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.  

Brighton and Hove City Council Budget: My Reaction

brighton-hove-council-logoBrighton and Hove City Council published its budget at 3pm yesterday (30th November). I have reviewed it from BHT’s perspective and have a few observations.

But first, I want to recognise the huge challenges facing councillors. They are trying to cope with unprecedented reductions in funding from central government. I would start by paying tribute to the work of councillors. They will get a lot of criticism, personally and collectively, as well as some personal abuse for making tough decisions caused by circumstances for which they are not responsible. That is unfair.

Of course I am most concerned about homeless people and other vulnerable groups, be they people with mental health and/or substance misuse problems, those escaping domestic violence, and so on.

There are other things that will impact of council budgets, again over which councillors have no control. Welfare reform, not least the benefit cap of £20,000 on households, will see more families losing their homes in high cost areas like Brighton and Hove. There will be greater demands on homelessness services, and the City Council will have statutory responsibility to house many of these households.

All this means that homeless prevention services, like those BHT provides through our advice centres in Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings, become ever more important. Last year we prevented 2,055 households from becoming homeless.

Can you imagine what would happen if we were not there?

The Council has produced a detailed 98 page summary of its budget proposals. It details cuts, the risk arising from funding reductions, and an assessment of the impact and outcomes of doing so.

There are things I welcome:

  • There are no further cuts proposed in hostel accommodation for homeless people on top of the cuts already announced.
  • There are no reductions in homelessness prevention.
  • There is no reduction proposed in the excellent Mental Health Team for Homeless People.
  • And there is no further reductions proposed in funding for specialist support services given the considerable cuts made in recent years.

There is recognition that recommissioned services are supporting the delivery of the City Council’s Rough Sleeping Strategy to which BHT is an enthusiastic signatory.

Savings of £356,000 proposed from the cost of providing temporary accommodation for homeless households out of Brighton and Hove is ambitious and not without risk and not without its problems such as loss of support structures, disruption to schooling, and so on, but I am reassured that the Council is looking at positive inducements for people to agree to these placements.

A further saving of £550,000 is proposed by prioritising households in temporary accommodation for social housing. If this can be achieved, then it will be good news for families, especially those of the 1,800 children in temporary and emergency accommodation. Inevitably, though, if one group gets greater access to social housing, others will lose out, but from a social and financial perspective, this is a proposal I support.

I do have some big concerns.

There is a proposed £470,000 reduction in funding to the third/charity sector through the new Third Sector Investment Programme. Many small community groups might struggle to survive without this funding. These cuts might also be a false economy. For example, cuts to BHT’s Brighton Advice Centre might see a reduction in the prevention of homelessness resulting in much more costly interventions that the City Council will, by law, have to provide.

First Base Day Centre currently receives a modest £20,000 from this source.  It is essential funding that allows us to continue to provide the services we do to those sleeping rough of our streets.

I was encouraged that the Council is looking at ways of reducing these savings.

I have a mixed reaction to proposals to save £600,000 from community substance misuse services.

The main provider of the Pavilions Partnership, Cranston, has negotiated a reduction in its funding in return for a longer contract. This is commendable.

The proposed £138,000 cut in funding for residential rehab services could be a decision the City might come to regret. If it is to reduce out of area placements I would be quite relaxed about that given that these are rarely effective and a lot of money has been wasted in the past. (People achieving abstinence out of area have limited prospects of remaining abstinent if they return to the City without support structures that are provided in abundance and voluntarily for those who achieve abstinence through a Brighton/Hove based service).

If there is a reduction in funding to the two local residential rehab services provided by the St Thomas Fund and through BHT’s Addiction Services, then I would be very, very worried.

BHT’s Addiction Services are amongst the most effective anywhere in Britain. It is no exaggeration to say that if this service was to be compromised, there will be an increase in drug-related deaths.

I hope that councillors are being well advised regarding this.

Banning of ‘legal highs’ is a good thing and I welcome the new legislation

I wrote this item in May 2016 but forgot to post it then, when the ban on so-called legal highs came into force.

Legal highs are no more. Yes, the drugs still exist but they are no longer legal, something I enthusiastically welcome.

Anything that makes access to harmful substances more difficult is a good thing. We have seen the disastrous experience of the relaxation of alcohol licensing regulations that resulted in a massive increase in alcohol use by some with all its adverse health consequences and increases in antisocial behaviour.

On a positive note, the restriction of the sale of tobacco, hiding tobacco products from public view in retail outlets, and most recently the new packaging requirements, has seen a reduction in smoking, not least by younger people. That’s fantastic.

Legal highs are increasingly posing challenges in all communities. We are witnessing levels of harm yet to be understood.  There is increasing volatile behaviour, including in specialist services well used to managing people with chaotic lifestyles. Along with super strength alcohol, I believe so-called legal highs to be one of the biggest challenges we are facing.

Libertarians who advocate decriminalisation won’t be happy. I have already heard one person dismiss the new law saying that two thirds of users will still use these psychoactive substances.  My response is one third won’t!  Wouldn’t it be lovely to hear apologists for drug use state unambiguously that they want to see an end to all drug use.  Their silence on this says a lot.

Therefore, I welcome the new law and hope that it will make a small contribution to reducing harm and destroying lives.

Real Life Story: Mike and the Phase One Project

Mike was referred to the project in September 2014 having been sofa surfing with friends following the breakdown of his tenancy in the private rented sector. He had been evicted illegally from his property which, as a consequence, impacted negatively on his mental health and his feelings of anxiety and depression became more problematic for him as he was not linked in to local community mental health services or getting support from his G.P.

Mike has a history of substance misuse issues (alcohol and cannabis use) and while serving a short prison sentence had started to use “Spice” (synthetic cannabinoid) which he had become dependent on.

At his interview for BHT’s Phase One Project, he was incredibly insightful as to what he felt he needed from the service with regards to support, and he was keen to focus on working through his dependency issues, establish links to community projects (as he is a keen artist and gardener) and work towards meeting the criteria for getting rehoused as he recently has had experience of managing a tenancy.

At the beginning of his stay at the Phase One Project we were notified by Housing Benefit that he had an overpayment for which he was liable from his previous tenancy. Once Mike had explained to us how his rent had been collected, it became clear that he had been taken advantage of by his former landlord due to his levels of vulnerability.

Mike’s support worker began the process of getting legal advice so that the overpayment decision could be appealed which, if successful, would mean that he would have a much better chance of being able to financially manage a tenancy when he was ready to be referred to more independent accommodation.

While this process was being undertaken Mike, with the support of his support worker, started to look at local services that could support him in get treatment for his synthetic cannabinoid dependency issue, support him with his feelings of anxiety and depression and provide him with the opportunity to use his skills as an artist and gardener. By being more meaningfully occupied he was working towards meeting the criteria for housing.

He made steady progress during the first six months of his stay and started courses at the Brighton Unemployed Centre to improve his feelings of self-worth and to broaden his network of support outside of the project.

He was also referred to the substance misuse service to get specialist support with his addiction. Mike and his support worker worked closely with his GP around his long term mental health issues to ensure that appropriate support was in place for him so that he would be better able to manage his feelings of anxiety and depression, and be medicated appropriately.

Over the following six months Mike’s confidence grew and he continued to broaden his social network by becoming involved with a local church and volunteering there on a regular basis. He also managed to secure a small plot on a local allotment which enabled him to use his skills as a gardener to prepare the plot for growing fruit and vegetables, further raising his sense of well-being.

In November he enrolled on an art course which started in January, and he also joined a local orchestra – he had been learning to play the clarinet and was keen to join a group so that he could further develop this new skill.

During this period Mike was notified that his appeal regarding his housing benefit overpayment was successful which meant that he was now in a position to be able to afford to manage an independent tenancy again. With these additional activities in place and his housing benefit overpayment resolved he was nominated for a long term tenancy within BHT.

Mike moved into his new home at the end of January.

Mike’s story is not untypical of the work undertaken regularly at the Phase One Project, dealing with a number of issues that had previously impacted negatively on each other. By a methodical approach, Mike’s issues were addressed and he has gained greater independence and makes few demands on on services he previously depended on.

Why I don’t support calls to open empty buildings for homeless people

It might seem inhumane, that on a cold, windy, wet night like tonight (Saturday 9th January), on the day that the Argus reports the deaths of three homeless people in Brighton and Hove over Christmas and the New Year, that I oppose the opening of empty buildings for homeless people to sleep in.

The call to open empty buildings is understandable, and is a testimony to the fact that there are many people in Brighton and Hove who are outraged that there are people sleeping on our streets.

The Argus is right to say these are three deaths that shame the city. One death should shame the city. I would go further, one person sleeping on the streets should shame the city. I repeat in every interview and in every talk I give that in one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world, we should be able to do so much better when it comes to homelessness.

This post doesn’t look at solutions to rough sleeping. I have commented regularly about that. Rather I want to say why I don’t agree with merely opening empty buildings.

I would be extremely concerned if empty buildings were opened without due thought and preparation. The last thing I want to see is people crammed into an empty building, without basic fire protection arrangements, a fire breaks out, and a dozen people die.

When BHT is asked to open a severe weather shelter we do so in buildings that are safe, and with staff who are trained and experienced. The number of people we accommodate in any one building is limited so that it is a safe environment, not least for women.

Having a number of people concentrated in an enclosed space can, in some circumstance, bring greater risks than even being on the streets (obviously not in the most extreme weather). A concentration of people with severe mental ill health, high levels of alcohol use, drug-related paranoia, and the terrifying realities of legal highs, should not be under-estimated. There are considerations to be made about basic amenities, not least for women, and the safety of women. Vulnerable men and women can be exposed to greater exploitation, abuse and violence in confined spaces. Proper staffing is essential.

Many years ago BHT was asked to provide proper winter shelters. We did so and it was incredibly successful. But then we have at least three months lead in time to identify a suitable property, make some basic alterations, ensure basic fire safety arrangements were in place, and recruit and train staff. And here is the crux of the matter: it was not cheap, and it won’t be if we are to do it properly.

A final thought, before BHT took over the Regency House Hotel (now the Phase One Project), clients said that they preferred, even in winter, to sleep rough rather than to stay there because standards were so poor and it was not safe. The Regency House Hotel was dubbed ‘the hospice for the homeless’ where between 1996 and 2000 there were an average of three deaths a year from suicide, homicide and drug overdose – a very high death rate from just 59 residents. We have managed it as the Phase One Project since 2002, and we have done so with the safety at the heart of everything we do, and the wellbeing of our residents our primary concern. It has cost several million Pounds to refurbish and staff.  There have been deaths – in total three between 2002 and 2015 including the tragic murder of a resident away from the building and unrelated to the service.

Opening buildings is obviously attractive, especially on a night like tonight, but if we are to do it, it must be done properly.

Let’s ban alcohol and drugs from the beach and city parks

This is the text of my latest Opinion column first published in the Brighton Argus on Wednesday 22nd July 2015)

If Brighton and Hove City Council are to ban smoking from public parks and the beach, can I suggest that they go further by banning and enforcing alcohol and drug use as well.

Recent reports of needles in the toilets on The Level and injecting in the Dorset Gardens Peace Park are just the tip of the iceberg.  I was told about an incident in the last month where two Council employees were observed challenging a couple drinking larger in the Pavilion Gardens, but ignored a couple of older women drinking gin and tonic from cans and a couple smoking cannabis.

As someone who walks my dog on The Level, there are times of day when that area can be particularly unpleasant.

I would strongly support a ban on alcohol, drug and tobacco use in our parks and on the beach. But for such a ban to work, it must be enforced. Sadly, over the years, successive administrations of all colours have allowed a drift from front-line employees to desk-bound officers.

Gone are the Parks Police of yesteryear, replaced by much higher paid policy, strategy and co-ordinating staff who produce great policy and strategy documents but who make little difference to the lives of ordinary people who use our parks.

Given the saturation of alcohol outlets in the City and associated social and health problems (thanks to the deregulation of licensing by the Blair government) wouldn’t it be great if there were a few oases in the town where cigarettes, alcohol and drugs were absent?

I support calls for a ‘penny on a unit’ treatment tax to fund an alcohol rehabilitation revolution

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has reported that the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions have risen to more than 1.2 million a year, up 5% in England over two years. The think tank says that the number of admissions rose from 1,168,266 in 2010/11 to 1,232,464 in 2012/13, the latest statistics available from the Department for Health.

The CSJ is critical that residential treatment has been continually cut, particularly because it offers the most effective form of treatment.

The CSJ is calling for a treatment tax which, it says, should be added to off-licence alcohol sales to fund rehab for people with alcohol and drug addictions. Under the scheme, a levy of a penny per unit would be added by the end of the next Parliament to fund recovery services to the tune of £1.1billion over the five years.

CSJ Director, Christian Guy, said: “Alcohol abuse can rip into families, make communities less safe and entrench poverty.  This is a growing problem but for years effective treatment has been the preserve of the wealthy. It’s time to break this injustice wide open and fund a new generation of rehabilitation treatment.”

I support this proposal.  One of the unintended consequences of the all-party obsession with protecting funding for the NHS is that medical interventions to tackle addiction to alcohol and other drugs have, largely, been protected while social care funding has been slashed across the country. As the CSJ points out, residential rehabilitation offers the most effective form of treatment.