'˜What sort of a society are we if we cannot help people in need?'
Various agencies and individuals are trying to cope with the issues of Lancashire's homelessness amid a tangle of very tough financial contraints. STEF HALL speaks to some of those who are there in people's darkest hour of need
JULIE Morrow does not regard herself as a hero.
The 56-year-old mum has spent the last seven years opening her home in Broadgate, Preston, to some of the county’s most needy young people in the most tragic of circumstances - but says she finds it an “easy choice”.
The retired headteacher’s selfless attitude earned her an OBE.
Julie appreciates more than most how precious it is to have a supportive family setting, having grown up in care after her teenage mum was forced to give her up for adoption.
She says she jumped at the chance to offer supported lodgings to desperate youngsters after hearing a radio advert asking for host families for SLEAP (Support in Leyland with Emergency Accommodation for young People), which was set up in 1992 by the town’s churches to assist homeless children.
In the last seven years Julie and her daughter have given food, warmth, shelter and comfort to seven youngsters.
One girl had nowhere to go after being released from hospital one Boxing Day, having tried to take her own life.
Julie believes that Government changes to the way benefits can be claimed for housing, added to the financial constraints of Lancashire’s authorities caused by budget slashes, will put young people like this at risk in years to come.
“She said: “It’s terrible society doesn’t do more to help vulnerable people. There’s a real danger there’s going to be a huge collapse in society. There seems to be this campaign to manipulate people to believe homeless people are undeserving of help, including refugees.
“Some good work may have happened in the last 50 years – but it’s under threat like never before..If these changes are allowed to happen we will see more homeless, more deaths, a rise in crime as people struggle to feed themselves.”
Julie says it “wasn’t difficult” to allow the young people into her home and adds: “They quickly became part of our family. The first arrived just after Christmas. She had arrived where her brother was staying and had just been discharged from hospital after she tried to take her own life. She had few qualifications and a mental health related experience as a child.
“She gained confidence, was able to eventually get her own flat, had her own family and got a job at a solicitors.”
At 17, councils no longer need to provide accommodation but often this means people who need additional support are left struggling.
Julie adds: “The youngest person that stayed with us was 16 and the oldest 21. These were all vulnerable young people and some had additional issues such as mental health problems,.
“Being an only child, my daughter welcomed the idea of having other people in the house. She’s always had a really strong social conscience and was upset to think that people not much older than her were in this situation.”
Julie believes Lancashire’s homelessness issues have got much worse in recent years.
She says: “Homeless and vulnerable people have been demonised by the national press and Government, so that people who don’t know better really believe these people deserve it. They lump them all together as people with drug and alcohol problems.
“The plans for lower housing benefit rates wouldn’t cover the costs of refuges and hostels - they are facing a crisis. and that will lead to even more people on the streets. What sort of a society are we if we cannot help vulnerable people?
“But to many it’s still a hidden problem. Every day I wake up, I go and make a coffee, they are the basic things in life denied to so many and that is wrong.”
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Offering a helping hand
In Preston’s bustling Foxton Centre, chirpy volunteers and staff have helped six rough sleepers and four sex workers find housing and support in the last 12 months.
A total of 172 homeless people were spoken to in early morning outreach sessions carried out by volunteers over the year.
Through its No Second Night Out scheme, 44 were given emergency accommodation overnight, and 22 were assisted to travel back to their native areas for support.
Preston Council has to give priority to local people, meaning those from other areas have little chance of finding stable accommodation here.
When I visit on an autumn afternoon, the mood is surprisingly cheerful, with service users playing pool, or enjoying a snack at the community cafe - a brief but welcome interlude from their difficulties.
But in the corner, a condolence book and candles for homeless man Sam Harrison, who passed away last week, is a poignant reminder of the situation faced by many of the people there.
Figures show 279 people - of whom 104 were homeless - have accessed the cafe in the last year, with 12,000 hot meals provided.
Emmaus and Recycling Lives offer much needed accommodation and jobs - but only to people who meet certain criteria.
Some families are able to turn to Millbank Court and Foundations for temporary accommodation, and two youth hostels help younger people aged 16 to 17 who find themselves on the streets.
In South Ribble, church organisation SLEAP helps homeless young people find emergency accommodation or short term lodgings with volunteer host families.
But most of these services face an uncertain future as funding becomes scarce.
It takes £460,000 a year to maintain the Foxton centre and its services. LCC gives £12,000 through its public health programme, Preston City Council gives £55,000 and two grants from the National Lottery as well as funding from Children in Need is helping stem the financial needs, but these pots will not last forever.
Chief Executive Jeff Marsh says: “One of the issues we face that’s controversial here is around European migrants, people who come here to work and for whatever reason lose accommodation. Contrary to public opinion they are not entitled to help from benefits and have no recourse to public funds.
“There is no free accommodation in Preston. Even in Fox Street night shelter the people who live in it have to pay rent through the housing benefit system. If you have no form of income you are snookered.”
Through a national initiative called “No second night out” the centre can offer fares to people to get home to their town or city for help - and in six cases has also helped pay fares for people return to Hungary and Romania and Lithuania.
No hopes for the future while living on the streets
James, one of around 35 people who sleep rough on Preston’s streets, has been told by doctors he is dying.
The 47-year-old does not know how long he has left to live, having been given a devastating prognosis by medics treating his liver condition - but knows he will more than likely die alone on the streets of his home city.
He said: “I haven’t got any hopes for the future, I haven’t got that much longer. I’ve given up.”
Life has been an uphill struggle for him, and for the last 37 years he has sought solace in heroin and booze.
James was abused as a child and was brought up in children’s homes around Preston from the age of 11.
Already suffering from mental health issues, including a personality disorder, he attended special schools but left school unable to read or write properly.
Since running away from a children’s home in his teens James has been homeless. He has never been able to work due to his mental health problems.
He explains: “I have been kicked in the face just because I asked for a bit of change.
“I find it degrading to beg but it’s either that or commit crime. I’ve been involved in firearms, its not as hard as you think to get hold of a firearm in Preston.
“The only time I get a break from homelessness is when I’m in prison - I purposely commit a crime to give myself a break. I go there for a rest.”
Police, Preston City Council, business leaders and the city’s Foxton Centre are encouraging people who want to help the homeless to donate to a special fund instead of handing over cash in response to fears anti-social begging creates a negative impression of the city.
To donate to the Off The Street campaign fund, visit www.thefoxtoncentre.co.uk/content/donation
Disabled man’s stark choice
THE fight to find suitable housing for disabled people is so tough that 48-year-old Martin Green was left with a stark choice - stay in a dementia care home or face homelessness.
Martin, who found himself wheelchair-bound and unable to walk in February because of a sudden MS-like illness, opted to have a roof over his head.
But his situation is echoed by many other vulnerable people in the city when it comes to trying to find suitable housing.
Lancashire’s homelessness challenges have been documented in this week’s special feature.
But the former green energy worker is a tragic example of how many people slip through the cracks, not quite homeless, but not far off, placed in accommodation that simply does not meet their needs.
He spent five months in hospital but sadly there is little treatment for his condition apart from physiotherapy, which in his case has not helped him much.
He has gone from driving his own car and living in his own flat in Fulwood, to getting by in temporary or supported accommodation, confined to a wheelchair and unable to work.
He explains: “Finding housing is no easy task and I wasn’t really supported. I’m moving into new accommodation this week after five months in a disabled unit plus five months in hospital.”
“Whilst not exactly made homeless I was unable to return to my original home and had to be placed in interim care accommodation upon discharge from hospital. This meant being placed in a care home for the elderly. I’m 48. “
After a few days in the elderly home in Lostock Hall Martin insisted on other accommodation and was eventually placed into a disabled care unit in Ribbleton, Preston.
But his problems were far from over.
He says: “The overall care seems to be adequate. But on October 8 the heating and hot water system broke down, leaving three quarters of the building including the kitchen without hot water or heating. This has remained out of operation to this day.
“Admittedly steps have been take to restore the hot water side to what can only be described as tepid at best, but the heating is still out of service, and it means 27 disabled residents are sharing two bathrooms.
“The minimum amount of assisted bath/shower rooms set down in the in the Care Standards Act 2000 are one bathroom per eight service users. This standard is clearly being ignored.
“I spoke with the owner about the lack of facilities and was told quotes were coming in for replacement of the heating system but was given no indication of when this might take place. When I asked could it be days, weeks or months, no answer was given.
“In the short term I suggested an electric shower could be fitted to the upstairs bathroom, this was met with indignation and I was told in no uncertain term this would not happen.”
“It is a humiliating situation to be in to go from independence and a career and your own home to relying on others, and having to queue to use a bathroom.”
His is another example of people forced to live in substandard accommodation.
Fortunately he has been able to find another home and is due to move in in the next couple of weeks.
But he says: “ I am fortunate in the sense that I have a voice and have internet access, many residents here have neither.
“Without the latter I would be here for the foreseeable future.”