Community group run by reformed gangster lends helping hand to Preston's rough sleepers

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Preston was recently scarred by a painful statistic that it has more deaths among the homeless than the national average.

And it is feared the figures are the tip of the iceberg, as homeless charities say their figures don’t tally with estimates from the Office of National Statistics.

The Yooof Zone on Lune Street, Preston, has provided meals for homeless people in recent weeks. Reformed criminal Stephen Mellor, who runs it, pictured right.

The Yooof Zone on Lune Street, Preston, has provided meals for homeless people in recent weeks. Reformed criminal Stephen Mellor, who runs it, pictured right.

Meanwhile, many unsung heroes and heroines are taking it upon themselves to step in and help our the most vulnerable residents.

Their generosity and determination is undoubtedly be a beacon of light to many vulnerable people, amid the gloom of austerity cuts which have added to the homelessness crisis.

On the past three Sundays, around 30 vulnerable people have visited the Yooof Zone in Lune Street for food, drink and warmth.

The centre was launched by reformed criminal Stephen Mellor, 41, and his wife Sammy, 29, earlier this year, backed by a local businessman.

The launch attracted attention nationally because at the age of 18, Stephen, then in a gang, was involved in the bloodbath killing of John Dookie outside the Variety pub in 1997. The 41-year-old says he has changed his ways and is dedicating his time to helping youngsters in the city at risk of becoming involved in gang activity by running the centre.

Now it is giving a second lifeline to hungry homeless people.

The sessions were the brainchild of Ellis Martin, a friend of the Yooof Centre’s co-founder Barry Hastewell, who offered to pay for the food at each session.

Sammy and Stephen have agreed to run them voluntarily. So far three sessions have been held on a Sunday, with increasing numbers of people attending.

Sammy says: “Some have terrible stories to tell.

“One man in his 60s was poorly with ulcers on his leg and had been living with his dad, but when his dad passed away he became homeless because his name was not on the tenancy. So after he was discharged from hospital he was on the streets, while still grieving for a parent and being poorly.

“My heart aches for them and I want to help.

“I can’t stand being cold or wet at the best of times, so the thought that someone else is permanently in that situation breaks my heart.

“I’d have them in my house if I could.

“Another man came in with a terrible toothache. He told me he had also had his sleeping bag stolen.

“After he had eaten he stayed behind and cleaned up all the rubbish. He was so humble and grateful.

“I say to my little boys they don’t know how lucky they are to have a home.

“The youngest people to come into the centre were 17. Two of them had been sofa surfing with friends because of an unstable environment at home.

“You don’t always get to choose your path in life, sometimes it’s dealt to you. Some people have almost become resigned to the fact they’re homeless and hate their lives.”

The centre wants to continue helping people as the weather gets colder, but had no cooking facilities apart from one microwave, and is welcoming donations of things that may help, such as slow cookers, sleeping bags and coats.

Sammy adds: “It’s difficult with a lack of facilities but one Sunday I made rice pudding, and I’ve also made curry. We all forget that homeless people don’t get luxuries like that, things we take for granted.”

Yooof Zone says homeless people are welcome to come for a warm drink each evening before 8pm, and for food each Sunday between 11am and 1pm.

‘It really tugged on my heart strings’

Chris Hayton, a chef from Clitheroe, frequently organises sessions near the Flag Market to donate clothing and refreshments to those in need in Preston with his group, Streethope.

He has even bought a trailer caravan to allow people to have a wash or shower. He says: “We started out 18 months ago and have worked in Blackpool and Manchester but we feel really needed in Preston.

“We were very upset when one of our friend Deano died on the streets.

“I’ve seen too much of it over the years while I’ve been growing up and going out clubbing, before I had my kids. I always had the time to sit and listen to stories and it really got a hold of me and tugged on my heart strings.

“Instead of walking away thinking ‘I hope it gets better’ I sat at home thinking to myself one night I can actually make a difference or at least try, what’s stopping me? Nothing.

“I started out really small with a few friends taking sleeping bags out and new socks and a brew, and before I knew of it so many people wanted to jump onboard and help.”

Deaths ‘significantly higher than average’

Figures show the rate of death among rough sleepers in the city is significantly higher than the national average.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) cites an estimated 15 homeless people died in Preston between 2013 and 2018 - but the city’s Foxton Centre fears this is the tip of the iceberg, as it knows of at least three other deaths not included in this estimate.

The ONS figures are estimates because no authorities have set up systems which recognise and capture the actual numbers of homeless people and their deaths.

Preston City Council is aiming to support a Government strategy to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eradicate it by 2027.

The Foxton centre started outreach work in February, and since then many long-term rough sleepers have been rehoused, some in one bedroom flats in Community Gateway’s stock.

Regular counts and outreach work have showed a downward trend in numbers sleeping rough, compared to 23 last November.

In October 2018, the council got more than £100,000 to extend the outreach work by the Foxton Centre. There are now two full-time posts to complement two part time workers that were already in operation.

In January, the council was awarded £500,000 funding to set up a Homeless Hub providing emergency accommodation.

But the Hub, which has six places, is permanently full and sometimes has 10 people booked in.

In addition the funding for the projects only lasts until March next year.