therapy has enabled her to deal with her anxiety, rationalise her fears and conduct mindfulness.

Jane has now successfully been part of Fulfilling Lives initiative for over a year. She has completed her detox, retained her supported housing and is successfully addressing her mental health issues.

For her, the Fulfilling Lives approach has provided her with freedom: She is now looking at volunteering for a gardening programme, finishing her A-level English and conducting further volunteering with animals. Her focus is to undertake activities that are not completely wrapped around recovery so that she can feel normal.

From Client, to Intern, to Employee: dreams becoming reality

My colleague, Rob Robinson, one of our senior managers at BHT, received the following email on Friday. It was from someone Rob had worked with when he was our first Intern Co-ordinator.

“Hi Rob,

“I have got what I wanted and now work at (the name of his employer). My ‘outstanding’ application was as a result of following the clear, concise guidelines provided by you early on.

“You believed in me enough to start me off at Phase One and I have not looked back.

“I am now approaching the end of my Counselling Diploma and should qualify in the Autumn.

“My journey is only just starting, but I will never forget the faith you had in me and the opportunities you put in my path. Thank you. I would love to buy you coffee sometime.”

The BHT Intern Programme is one of the very many things I am so proud of at BHT.  It has brought about lasting change to the lives of so many people, helping them to get into employment.

Rob’s successor as Intern Co-ordinator, Murray Begg, had a message a while ago from one of his former interns who, at the age of 48, after a lifetime of addiction and homelessness, had received her first ever pay packet.

Does it get better than that?