Families forced to use toilets as makeshift ‘20p B&B’ for safety

Some of the volunteers at the Amazing Graze Soup Kitchen, Blackpool
Some of the volunteers at the Amazing Graze Soup Kitchen, Blackpool
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Children and pregnant women are among the hundreds of people who find themselves homeless on the Fylde coast each year.

Behind the bright lights of the Golden Mile lies the hidden problem of people who, often through no fault of their own, find themselves with nowhere to go.

Mark Butcher at the Amazing Graze Soup Kitchen, Blackpool

Mark Butcher at the Amazing Graze Soup Kitchen, Blackpool

In just 12 months, Blackpool Council classed more than 600 households – out of almost 1,000 that applied – as legally homeless – and the problem is growing.

In 2014/15 there were 49 ‘priority’ cases out of more than 500 that qualified as homeless. In the following six months alone, 52 priority households were identified.

Mark Butcher, founder of the Amazing Graze soup kitchen, has seen first-hand the hell of living on the streets.

He said people will literally fight over public toilet cubicles, just for somewhere to sleep.

I started to meet the homeless people and really got to see their plight

He added: “I get asked regularly, maybe four or five times a night I will be asked for a 20p piece.

“They stay in the toilets opposite Coral Island and it’s safe. People call it the 20p B&B, the bed without breakfast. That is actually happening in our town.”

Before setting up the soup kitchen in May 2014, he worked as a street pastor. He said: “I got to really see beyond the shiny lights of the Promenade.

“I started to meet the homeless people and really got to see their plight.”

Some of the volunteers at the Amazing Graze Soup Kitchen, Blackpool

Some of the volunteers at the Amazing Graze Soup Kitchen, Blackpool

Part of the problem, he said, is the number of people being sanctioned over their benefits – a growing problem according to many observers.

But despite the hard work of several charitable groups who provide meals and shelter, he noticed ‘gaps’.

“There were a few nights when the homeless people had absolutely nowhere to go after nighttime,” he added.

Now the charity has grown and has been raising money so it can help even more people. Last year, the kitchen serviced around 15,000 meals – all without any funding.

Public toilets on the promenade near North Pier Blackpool

Public toilets on the promenade near North Pier Blackpool

In the 12 months up to September, Blackpool Council accepted 90 households as homeless and in ‘priority need’, either because they were pregnant, had dependant children or were forced out of their home by violence or a disaster, such as a flood.

Another 545 were classed as homeless but were not a priority. Charities warn the figures could only be the tip of the iceberg, with Crisis reporting that 62 per cent of single homeless people are ‘hidden homeless’ and do not show up in official figures.

The problem in Blackpool is made more complex, Mr Butcher said, by the transient nature of the resort’s population.

Thousands of people have come to the coast, many for tragic personal reasons, and some find themselves with nowhere to live. Social housing rules that require people to have a ‘local connection’ can leave them nowhere else to turn.

Mr Butcher said: “Over and over again, it’s the same thing. People saw Blackpool as a place of refuge – but it really isn’t.”

The hardest time of year is winter, when the weather is colder and the summer season – along with the associated jobs and visitors – has gone.

Homeless in Blackpool

Homeless in Blackpool

Coun Graham Cain, Blackpool Council’s cabinet secretary, said: “Being homeless, especially during the winter, is very difficult for people and we do all that we can to make sure that people are looked after.

“Our main focus is on early intervention and prevention so that a homeless situation can be avoided.”

While Amazing Graze set out at first to provide warm meals, serving 56 on its opening night, Mr Butcher said it soon became clear there was ‘more than a need just for food’.

Now people are offered a shower and clean clothes. But just as importantly they get the support and advice they need to help get their lives back on track.

He said: “They go away with a sleeping bag, their tummies full – somebody has shown just a little bit of humanity.

“That’s life-saving. That person then has a chance – he might now go to an interview.”

Volunteer Gaynor Eld got that chance to turn her life around. After years of addiction she now cooks meals for people who come to the soup kitchen.

She said: “I’m very passionate about recovery in Blackpool. I have been homeless.

“I just want to help my friends and stop them dying out there.

“Some people probably want to spit on these people in the street but I just want to hug them.”

Drugs and alcohol are a major issue when it comes to homelessness, Mr Butcher said. Legal highs are a ‘big problem’.

“We put people in programmes where the get clean and sober,” he added.

“It’s like they are in a swamp and they can’t get out. They just need a hand and we are giving them a way out.”

The results show their approach is working, he said. And having former addicts around to offer help makes a big difference.

“We are dealing with broken people,” he explained. “Sometimes you need broken people to deal with them.”

Debt is another factor that forces people on to the streets.

Bill Barrow, who runs an advocacy service in Fleetwood, said financial woes, fuelled by benefits sanctions and debt, have driven a rise in people needing help in recent years.

He said: “The main concern is the mental health situation – stress, depression and panic attacks.”

In the worst cases, those pressures can leave people homeless. And it affects a wide range of people – men and women, young and old.

“It’s not just your average 30 to 40-year-old man,” added Mr Butcher.

Of the 25 ‘priority’ cases in Blackpool between July and September, nine were single mums.

Five applicants were under 25 and another eight were aged between 45 and 59.

Coun Cain added: “Where homelessness is unavoidable, we are able to help people by referring them to hostels and giving them access to night shelters.

“We also work very closely with the third sector to make sure that people are still looked after, even if they are made homeless.

“We offer a range of initiatives to help people into housing. Where there are families with children or other vulnerable people, we do provide priority housing for them, subject to meeting certain criteria.”