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.  

Real Life Stories: Lesley’s Story

I often receive letters and notes from clients of BHT’s services that tell real life stories about how they have seen their lives changed by the support, advice and encouragement of our staff.  I am planning to publish these accounts, with the agreement of the individual concerned, on this blog. The words are theirs, not mine:

“I am a single woman who found myself homeless and unemployed due to a combination of circumstances, this was not something that I had expected or planned for.

“I found my way into your service by speaking to the Eastbourne Job Centre who advised me to approach BHT Eastbourne Advice, I was unsure of the processes involved but received help and advice from the receptionist who made an appointment for me to speak to the accommodation advisor.

“Within days I had a roof over my head and a support package provided by Firm Foundations and Homework’s that has helped me to get back on my feet.

“By having a roof over my head and the support of the organisation I have been able to achieve many of my goals, I am now self-employed and although not earning fortunes I am more independent financially and more confident for the future.

“I believe that the opportunities given to me by BHT have been life changing, I am now looking forward to finding my own accommodation in the private rented sector and rebuilding my life.

“I strongly believe in what BHT are doing to help the homeless and I am looking to become a volunteer with the Tenancy Centre to help other people.

“Thank you.”

Squatting: An honourable tradition about meeting housing need

Yesterday I was asked one of those simple questions that is almost impossible to answer because of the complexity of the issues.  A reporter from the Brighton Argus, Giles Sheldrick, asked whether people can have a moral objection should homeless people take over homeless properties. 

There are no simple and straightforward answers to complex ethical issues such as this.  In a city like Brighton and Hove there is acute housing need, and we need to find creative solutions to deal with the housing shortage.

But should homeless people be able to live in any property that is unoccupied? It depends on why the property is empty, and what plans there are to bring it back into use.  It is not and never can be right to squat a property that is temporarily empty when it is waiting to be let, sold, or converted.  This can cause enormous losses for the owner.

It is another matter if a property has been left unoccupied and derelict for years on end, and then only if no hardship is caused to the owner.  Perhaps in those very limited circumstances, squatting might be justified, but then it would also depend on the attitude of those squatting.

There are two kind of squatters, those who are genuinely trying to find a housing solution, who respect property, seek to make improvements, and who are willing to engage constructively with the owners including making payments of rent.

Then there are those who are seeking to avoid paying rents, disrespect and damage property, and who leave the property in a worse state than it was before.  I have contempt for those who wreck properties.  They are vandals and do not deserve the title ‘squatter’ which has an honourable and noble tradition.

A few years ago, I dealt with a group of travellers who squatted a site which BHT had acquired and where we wished to develop a specialist accommodation service.  I met with the squatters, explained our plans and our timescale, and agreed with them a date by which they would leave.  They left on cue, leaving the site in a better state than they had found it.  It was a risk but one whick was worth taking.

One way of addressing housing need in Brighton and Hove is to build confidence amongst private sector landlords, big and small, by working with the City Council and schemes such as BHT’s Firm Foundations Project.  We can ensure that landlords receive the rents due to them and the property is returned to them when they expect it and in good condition.  We can remove the need for squatting if we work together.

(You can read Giles Sheldrick’s article which is published in today’s Argus (7th September) and which has very interesting quotes from Cllr Bill Randall and by Lord Steve Bassam, himself a former squatter).