A tale of two shelters for the homeless

Steve Canavan and Tara Page on the streets of Blackpool. BELOW: Oasis night shelter project leader Colette Garsyth and (bottom) Steve Canavan with staff at Street Life.

Steve Canavan and Tara Page on the streets of Blackpool. BELOW: Oasis night shelter project leader Colette Garsyth and (bottom) Steve Canavan with staff at Street Life.

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STEVE CANAVAN spotlights Streetlife’s facilities for vulnerable 16 to 25-year-olds, while JACQUI MORLEY checks out the Oasis shelter for older rough sleepers.

It’s just a table to the rest of us.

Steve Canavan on the streets of Blackpool.

Steve Canavan on the streets of Blackpool.

Yet the difference one donated table has made to the occupants of the Oasis night shelter, off Cookson Street, is immense.

It’s not quite the Waltons but they now gather round it to dine, chat, and linger.

Prior to the table arriving the TV supper syndrome held sway here – as it does in so many homes.

But this is not a home and never will be. It’s an emergency night shelter for adult homeless, the over 26-year-olds that Streetlife Trust – the charity that offers a day centre and night shelter for 16 to 25 year olds – cannot help.

Life on the streets - A special Gazette investigation

Life on the streets - A special Gazette investigation

But it’s warm, there’s a bed for the night, sometimes longer, for women as well as men.

Project leader Colette Garsyth, who runs Oasis, added: “They used to sit with plates on their laps and watch TV and then go to bed – now there’s a much nicer atmosphere.”

Staff and volunteers refer clients onto other services, offer support around housing, substance use, mental health, physical health, coping skills and budgeting.

Check in starts at 7pm – paradoxically two hours ahead of the Streetlife night shelter for younger homeless. The difference is down to funding. There’s usually a queue.

Oasis night shelter project leader Colette Garsyth.

Oasis night shelter project leader Colette Garsyth.

Just as Jane Hugo, head of Streetlife, would like funding to open the shelter earlier, Colette would love the cash to open an Oasis day centre.

“It’s a gap in our provision,” she admits. “We would like it to take over from where the night shelter leaves off. But other service providers are very supportive.”

Some nights staff turn away as many as they admit. There are beds for eight only. Last year we had between 14 and 16 at the gate by 4.30pm. Generally queues start to form at 6.15pm.”

Colette reckons things are about to get worse, particularly when housing benefit changes, which have cut some claims by £3 to £40 week, bite into budgets, or job losses and mortgage repossessions and relationship break-ups force more onto the streets.

Steve Canavan with staff at Street Life.

Steve Canavan with staff at Street Life.

Winter is coming. And that means more coming in from the cold, no longer able to make do with standing room only in a 20p Hilton – as homeless call the public toilets in which some overnight – and when a mate’s sofa, or floor space, is more likely to go the highest bidder.

Colette reckons there are more rough sleepers than official counts are likely to reveal. That’s down to the criteria of the counts – and the fact that some hotspots for street sleepers (in lockouts, sheds, empty properties) are out of bounds to those out for the count. “The real figure is a hidden one,” says Colette.

Rough sleepers don’t want to be found – for fear of a kicking by a drunk or stoned clubber rather than being discovered by well meaning officials or homeless volunteers.

Thanks to another donation, this time from a sports shop, Oasis sometimes hands out sleeping bags to those they have to turn away. There’s a blanket ban on sleeping bags at the nearby Salvation Army-run Bridge Project day centre for homeless and vulnerable. Major Ian Harris, who runs the citadel and services, said: “You try getting out of a sleeping bag fast if trouble comes looking for you. Our fear is people can get trapped within them. We need more blankets.”

Colette stresses there is a difference between beggars and homeless. “Beggars are often feeding an addiction, the homeless may have an addiction but they could have any one of countless other issues. They don’t have a roof above their head, not a proper one, not as you or I would know it.

“They have a lot of dignity in spite of being in that situation. It may seem a paradox but they have pride. They are polite. They look out for each other. It’s not unusual for people who have been given a bed for the night here or longer to say we’ll go out and ask a mate if we can sleep on their sofa or floor and give up their bed to someone new in town, or someone who clearly just needs to put their head down for the night.

“When they come here, they become a family, of sorts, for the night. And that table, strange as it may seem, has been one of our best donations because it means they sit there, to eat and chat. And that helps us win their trust and find out how we can help them. Help them help themselves.”

Come midnight at the Oasis most are asleep, food in their stomachs, having assisted in its preparation and washed up afterwards, a proper mattress beneath them, the warmth of a duvet, and the security of knowing they won’t be robbed or beaten while they sleep.

By 8am they will be gone, windows open to air the property, bedding washed and drying on heaters.

An overnight or longer stay calls for commitment on their part too, no drugs, no drink, no smoking, no trouble kicking off between clients, no abuse of the project workers.

“We take any drink off them at the door and let them have it back afterwards,” Colette admits. “Sometimes we’ll find drugs hidden but they won’t use them here. Most respect our house rules. They see us as Last Chance Saloon.”

Volunteers tend to be on the support side rather than overnight shift workers.

One regular volunteer is a professional chef who comes in to make Christmas dinner, turkey and all the trimmings, does the cooking – and no, he doesn’t want to be named because he’s not in it for glory or gratitude but because. as Colette, who used to work in mental health, puts it, “there but the grace of God go we.”

Volunteers and staff make up gift packs each Christmas, the sort of stuff you need and value when sleeping rough or sofa surfing or crashing on a mate’s floor, with a few treats on the side, tobacco, toiletries.

The clients turn up on referral from Blackpool Council’s housing options team, which includes the specialist outreach workers whose morning sweep of the streets may find them, or from the nearby Salvation Army Bridge Project (a day centre for homeless and vulnerable) or simply through word of mouth.

Priority goes to those with local connections. It’s a tough love policy born of necessity, an economy in meltdown, a far cry from the days when southern councils bussed in refugees to live in bed and breakfast in the hard up hinterlands of the holiday zones, and kids in care were placed here too.

Today the housing option team issues travel warrants to return someone from whence they came.

It’s not always appropriate, not for a mum fleeing abuse or violence, an addict out of rehab escaping a circle of user mates who may drag him down anew, or young people escaping trouble at home with mum’s new partner or predator.

Safety nets exist to net those in need – but the gaps in provision are widening as some projects fold, support workers are stretched, and charities struggle for cash.

The local connections policy is a tough call for Colette and co but made necessary by the funding issues involved. The shelter is run by Criminal Reduction Initiatives, a national health and social care charity, with centres across the country.

“This is their only night shelter,” says Colette. “The fact it is in Blackpool is significant. We have so many issues here. Our hope is they move on and we never see them again. But we get boomerangs. We would love more funding to extend the service.”

Oasis also receives some financial support from Blackpool Council. Other help comes in kind and from the kindness of strangers, the kids collecting for harvest festivals at schools or churches right now, locals dropping by with shoes and clothes - and the occasional table.

To donate contact colette.garsyth@cri.org.uk or phone (01253) 623205

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‘You have to have the hope you can make a difference’

IT doesn’t get more depressing than being young and homeless.

Home is the street. There is no money in your pocket for food.

It is why Blackpool without the charity Streetlife is unthinkable.

Set up in the 1980s to help homeless people aged 16 to 25, there is no doubt it has saved the lives of countless desperate youngsters.

Jane Hugo has worked there 20 years, starting as a volunteer in the night shelter and progressing to chief executive.

It isn’t an easy job. It can be stressful dealing with those at their lowest ebb and it can affect your own well-being, tough to separate work from home-life.

In short, it takes a special kind of person to do it – which Jane clearly is.

“I do it because I just think it is important that people do something positive in life,” said Jane.

“You need to have a can-do attitude and have a positive outlook otherwise you would just get totally depressed by all the statistics about Blackpool and how depressing it all is.

“You need to have that hope that you can make a difference.”

The biggest problem is making the wider public aware of the work Streetlife does. Homelessness as an issue often brushed under the carpet, ignored by many because of the stereotypes we are all guilty of forming.

“There is definitely a misconception about homeless people,” agreed Jane.

“For starters there’s an assumption homeless people beg, but if you were to ask the young people that access Streetlife, not many would do that.

“They are very conscious of their image. At one point we had some carrier bags made with the Streetlife logo on, for when we were giving out food parcels.

“But they were mortified because they didn’t want to be labelled and judged. They just want to blend in and be like the rest of us.”

She added: “There is also this huge generalisation that most young people end up on streets because of alcohol or drug misuse.

“The story we are most often told by homeless young people is that they are in the position they are due to family breakdown.

“It can be as simple as a personality clash with their parents and they can’t take it any more, to more serious things like abuse and violence.

“There is a fair bit of domestic abuse where mum has a new partner and he might be abusive to mum – the lad steps in but mum takes the side of boyfriend or partner, and then the young person leaves home.

“Sometimes it’s just because they can’t afford it. There are a number of siblings and they can’t get a job and they are just a strain on the family.

“The point is that homeless people aren’t bad people – they are just in a bad situation, and it is our job to be there for them and to try and help get them back on their feet.”

Streetlife has two buildings – a base on Buchanan Street, where the staff are based and which is open to young homeless people six days out of seven from 1 to 3.30pm. There is also a night shelter next to St John’s church in Cedar Square. It opens at 9pm and has eight beds. It ensures many youngsters don’t have to sleep rough.

No one debates how important Streetlife is – which is why making sure it stays open is crucial.

That’s not straightforward. It relies on money from Blackpool Council - itself under strain in these tough economic times - as well as cash handouts from the likes Comic Relief. It also needs donations of food, blankets and clothes from the public but those have decreased markedly over the last few years – and that’s a worry.

“It is becoming a bigger struggle for small charities in particular,” added Jane.

“Our Supporting People funding has been cut two years on the run and we’ve lost a member of staff. It’s a tough time.

“We get funding from Blackpool Council but if you are a local authority and you are providing services for the homeless, it is much easier to have one contract with a big national charity. We just hope they value the uniqueness of using little charities like ourselves.”

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Who are Streetlife?

Streetlife has four full-time staff dealing with the day-to-day problems of the homeless.

On top of that there are a wide range of volunteers, including seven VITs (Volunteer in Training).

They are paid a basic living allowance and often come from abroad. At the moment, there are volunteers from Germany, Ghana and Australia.

Tara Page (pictured in the main image with Steve Canavan) has come further than any of them. The 18-year-old decided to spend her gap year helping the homeless and saw an opening at Streetlife while browsing the internet at her home on the other side of the world, near Wellington in New Zealand.

She arrived in January and is nine months into her Blackpool stay. For one so young it must be a daunting experience, but Tara doesn’t quite see it like that.

“It was something I just felt compelled to do,” she said. “I’ve no idea why – my mum works in logistics and my dad is in a distribution warehouse so I don’t know why I want to have a career working with the homeless. It is just something I feel strongly about and I wanted to try and help.

“I’d pretty much no experience before I arrived here so I’ve completely winged it. But I’ve enjoyed pretty much every minute.

“The volunteers from overseas all live together in a house in town and within a week we were all the best of friends.”

Raised in a happy family home, being thrust into an environment so different to anything she’s experienced before has been a shock.

“It has definitely opened my eyes,” she added.

“Since I’ve been working at Streetlife I’ve seen everything. You have people with alcohol and drug problems but you also see people who have just been kicked out of home for pretty much no reason at all and they don’t know what to do.

“There is no better feeling that when you help someone get into a flat and a couple of months later they come back and tell you they are going to college or they’ve got a job.

“That is what makes it all worthwhile.”

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HOW YOU CAN HELP

To donate to the work done by Streetlife visit the website www.streetlife-blackpool.co.uk and click on the red circle ‘donate now’. There is a step-by-step guide to giving money.

To support the Bridge Project get in touch with project leader Beverley Taylor on (01253) 299835.

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CLICK HERE TO READ OUR PREVIOUS ARTICLES ON THE HOMELESS OF BLACKPOOL

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