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Inside Northampton night shelter

Shirley Jones finds out where people go when they have nowhere else to go…

When the long, warm nights of summer first begin to give way to the shorter nights of autumn, I feel a pang of loss.  But as the weeks go by, I begin to appreciate the early, encompassing, velvety night.

What might the feeling be for those who are homeless?  To know that you may not even survive a winter?

The subject of homelessness seems to arouse strong feelings in many; one Councillor told me that amongst the more ‘right wing’ in his party, the view is that  nothing should be done to help, or no tax payers money ought to be spent on them, depending on how you look at it.

For those, presumably the majority, who do see intervention as necessary, there seem to be many ideas and suggested policies.  Most of us like to think we are caring and decent – but what is the best practical solution? And, the issue at its most cynical, which political party can gain the most?

Homelessness is probably one of the most terrible of ordeals, but not only for their sake there ought to be some sort of solution; and out of sight, out of mind, for the rest of us.

It’s a foul night ,  as I trudge through the dark, lashing rain to the Northampton’s night shelter, and if I hadn’t had anywhere to go, I think I would have been lost, and in all senses of the word; physically and  emotionally.

The shelter is for men only and Phil Harris, the Borough Council’s Head of Housing and Well-being, confirms what my immediate reaction was to this when he explained that, at first, he thought that women were getting the better outcome by being put into bed and breakfast.  But they don’t; for women do not have the camaraderie that the men in the shelter get, the mutual support, interacting with volunteers who you know for sure are not doing it for the money; the generosity of the public in providing goods. They may be warm, fed and have a bed but can still retain the isolation. He hopes that when the shelter moves to new premises, it will be able to accommodate, separately, both men and women.

The shelter is temporary, with five years being the predicted life. On the site of the castle, and therefore the highest listed of heritage areas,  it can barely be altered from the social club which it used to be – even any changes to the floor need to be approved by the Secretary of State. The building was taken over when it was derelict and condemned; the roof needed fixing and the materials were donated and then the roofer gave his services for free.  Ditto the rest of the renovation; the kitchen and everything needed for the decoration of the shelter also donated. It now has a kitchen were the stage used to be, with two washing machines. Just beyond are small tables with chairs, a couple of large sofas, newspapers, a chess board, and a jig-saw puzzle, the latter apparently being very popular. The gents has been changed into a shower, and the ladies now the general toilets, with a low, blue light so that no drugs can be injected because the vein cannot easily be seen.

The men do not have to be dry or clean to go in, but they cannot drink or use drugs on the premises, which is as you might expect. There is a storage cupboard, and then two small rooms for the staff (who also have their own loo) Underwear is provided but not, in general other clothes; perhaps a suit for an interview or a funeral.  It would also not be practical to keep washing outer clothing; it would be a non-stop task.

There are fourteen mattresses laid out on the floor, in an area separated off by two low bars on top of a half-wall, creating a natural barrier, as does the slight drop in floor level.  All covered in a blue plastic, they look as though they would be hard, but are surprisingly soft to the touch. They are former hospital mattresses with sleeping bags rather than quilts or duvets, because they would have to be washed.  The back door, which is in the sleeping section, opens onto a discreet, covered terrace, for smoking, or just to escape any sense of claustrophobia, which the low ceiling or feeling of being locked in might cause.

The shelter has been in operation since May 2017 and about 270 men have passed through its doors. They stay for about twenty seven nights before they ‘move on’: there are steps towards hostels, and other temporary and shared accommodation, to jobs, to permanent homes.  

The shelter entrance is small and discreet and out of the way, so how do sleepers find out about it? Outreach workers are employed by the council to inform and then vet and assess the suitability of sleepers.  First and foremost, they have to demonstrate a local connection – a tie with the Borough; for the last six months or three years out of the last five. How? Family connection, previous addresses and former employers.  Although there have been some necessary exceptions to the rule. Two nineteen year olds arrived at the train station from York. The man who had promised them work was nowhere to be seen. They spent an awful night in the train station and found their way to the shelter.  An outreach worker phoned a parent (from who they were estranged) and who agreed to take them back. After an overnight stay at the shelter, a national express coach ticket took them home.

Service users also have to be low risk and willing to engage.  I am shown a plaque in the entrance hall, for all service – users to see, which emphasis the needs for ‘respect’, and which Phil also emphasises to me.  It might seem quite straight forward but respect can largely be in the eye of the beholder – a person living rough might have had any finesse worn away, may not even be aware that they are not being disrespectful and so on.  A sort of enforced compliance, and, spirit-breaking, perhaps? All personnel also refer to the men as ‘guests’. Which to me seems a slightly doubled-edged word: temporary and also, to a degree, without any agency. Although those who break the rules are not evicted but are excluded for a time.  Then a discussion takes place to see if matters can be resolved

As we sit in the living room area at one of the tables, Phil also tells me of a man in the older age range.  Age sixty one he had been homeless for three years after release from prison. He had formed a relationship with a homeless woman.  He drank twenty one cans a day. It took a week of intensive work, including that done by two former friends who had stayed in the shelter, to get him to agree to stay there, his partner going into a bed and breakfast.  After five weeks he had reduced his drinking to three cans a day, although his relationship fizzled out. It is easy to imagine how very intense but short-term bonds would be formed with others who are homeless. A mate to watch your back, to share, even to guard against physical danger.  For although homeless people can resort to crime and anti-social behaviour, they are also victimised themselves.

I still recall a woman who could, for several months, be seen around the town centre, many years ago.  She was middle –aged, Asian, in a sari, and would usually have a can and cigarette in her hand (highly unusual for a woman of that ethnic group).  Sitting on Abington Street, a group of teenage boys walked passed and one, very tall and strong, hurled, with great force, something at the woman; I think it was the remnants of the food he’s been eating.  She cried out in alarm and shielded her face. I remonstrated with him, as I was close behind. I had never witnessed anything like that before. I couldn’t believe such callousness.

Vulnerability, it seems brings out both the best and the worst in us. Phil tells of how, in Plymouth, an elderly woman was evicted from her home because of her behaviour.  She ended up being murdered when she lived on the streets. There was much soul-searching in the town as to how this could have happened. So when another woman set up in a bus shelter, and the town officials said she wouldn’t co-operate but could be kept an eye on, Phil insisted that out-reach workers made all efforts to see her given accommodation – which they did.

Phil also talks of an emaciated nineteen year old, here in Northampton, who was managing to exercise whilst homeless but not eating – one of the volunteers had an interest in fitness and gave advice – soon he had put on a few stone.

There is no television in the shelter, on the advice of Nightshelter Co-ordinator, Phil Brown, who has run such a shelter in Manchester.  It causes more discord than harmony; arguments about what to watch, when to turn it off and disturbing those who don’t want it on. And so the atmosphere is calm.

To be brutalised and to brutalise – a life of extremes.  One of the advertised ‘links’ – the steps to getting the men out of the shelter onto something more solid – catches my eye.  A strap-line underneath details of its scheme reads : ‘The Centre for Sharing De-Brutalisation’ which operates in Wales and Northampton; and they have a website.  The aim is to make the world a less brutalised place; probably the most significant aim of any organisation I’ve yet seen and a tall order by anybody’s standards, but heartening, too.

There are many half-way schemes for the men to move on to: Oasis, the Richmond Fellowship, Bridge, Lumsden Trust (for vulnerable people), Emmaus (where those who board have to undertake given work for forty hours per week at a rate of £1 per hour; but accommodation and board is free.  There is also the Amicus Trust and the Mayday Trust and NASH.

The shelter has, Phil tells me, been much criticised on social media.  The Borough Council also has a responsibility for street clearing which includes the tents of homeless people, but only, the Council say, if they have been abandoned.  It is put about the council is effectively removing shelter from the homeless. Phil says that the tents are a risk – often needle-infested, and he is thinking of taking photographs of those cleared in order to prove the point.

A local man who was for a short-time homeless himself as a child –aged eight, he slept under  a motorway bridge – Stan Robertson, takes the homeless breakfasts on the street, as a way of making them ‘seem human’ again.  But this could keep the homeless where they are if they are getting enough to get by and can, as they say themselves, beg (but I suppose that men in the shelter can too, during the day.)

Causes of homelessness can usually be pinpointed to relationship breakdown; asked by a parent or partner to leave, or job loss and not being able to pay the rent.  Certainly, the years of economic austerity have weakened any safety net.

The volunteers say that they are motivated by wanting to do something meaningful; some volunteer from a church group, or have retired.  And the longer term ones who have been there since it opened says they find it very rewarding; seeing the quite rapid change in the men from when they first come in.  A few weeks of stability sees them feeling calmer, trusting more and becoming more sociable, even if, like nothing else in life, it is not perfect and fully successful.

I ask one of the ‘guests’ what he is reading – it is a Philip K Dick novel.  But in Lithuanian.

Immigrants do not always meet the qualifying criteria to receive benefits- so they would  have to find work in order to qualify for any of the schemes, yet they may also be too unwell to work.

Walking home, and then later on, I begin to wonder whether or not our fascination with those ‘on the streets’ could also come from a deeply disguised sort of attraction or even envy.  Seen in a Romantic light, who doesn’t sometimes long to break free of work and family responsibilities? Forgetting the roughness of the life, that homelessness shortens life expectancy –even just homelessness for six months; during the hot summer and balmy nights, I remember hearing the lyrics of the Beatles song ‘oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go…’

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